This landscape of gently undulating elevated ridge is similar in character to other Blackdown ridges comprising an open and exposed plateau landscape with regular field boundaries reflecting late enclosure of wasteland. However, it lacks the fringing wooded greensand scarp that characterises the other Blackdown ridges. Instead the edge of the ridge connects directly with the farmed slopes of the upper river valleys. Hence there is a smoother transition between exposed open upland and the valleys below, and contrasts in land form and land cover are less pronounced. This landscape has a strong time-depth reflected in its historic enclosures, archaeological sites and settlement pattern, which comprises small hamlets and dispersed farmsteads. The small villages (e.g. Buckland St Mary and Whitestaunton) are often surrounded by trees and their associated church towers act as landmarks within the open elevated landscape.
This area comprises a north-south orientated ridge fringed by farmland on the upper slopes of the river valleys which feed into the Axe. This landscape continues across the Devon County boundary into South Somerset District. Its eastern edge is therefore defined by the county (and AONB) boundary while to the north it is fringed by the distinctive Blackdown Hills Scarp; and to the south and west by the tributary valleys within the Axe Valley.
Constituent Landscape Character Types
Constituent LCTs: 1A: Open Inland Planned Plateaux, 3A: Upper Farmed and Wooded Valley Slopes Part of NCA: 147: Blackdowns
- Elevated, gently undulating ridge of mudstone, sandstone and limestone fringed by upper farmed slopes.
- Limited watercourses on the plateau but occasional farm ponds, which are characteristic.
- Regular modern and Parliamentary fields of large and medium size on the ridges, reflecting late enclosure of common land.
- Contrasting smaller curving fields of medieval origin on adjacent valley slopes.
- Low narrow earthbanks with hedges on ridgetop with wider historic banks in the upper farmed valleys.
- Mainly pasture (often improved) and dairy farming with some mixed farming on heavy brown soils.
- Historic hamlets nestled into gentle folds of the landscape.
- Semi-natural habitats limited to small areas of unimproved marshy grassland and semi-improved acid grassland.
- Strong local vernacular of chert buildings with slate roofs, with more use of Hamstone detailing and local Lias than elsewhere in the Blackdown Hills.
Special qualities and features:
- High scenic quality reflected in the area’s inclusion in the Blackdown Hills AONB.
- Outstanding views southwards across the Axe Valley, and eastwards across a wide panorama from the A303 at Ham.
- Bronze Age barrows; Iron Age hillforts (south-east of Four Gates and south of Howley Farm); Membury Castle; and site of Roman villa at Whitestaunton – all SMs.
- Intact historic hamlets centred on churches, with many listed buildings and little or no modern development, adding to local distinctiveness and sense of place.
- Flower-rich meadows.
- Strong overarching perceptions of tranquillity and remoteness in many areas.
Forces for Change and Their Landscape Implications:
Past and Current
- The past planting of small blocky coniferous plantations forming conspicuous features on higher ground.
- Small scale recreation developments including camping and caravan sites.
- Decline in woodland management including coppicing, and spread of non-native species affecting the appearance and biodiversity of the landscape’s woodlands.
- Lack of hedgerow management (laying and coppicing) leading to grown out sections of beech hedge, now susceptible to windthrow and storm damage.
- Recreation pressures and growing traffic levels on rural roads, particularly at holiday time.
- Heavy farm traffic leading to vehicular damage to roadside hedges and woodland.
- Peace and tranquillity interrupted by main roads (e.g. A303 and A30) and erection of telephone lines along these routes.
- Uncertain future for the agricultural economy – levels of future agri-environment support and market prices for farmed products unknown.
- Development of outdoor pig-rearing resulting in a change in character.
- Increased demand for wind turbines and communications masts on higher ground as well as for domestic and community-scale solar panels and small wind turbines, with cumulative impact on landscape.
- More intense summer droughts as a result of climate change, with potential drying out of field ponds.
To protect the open elevated character of the ridge and its historic hamlets surrounded by woodland and with distinctive church towers. Field patterns are reinforced through the restoration and management of distinctive hedgebanks. Small woodlands and the settings to settlements are managed and field ponds maintained. The landscape’s time-depth continues to have a strong influence, whilst opportunities for sustainable recreation and limited low-carbon development are sensitively accommodated. Opportunities are sought to remove conifer plantation and extend broadleaved woodland.
- Protect the distinctive, unspoilt, and exposed skylines of the ridge and views to church tower landmarks.
- Protect the area’s outstanding views across the Axe Valley.
- Protect and appropriately manage the rich cultural heritage of the area’s hilltops, such as Bronze Age barrows and castles, through livestock grazing at appropriate levels and recreation management.
- Protect the sparse settlement pattern of clustered hamlets and farmsteads. Prevent the linear spread of development along river valleys and roads wherever possible, to maintain the settlements’ characteristic form and peaceful character.
- Protect traditional building styles and materials, particularly local chert, utilising the same styles and materials in new development wherever possible (whilst seeking to incorporate sustainable design).
- Manage the landscape’s distinctive beech hedges to strengthen the strong square field pattern. Reinstate coppicing to mature sections and grown-out trees to ensure the future survival of these characteristic features.
- Respect the traditional methods and styles of boundary construction, including stone facing on banks.
- Manage characteristic field ponds and avoid them becoming overgrown with vegetation.
- Create, extend and link woodland and grassland habitats to reduce soil erosion, agricultural run-off and downstream flooding and improving water quality.
- Extend and link fragmented woodland sites through natural regeneration and new planting (using appropriate native climate-hardy species).
- Minimise soil erosion and reduce diffuse pollution by replanting of former hedgelines particularly along slopes to minimise soil erosion and reduce diffuse pollution.
- Plan for increased recreational use of area ensuring sensitive management and provision of facilities and signage and ensure footpath erosion and habitat disturbance is minimised.