The Character of Wessex: Yeovil Scarplands

Sandwiched in between the Mendip hills, and the heaths and vales of Dorset commonly known as "Hardy country", the Yeovil Scarplands are characterised by steep limestone and sandstone ridges separating a series of clay vales, with the rivers Yeo, Brue and Parrett draining into the Somerset Levels. It is most notable for producing Ham Hill stone, which is used to construct a number of buildings and other structure in the region, including the Hamdon Hill war memorial illustrated above (photo: Jim Champion).

Less than 5% of this National Character Area (NCA) is settled, though Yeovil itself is a fast-growing urban centre, which threatens the character of the surrounding countryside, particularly on the east side of the town. Smaller towns and villages are often connected by sunken lanes known as holloways.

The area is a cider-producing region with many orchards, though their traditional character is somewhat threatened by the introduction of newer varieties of apple tree.

The area also contains East Coker, memorialised by TS Eliot, who is buried there. The East Coker Society is active in preserving the village's heritage, in a way that should be an inspiration to other Wessex communities.

The Character of Wessex: The Thames Valley

The Thames Valley National Character Area (NCA), should not be confused with the birthplace of Wessex, centred on Dorchester-on-Thames. That falls within the Oxford & Upper Thames NCA, subject of a future post. Rather, it begins on the outskirts of London and extends into Wessex as far as Reading.

Geologically, the area is defined by heavy London clay, sometimes overlaid with sand or gravel. The whole area was once heavily forested, but most of its primeval woodland has now been sacrificed to development. Traces of it survive in the Windsor Great Forest, home to Herne the Hunter in Wessex folklore, a personification of the ancient wild. Even green belt land is more likely to be used for golf courses and pony clubs than nature reserves. Based on CPRE data, less than 1% of the area's land is considered undisturbed, and none of it can be classed as tranquil.

Water is a slightly different matter. As its name suggests, the River Thames dominates the NCA, and provides major opportunities for tranquility and recreation. The motto of the area might be "With the wind in your face, there's no finer place than messing about on the river. Because the land sucks."

The Character of Wessex: The Exe Valley and Devon Redlands

The Devon Redlands take their name from the red sandstone that gives the region some dramatic cliffs on the coast and provides it with its distinctive brick-coloured building stone, as at the historic Otterton Mill (illustrated above). Sandwiched in between Exmoor and Dartmoor, the character area centres on the Exe Valley, which separates the southwest peninsula from the rest of Great Britain; and Exeter, once the westernmost limit of Roman Britannia.

Characteristic of the area are linhays, open-fronted livestock shelters built from wood and stone; and whitewashed thatch-and-cob cottages.

The Devon Redlands are largely an area of hamlets and small villages. Larger settlements include Exeter, Exmouth, Tiverton, Torquay and Crediton. The latter was once a diocesan seat in the Anglo-Saxon church, birthplace of St Boniface, but was later supplanted by Exeter.

Species unique to the region include the cirl bunting, southern damselfly, Dartford warbler and warren crocus. Until recently, the latter was thought to be endemic to the area, but a second population has been discovered in Cornwall. Unfortunately for the biodiversity of the area, the heathland at Haldon Ridge has been given over to commercial, single-species conifer plantations. Hopefully it can one day be restored to its natural state.

The Character of Wessex: The West Dorset Vales

The West Dorset Vales character area, centred on Bridport, is bounded by the Jurassic Heritage Coast to the south, whilst the Wealden Greensand encloses it to the north and west. This is Broadchurch country, with West Bay at the area's eastern boundary.

The area remains strongly rural in character, and much of it would still be recognisable to William Barnes and Thomas Hardy today, if they were somehow transported through time. Medieval field patterns predominate, and much vernacular architecture can be seen in the region, with Ham Hill stone featuring prominently as a building material.

Vales imply hills, and the West Dorset Vales contain an impressive array of hill forts including Eggardon Hill, Pilsdon Pen and Coney's Castle. Colmer's Hill (illustrated), with its clump of Scots Pine on top, is a well-known landmark locally.

Historically, the West Dorset Vales are important as the cradle of British paleontology, with many important fossil finds. It also contains Whitchurch Canonicorum, a rare example of a shrine to a pre-reformation saint, Saint Wite, whose relics survived destruction by Oliver's Army. It is believed that this is because its rural isolation meant that the Roundheads couldn't find it!

The Character of Wessex: The New Forest

Contrary to what its name may imply, the New Forest is actually two-thirds heathland. "Forest" in this context means land set aside for royal hunting, and the New Forest has served this function since the reign of Edward the Confessor. William the Bastard turned it into a "perambulation" with its own forest law - a situation which persists to this day, administered by the Verderers' Court. The New Forest was famously the site of the death of his successor, William Rufus, which we have written about before.

The New Forest Character Area is bounded by Southampton Water to the east, the Solent to the south, and the Hampshire Avon to the west. The northern boundary is a bit fuzzier, but much of it follows the A27 Salisbury Road. Elsewhere, it simply shades into Salisbury Plain.

As well as the New Forest ponies that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, donkeys, cattle, sheep and pigs graze freely, owned by the commoners.

The New Forest cicada is endemic to the region, and it is the only place in Britain where the wild gladiolus grows. Also notable are populations of the smooth snake, hobby, honey buzzard and nightjar. Hen harriers also winter there. Coastal areas support the Mediterranean gull, sea lavender, Bewick's swan and gadwall.

75% of the character area was designated a National Park in 2005, the first in Wessex. 60% of the forested area is managed by the Forestry Commission, which is currently in the process of replacing non-native species with indigenous ones.

Like so many other places, the New Forest is under threat from climate change. Rising sea levels and changing patterns of rainfall are affecting the watercourses, increasing the chance of flooding. Gentrification is also threatening the historic character of the area, bringing in more traffic, and buildings that jar with their surroundings. Clearly there is work to be done to keep the Forest from becoming just another playground for Londoners.