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.

The Character of Wessex: Exmoor

We already covered Exmoor ponies a couple of weeks ago on this blog. Now it's time to turn to their natural habitat, a landscape that inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry Williamson and RD Blackmore, and which gave its name to the Devonian period. Exmoor is bounded to the north by the Bristol Channel, while the Taw/Torridge estuary forms its south-western extremity.

A royal forest since shortly after the Norman invasion, Exmoor was extensively redeveloped in the 18th and 19th centuries by the landowning Knight family. Though there is evidence of human presence since at least the Bronze Age, much of its current settlement pattern can be traced back to the Knights.

As well as the aforementioned ponies, Exmoor is home to a local breed of sheep, the Exmoor Horn. Sheep farming is a major part of the area's economy, along with some dairying, and coniferous plantations for timber supply.

Among wild plants, purple heather predominates. while red deer are a large part of Exmoor's identity. Local rare species include Dartford warblers and Bechstein's bats.

Whilst the moorland itself is gentler than nearby Dartmoor, the coastline contains some of the steepest cliffs in England. Along with deep river valleys, it is easy to see why Exmoor's landscapes were such an influence on the romantic movement.

The Character of Wessex: The Culm & Lundy

Welcome to the first in a new series on Natural England's character areas within Wessex. The first of these areas extends beyond Wessex's western border into Cornwall, but it is on the Devonian part that we will concentrate. The main towns and villages include Okehampton, Bideford and Westward Ho!, with the oldest known settlement being Clovelly. Houses built of the traditional Devon cob can be found throughout the area.

The Culm takes its name from the culm measures that dominate the region geologically. Culm (also spelled calum in Devon) is is another word, primarily used in Wessex and South Wales, for anthracite.

The heavy soil and poor drainage make the land of low quality from an agricultural point of view, though Devon Red Ruby cattle are well suited to its environment. Its fens and grasslands are of interest to the nature conservationist, however, and support several distinctive plant species, including tormentil and devil's bit scabious. Native fauna includes the rare marsh fritillary, the grasshopper warbler and the willow tit. The Taw-Torridge estuary is an important site for over-wintering waders including the lapwing, golden plover and curlew. Meanwhile, the range of the Exmoor red deer herd extends into the Culm.

The coastal areas are dominated by steep cliffs. The most dramatic view is found at Hartland Point, overlooking the open Atlantic. In winter, Hartland Point is also the departure point for helicopter transport to the other part of this character area, Lundy Island. Note: Natural England currently treats The Culm and Lundy as separate character areas. However, the original map drawn up by the Countryside Agency in the 1990s combined them, and the book The English Landscape, which I have drawn upon for this article, uses this combined definition.

Lundy takes its name from the Old Norse word for puffin, and its puffin colonies are a distinctive feature of the island. When I worked for Defra in the early years of this century, there was controversy over the extermination of a colony of black rats that had escaped from a ship and established itself on the island, endangering the local puffin population by preying on their eggs. Sadly for the rats, the puffins won the day.

Lundy's remoteness led to it being talked of as a haunt for the Devil in Devon folklore. Nevertheless, it remains a popular tourist destination, with ships sailing from Bideford and Ilfracombe in summertime, and the aforementioned helicopter service in winter. The limited transportation opportunities help keep the numbers manageable, so as not to spoil the tranquility that is the island's chief attraction.

The island has just one village, with houses built from the local stone, which is also used in the dry stone walls that divide it into quarters. There is a tavern, heated by a wood-burning fire.

Apart from the puffins, Lundy is also home to two endemic species ; the Lundy cabbage, and the flea beetle that lives off it. It is also an important habitat for seabirds and basking sharks. Lobsters are caught in its waters, which also give their name to a zone used in the shipping forecast.

Like so much of the planet, Lundy is threatened by climate change. More frequent storms could lead to erosion. Let us all do our bit to ensure that it does not end up with its west side falling into the sea, a la Craggy Island!