The Character of Wessex: The Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase

Cranborne Chase has been a hunting ground since the time of the Bastard. It forms part of a wider character area stretching from just south of Salisbury to just north of Weymouth, and otherwise known, along with the neighbouring Dorset Heaths character area, as Hardy Country. It is a sparsely-populated chalk downland dominated by food production, though much of its arable land has been given over to the production of biofuels.

There is archaeological evidence of human settlement on the Downs from the Mesolithic onwards. Important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites include Maiden Castle, Hambledon Hill and the Dorset Cursus. The area also contains the famous “rude man” of Cerne Abbas. Dorchester, civitas capital of the Durotriges, was an important settlement in Roman times.

The chalky grasslands and prehistoric woodlands are an important habitat for species such as the skylark and marsh fritillary. Meanwhile, the chalk streams contain threatened species of fish such as the bullhead and brook lamprey. The local Wiltshire Horn and Dorset Horn are two of the oldest English sheep breeds.

The A354 highway from Salisbury to Portland bisects the area, linking the main settlements of Dorchester and Blandford Forum. For a couple of miles, it follows an old Roman road, Ackling Dyke, which once connected Old Sarum with the Badbury Rings near Wimborne.

The linear villages are mainly clustered along the deep river valleys. Older houses tend to be timber-framed and made of brick, sometimes mixed with flint or the chalky limestone rock known as clunch.

The Character of Wessex: The Forest of Dean and Lower Wye

The Forest of Dean and Lower Wye character area is a triangular area bounded, for the most part, by the rivers Severn and Wye, and the A40 around Ross-on-Wye. It has been a mining area since antiquity, due to its large deposits of iron and coal. 40% of the area is woodland; mostly oak, ash and chestnut, but in recent decades, the Forestry Commission has inflicted its unpleasant habit of planting conifers in areas where they don’t belong.

The local sandstone has a distinctive pinkish hue, which in the past made it much in demand as a building material, though brick and concrete have supplanted it over the years. Pantiles and Welsh slate are widely used for roofing.

The area is noted for its orchards, with local varieties including the Blaisdon Red plum, excellent for making jam; Evan;s Kernel, a general purpose apple found in Ruardean, which is listed as critical on the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust website; . and the sweet-tasting Merrylegs pear.

Tourism is an important industry for the area. The Picturesque movement in art began there, and tourists still flock to popular beauty spots such as Tintern Abbey and Symond’s Yat, both (just) outside the bounds of Wessex.

The area is home to one of the UK’s largest populations of horseshoe bats. However, these ate threatened by wind farms upsetting their flight paths and messing with their sonar. It would be ironic if the transition from the traditional coal found in the region to cleaner forms of energy ended up endangering the local wildlife.

The Character of Wessex: The Hampshire Downs

Bounded by Wessex’s historic capital, Winchester, to the south, and the newer commuter towns of Basingstoke and Andover to the north and west respectively, the Hampshire Downs is an area made up almost exclusively of chalkland, though there is a small area of mottled clay soil–an outcrop of the Reading formation–around East Stratton, 8 miles northeast of Winchester.

The chalky character of the area makes it suitable for sheep farming, and Hampshire Down is a regionally distinctive breed of sheep, noted for providing excellent mutton. The breed was created in 1829 by a local farmer, John Twynam, who cross-bred his flock of Southdown sheep with the Old Hampshire variety. Other farmers continued to refine the breed by further cross-breeding with the Wiltshire Horn and Berkshire Nott varieties.

The chalk streams flowing into the rivers Test and Itchen are the home of dry-fly fishing, first developed by Frederic M Halford, a Birmingham-born, London-based fisherman; and George Selwyn Marryat of Chewton Glen in the New Forest. The weeds in the chalk streams tended to float close to the surface, necessitating a method of keeping the fly afloat. Halford and Marryat first met in Hammond’s Fly Shop in Winchester on 28th April 1879, “the meeting that changed the course of fly fishing history” according to Marryat’s biographer Andrew H Herd.

Most famous of the Hampshire Downs is Watership Down, which provided the name and setting for Richard Adams’s 1972 novel and the 1978 animated film adaptation which traumatised a generation of children. Jane Austen’s house at Chawton also sits on the edge of the Downs, while Selborne Common was studied in depth by the pioneering naturalist Gilbert White.

Road and rail routes linking London to Wessex criss-cross the Hampshire Downs, and Winchester itself was founded at the convergence of prehistoric trackways known as dongas. With its chalk bedrock, connections to the rest of Wessex, and focus on the historic capital, one could argue that the Hampshire Downs represent the quintessential Wessex character area.

The Character of Wessex: The Somerset Levels and Moors

Formed at the end of the last ice age from the floodplains of eight rivers, the Somerset Levels are the largest remaining area of lowland wet grassland and floodplain in England. Due to its importance in history – with King Alfred hiding out at Athelney and the Battle of Sedgemoor ending the Monmouth Rebellion – and to the legends surrounding Glastonbury, the area retains a hold over the imagination that extends far beyond Wessex.

The area has been settled since prehistoric times, with irrigation ditches known as rhynes draining the wetlands in order to make them habitable. More recently, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has reclaimed a salt marsh at Steart Marshes, which provides flood defences for nearby residents, and has captured carbon at a much higher rate than expected. If replicated globally, the WWT’s experiment could help in combating climate change, and the resulting rise in sea levels.

The moors and levels are a popular area for birdwatchers. Important species include black-winged stilts, egrets, avocets, snipe and bitterns. Common cranes bred at the WWT’s centre in Simbridge were reintroduced over a period of five years, and have now established a breeding population. As well as wading birds, the Somerset wetlands are home to otters, eels and white admiral butterflies.

The economy is mostly pastoral, with beef and dairy farming providing much of the area’s income. Willow is another important crop, with the Willow Man sculpture north of Bridgwater celebrating this heritage. Teasels were once grown here for use in the wool trade, but this industry sadly died out with increasing mechanisation.

The Character of Wessex: Oxford and the Upper Thames

The birthplace of Wessex is actually two character areas in one, with the Upper Thames Clay Vales completely enclosing the Midvale Ridge. The latter is a limestone ridge stretching from Swindon to just outside Aylesbury. It is a mostly rural area, drained by small streams that drain into the rivers Thames, Thame and Ock, though the expansion of Swindon and Oxford threatens this rural character.

Surrounding it are the Oxford Clay Vales, whose impermeable clay soils give rise to flood plains and wetlands, in contrast to the permeable limestone of the Midvale Ridge and the neighbouring Cotswolds. The land is largely unsuitable for crop growing, making it a classic “chalk and cheese” disparity.

It was in the area around Dorchester-on-Thames that the kingdom later known as Wessex began to form. The area boasts one of the densest concentration of Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds in England, and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by a team of archaeologists from the University of Oxford.

There has been an encouraging increase in woodland in the area, however, an invasive population of poplar trees is proving a threat to native tree species.

Climate change threatens an increase in flooding in the clay vales. As with so many other is up to all of us to do our part in preventing this.