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Mendip Society

Case for Extending the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty March 2005

The Mendip Hills

The Mendip Hills comprise the most southerly Carboniferous Limestone massif in England & Wales, the bleak open plateau and deep gorges being more reminiscent of the north, and therefore unique in southern England. Landscape character is enhanced by the varied Mendip geology, caused in the main by several steep upfolds which bring Old Red Sandstone rocks to the surface; one in the east brings up Silurian volcanics. Later red rocks were draped as scree slopes during the Triassic desert, and Jurassic marine sediments were laid down around beach levels cut into the hills. Mendip lay to the south of the ice front during the Quaternary glaciation, and therefore show different features and soil profiles from northern hills. Solution of the limestone has given rise to a classic karst landscape, with famous caves and water sinks and risings. Historic lead, zinc, raddle and coal workings and water-powered woollen, paper, corn and edge tool mills and a series of designed landscapes complement the natural landscape with a rich historical context. The contrast with the softer hills and levels of Wessex could not be stronger.

Support for a review of the Mendip Hills AONB designation

The Mendip Society (for who we are, see Annex 3) is presenting this case with the support of the Mendip Hills AONB Partnership, which voted support at its meeting on 18th March 2005, asking the AONB Officer to write a letter of support to the Agency. It comes with the full support of the Society’s AGM on 19th March 2005. CPRE will be writing a letter of support, and the Society is collecting a dossier of support from parishes and others which it will forward when available.

Scope of Original AONB Designation 1972

The Mendip Hills AONB was designated by the Countryside Commission in 1972, partly as a result of pressure from the Mendip Society.

The boundary broadly followed that of the Hobhouse Report (Cmd 7121, 1947), except that the eastern boundary was arbitrarily cut back from Hobhouse, the A39 Wells - Chewton Mendip road being taken as a “convenient” eastern boundary.

Hobhouse also intended the inclusion of the Sheppey valley, with its characterful villages of Dulcote, Dinder, Croscombe and Doulting and the close backdrop to east end of Wells Cathedral at Tor Hill. Other differences from Hobhouse were the exclusion of the seaward end of the Mendip Hills at Brean Down, the Winscombe-Star-Shipham area (the latter to allow expected major housing development which never occurred) and the inclusion of Chew Valley Lake, whose flooding had post-dated Hobhouse.

The original designation thereby bisected the Mendip Plateau, the major landscape unit, and excluded areas which Hobhouse would have included.

Minor Review 1989

In the late 1980s the Commission started a review of the boundary using the then local authorities’ Mendip Hills AONB Local Plan exercise as the vehicle for informal consultation – this work was expedited as a Minor Review to ensure that the Local Plan boundary and the AONB coincided.

The Minor Review ensured that the boundary did not split settlements, that extra parkland at Wells was included and attempted to include Shipham, Star and land up to the settlement limits of Winscombe. Villages which had been split by the boundary were considered as follows: villages which added to the character of the AONB were included, villages which detracted were excluded. As it was a Minor Review, no view was taken at this time on local authority and Mendip Society requests for a major eastward extension.

The Secretary of State confirmed the boundary changes in 1989, but refused to confirm the centre of Shipham and some land outside the village settlement limit at Winscombe, without giving specific landscape reasons - other than stating broadly that that in his opinion, the natural beauty of the land was insufficient.

Major Review – Unfinished Business

At the time of the Minor Review, a Major Review was intended but work never started, as very soon afterwards all major reviews which had been planned but not programmed were abandoned owing to dramatic cuts in the Commission’s staff numbers and controversy caused by de-designating some land no longer thought fit in the Cotswold and Chiltern AONB reviews.

Landscape Character Assessment

Nevertheless, to advance thought on the boundary, in May 1996 the Commission prepared with the local authorities a Landscape Assessment of the Mendip Hills from Steep Holm to Frome (the Mendip-wide assessment) and made the unpublished report available to local interested bodies. Copies were deposited in the Agency’s HQ and SWRO libraries, with the local authorities, the AONB Service and local interested groups. The Mendip Hills Landscape Assessment came out of this work and was published in the Commission’s AONB assessment series as CCP545 in 1998, covering only the existing AONB as no wider review could be scheduled.

The Mendip-wide assessment provides a modern assessment which characterises the landscape, historic landscape and ecology of areas of the Mendip Hills whether designated and undesignated. It is a major contribution to our understanding of the Hills and enables direct comparison with the existing AONB in terms of quality and character. It shows that the character zones of the existing AONB extend beyond the AONB boundaries, and it shows that the wider Mendip Hills are of outstanding landscape, history and ecology. It also shows that the character of these areas gradually changes, to the west with the marine influence of the Bristol Channel, and to the east as the Mendip Plateau declines in height and splits to form ridges separating the Nettlecombe-Mells Valley. This is a more domesticated landscape, packed with historical references, nationally important ash woodlands and meadows, designed landscapes and fine, old settlements such as Mells. This is a landscape important in terms of geodiversity and biodiversity.

Mendip District Council pressed their 1988 proposal for an extension to include the Sheppey Valley between Wells and Croscombe and more of the Plateau in 1996 (area a. below), but they accepted the Commission’s then view that resources were not available to proceed and did not press their case further. Similarly the first Mendip Hills AONB Management Plan (1998) set out to review the boundary and make proposals to the Countryside Commission, stating that:

to the east, there is an anomaly in the way that the current boundary cuts across the plateau following the A39. A substantial area outside the AONB has the same characteristics as the area that lies within. These include dry stone walls, sparse settlement, prehistoric ritual landscapes and a sense of remoteness” and

to the west, the natural conclusion to the AONB would be where the Mendips reach the coast”.

As it was thought that there was little prospect of review, this intention was not included by the Mendip Hills AONB Partnership in the AONB Management Plan review and therefore no work has been scheduled, or budgeted for, by the AONB Service on this aspect. In effect, without support from the Countryside Agency, the idea of extension was dead, and continuing local interest was effectively stifled.

The Society believes Commission’s 1996 assessment shows that the undesignated parts of the Mendip Hills contain outstanding landscape that fulfils the statutory definition of the 1949 Act (as amended) and the Countryside Agency’s emerging criteria for designation (see Annex 1).

The Society does not believe that all of the Mendip Hills are of such national quality.

The arrows on the sketch map below shows the areas which the Society thinks should be considered for designation – sensible lines can be drawn at 1:25,000 to reflect the Agency’s boundary drawing criteria:


The Society recommended extensions are:

a. The Mendip Plateau, east of the A39 Chewton Mendip-Wells road

This is an area originally proposed by Hobhouse and proposed more than once by Mendip District Council. It contains parts of these character areas (area numbers and names are taken from the 1996 Mendip-wide Assessment):

  • C1 The North East Farmlands (part) – abutting the plateau but lower, a raised area characterised by dry stone walls and large open fields around Ston Easton, White Lias village cottages and the listed Repton landscape and house at Ston Easton Park.

  • B7 The Plateau (part) – the continuation of the high, open Mendip plateau as it descends eastwards from the existing AONB, but becoming softer in character, with long views and stone-walled and hedged rectangular field patterns and hedgerow trees.

  • C2 Cranmore Ridge and Slopes (part) – a prominent double scarp extends east from Wells Cathedral fronting the pleasant Sheppey Valley. A well-wooded ridge extends east from Wells Cathedral at Tor Hill (NT) through Kings Castle (a stone-banked hill fort) Wood nature reserve through the Lyatt, with its ancient trackways and enclosures, to Dinder Wood and Sharcombe Park.

  • C3 The Sheppey Valley (part) – a settled valley with lush, wooded character with the attractive settlements of Dulcote, Dinder and Croscombe, with parkland at Dinder House. Excludes the town of Shepton Mallet, curtained-off by the stone viaducts of the famed Somerset & Dorset Railway. Dulcote Quarry is excluded, and is invisible as it lies to the south of the steep ridge that marks the southern edge of the Sheppey Valley

b. East Mendip, east of the A37 Shepton Mallet-Bath road

In the national study of Countryside Character the landscape of the eastern Mendip Hills is described by the Countryside Agency within the same Landscape Character and Natural Area as the AONB, No.141 Mendip Hills:

to the east of the plateau a complex landscape of narrow, steep-sided, commonly densely-wooded valleys, with more open agricultural land on the intervening ridges, descends towards Frome. The ridges have very varied field patterns and there is a fluctuating density and quality of hedges and hedgerow trees, with occasional dry stone walls. Some outstanding parks lie near Frome and make good use of the subtle landforms. Greater variety is found in the valleys where there are attractive mosaics of woodland and grassland and complex dispersed settlements with splendid churches such as Mells and Kilmersdon. These reflect the prosperity of the medieval cloth trade. There are many other features of historic interest. Disused mills and industrial buildings, abandoned cottage plots, streamside ponds and leats, and dismantled railways have now been absorbed into the rural landscape. Small abandoned quarries cut into valley sides are a contrast with the larger post-war superquarries which are of much greater depth and extend onto the higher ground. On the other hand, the earthworks of the former coal industry have blended with the landscape and are now largely lost in new woodlands. This eastern part of the Hills is much more densely populated. There are older, compact villages in the south and some sprawling former coal-mining settlements in the north”.

This area contains a number of limestone and basalt quarries, some very large, some exhausted and some dormant. The two superquarries, Whatley and Tor Works, as well as Coleman’s Quarry, can be easily excluded, as by their nature, they do not fall within the highest quality landscapes or targeted character areas. Owing to the quality of their landscaping, they are virtually invisible on the ground from within the proposed boundary, even though they are close at hand. The more recently mined parts of the Somerset coalfield around Highbury, Coleford and towards Radstock are also excluded on quality grounds, without detriment to the included Nettlecombe Valley.

The Society’s proposal includes parts of these character areas:

  • C2 Cranmore Ridge & Slopes (part) - high land and prominent scarps on Old Red Sandstone-Silurian volcanics inlier, with extensive views, similar to the high land to the west in the AONB. Maesbury Hill Fort 291m, Beacon Hill 285m (popular ridge-top community woodland, with Fosse Way with obvious Roman alignment error crossing Old Sarum – Charterhouse Roman Lead Works Roman road) and Cranmore Tower (a folly tower standing on a 285m hill) are significant landmarks. Moons Hill Quarries, deep basalt quarries let down into the ridge have limited landscape impact but form the only sections in Silurian strata in southern England.

  • C3 Sheppey Valley (part) – fringes C2, includes Doulting village and church of oolitic limestone, St Aldhem’s Well and medieval quarries which supplied Wells Cathedral.

  • C4 Leigh – Binegar- Coleford Slopes (part) – the most attractive part of a complex landscape area subdivided into five sub-units of settled and historic, often small-scale landscape, essentially enclosing the Mells-Nettlecombe valley, with many remains of early coal and other industries. Parts of three units are suggested for inclusion:

    • C4a Leigh - Oakhill – a shelf-like plateau, with well-treed hedgerows. Three character villages at Oakhill, Leigh upon Mendip and Stoke St Michael. Leigh has an eye catcher Somerset perpendicular church tower and many old cottages, well-screened from Halecombe Quarry.

    • C4b Oakhill - Emborough – Steep, narrow valleys and abundant hedgerow trees. Popular Emborough Pool is an old mill reservoir in a wooded setting. Gurney Slade Quarry has limited landscape impact.

    • C4c Emborough - Pitcott Ridge – a link area at the transition between the Mendip Plateau B7 and East Mendip Valleys C5

  • C5 East Mendip Valleys (part)an attractive, narrow, steep-sided wooded valley system with old mills. Where the valley widens are listed parklands and old meadows. High biodiversity area (MDC 1995):

    • C5a Nettlebridge Valley (part)a broad valley with abundant SSSI woodland, small pasture fields, overgrown hedgerows, ancient coal workings, sunken winding lanes, old quarries reclaimed by nature, resurgent and tufa springs, cave systems and hidden, almost secret side valleys. Harridge Wood and Edford Wood are important damp woodlands, Edford famous for wild daffodils.

    • C5b Lower Mells River Valley – a valley landscape of great variety and historic interest, continuing C5a downstream. Vobster hamlet and nearby remains of Dorset & Somerset Canal and ancient coal workings. Listed Mells Park, the village of Mells (Grade I Manor house, complete 15th C street leading to Mells Church with fine Somerset perpendicular tower, both in honey-coloured oolitic limestone, famous ruined Fussell’s edge-tool mill in gorge section of Mells River, honeypot stream side at Great Elm, popular walks in the wooded Vallis Vale with Buckland’s Unconformity (a famous geological exposure showing flat Inferior Oolitic resting on wave-cut platform of tilted Carboniferous Limestone - a key section in the history of geology). Nearby Whatley superquarry has no visible impact on Mells.

    • C5c Chantry & Fordbury Water Valley (part)Chantry village, with listed park, ornamental lakes, Gothic revival chapel and ancient Asham Wood, an important Mendip ash woodland SSSI and high biodiversity area (Mendip DC 1995).

  • C7 South East Farmlands (part) a slice of this character area is included to enable the inclusion of Asham Wood in C5c and the listed parkland at Chantry, but the rest of this character area is not worthy of inclusion because of the damage caused by the two superquarries.

On historic landscape the assessment concluded:

“An East Mendip historic landscape study, with particular reference to cloth, coal, paper and edged tool industries, and the pattern of medieval farming that is reflected in present field systems, would demonstrate the great historic interest of East Mendip and would put its conservation on the same footing as the AONB”.

c. Brean DownCharacter Area A2 Brean Down is described as: “dramatic cliff scenery of wild landscape, of high heritage interest vulnerable to erosion and maritime grassland of high nature conservation interest contrasting with nearby built-up areas”. Grand views of the Bristol Channel and its islands, the Welsh coast, the Somerset Levels and back to the main Mendip massif from this whale back outlier of Carboniferous Limestone – geologically a continuation of the Hills. Open access National Trust land, frequently visited and well loved by the public. At the seaward end is the historic Palmerston Fort and WWII Barnes-Wallis experimental weaponry site. Pleistocene sand cliff of archaeological significance overlooking Brean Cove. Hobhouse did not consider that the lowland gap between the Down and the main hills is of national landscape quality and the Society agrees.

d. Shipham Character Area B2 Winscombe Vale and Shipham

The Society considers that the Government’s exclusion of Shipham village (within its settlement limit – the rest of the parish is included) from the AONB was misguided. Shipham village is a characterful, medium-sized Mendip village which adds to the interest of the Hills as a whole, and therefore should be included. Its status, as an isolated hole in the AONB, implies that there is something ugly or disfiguring about it. This is nonsense and inconsistent with the treatment of other villages. Shipham is famous for its heritage of long-closed calamine mining - started in the 17th Century to provide zinc for Bristol’s battery brass mills, and determined its haphazard settlement pattern and cottage type, with “mining in the streets, in the yards, and in some of the very houses”.


e. Nempnett Thrubwell – Character Area D2 Nempnett Thrubwell Ridge

The current boundary includes the southern fringe of this landscape area, but the boundary is badly related to topography and fails to include all of the slopes which enclose the Blagdon-Compton Bishop valley and is therefore not drawn in accordance with the Agency’s boundary drawing criteria. The character area extends northwards into an area of well-broken relief, the “small, very irregular fields and dense network of lanes and trackways with frequent farmsteads make a distinctive landscape”.

Conclusion - Outstanding Qualities

The assessment for the Mendip Hills AONB (Countryside Commission 1998) sets out (p.41) the values and qualities of the existing AONB as:

  • complex and varied landscape, uniquely placed in southern England

  • widely acknowledged scenic qualities in views in from outside and within

  • well appreciated by writers

  • historic landscapes of national and international importance

  • high nature conservation interest

The extension areas significantly add to these qualities by increasing the diversity of landscape character within the Mendip theme. East Mendip is of high biodiversity and geodiversity and adds historic and designed landscapes, characterful villages, old houses and cottages, rich “wool” churches with “Somerset” towers and features of industrial archaeological interest, all well written about (see Athill, 1964 and other writers listed in Countryside Commission, 1996). Brean Down adds the coastal dimension to the list of Mendip character areas, with outstanding views back to the hills and high over the sea. Nempnett Thrubwell provides the backdrop across the lakes so effective in views from the Mendip Plateau and is thoroughly unspoilt.

Whilst these areas are different from the high, windswept plateau of West Mendip, they are outstanding in their own right and very much part of Mendip.

Effect on area

The existing AONB is 198km2. The proposed extensions would add about 85km2.


1964 Old Mendip by Robin Atthill, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, reprinted for

Bran’s Head Books, Frome 1993.

1995 Mendip (district-wide) Biodiversity Action Plan, Mendip DC, Shepton Mallet

1996 Landscape Assessment of the Mendip Hills from Steep Holme to Frome: unpublished report by Chris Blandford Associates to the Countryside Commission and the Local Authorities, Countryside Commission, Bristol (copy of the cover page attached).

1998 The Mendip Hills Landscape CCP 545 Countryside Commission, Cheltenham (prepared by Chris Blandford Associates from the 1996 assessment, covers AONB only)

1998 Mendip Hills AONB (First) Management Plan, Charterhouse on Mendip

1999 Mendip Hills AONB Designation History File Note (unpublished) by Ray Woolmore, Countryside Agency HQ

1999 Countryside Character vol 8 South West, CA 14, Countryside Agency, Cheltenham.


Meeting the Countryside Agency’s draft review criteria

Legality -is the proposed change consistent with the statutory purpose of AONB designation? Yes, the areas consist of landscape of outstanding natural beauty consistent in quality with the existing AONB and national standards and entirely within Countryside Character & Natural Area No. 141, the Mendip Hills.

2. Evidence - is the proposal supported by objective evidence? Yes, the whole area was fully assessed in landscape, historic landscape and ecological terms by the Countryside Commission in 1996. Parts were proposed for designation by the Hobhouse Committee in 1947.

3. Potential benefits - do the range and scale of public benefits that may be realised by the proposed change appear to justify the effort of undertaking a review? Yes, the extension areas consist of outstanding quality landscapes which should be protected and enhanced in the national interest, that are well visited by the public, in need of management, in danger of inappropriate development and where social concerns should be addressed in a like manner to the rest of the Mendip Hills.

4. Priority (applicable only where a decision to undertake a review has already been made) are there clear reasons for making this review a higher priority than others? Yes, the danger of inappropriate large-scale energy and quarrying development is ever present and the areas are currently only protected by the planning requirements for ordinary countryside.

ANNEX 2 Maps

Map of East Mendip Areas A & B at 1: 100,000 (the Society has mapped this area at 1:25,000)

Map of Brean Down Area C at 1:25,000

Map of Nempnett Thrubwell Area E at 1:25,000

(The Shipham extension (area D), corresponding to the settlement limits of the village would fill the existing “hole” in the AONB and is therefore not mapped)

ANNEX 3 The Mendip Society

The Mendip Society is the principal amenity society for the whole of the Mendip Hills, having has some 750 members, mainly local people. It organises talks and walks to raise awareness about the Mendip Hills, publishes a Newsletter, conducts a web site www.mendipsociety.org.uk, offers grants for conservation tasks and generally seeks to uphold the qualities of the hills through the planning system and in conjunction with the Mendip Hills AONB Service. The Mendip Society is a registered charity, no. 2628671, is affiliated to the CPRE, the Civic Trust and is an associate member of the National Association for AONBs. A copy of the latest Newsletter is attached and lists the Officers, except that following the AGM the Chairman is Simon Whitmore and Paul Harley is added to the list of vice-presidents.

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