National Character Area 67

Cannock Chase and Cank Wood - Description

The Cannock Chase and Cank Wood today

Cannock Chase and Cank Wood NCA is a landscape dominated by its history as a former forest and chase and by the presence at its centre of the South Staffordshire Coalfield. The area has a varied landscape; plantations and heathlands in the north contrast strongly with the dense settlements of the south, interspersed with farmland. There are no major rivers within the NCA, but canals are a significant feature and this includes the supply reservoir at Chasewater. Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) lies to the north, and immediately south of this is the Forest of Mercia, a Community Forest, which extends into the conurbation. Major transport routes include the M6, the M6 Toll and the A5, and a series of railway lines influence the character of the area. There is a mixed pattern of village-based and dispersed settlement, with 19th- and 20th-century development having subsumed many small settlements.

Cannock Chase lies on a central elevated plateau. It is an unenclosed, heavily wooded landscape with a varied, often steeply sloping surface dominated by heathland and conifer plantations. The large area of plantation is complemented by broad tracts of heathland and there are long views, usually to wooded horizons but sometimes to lower ground, which emphasise its elevation. There is much local variety within the many valleys, known locally as slades. The wild character of the heaths, dotted with patches of pine and birch and dominated by heather and bracken, is a strong contrast with the surrounding cultivated ground and built-up areas. The wildness is emphasised by the small pockets of enclosed agricultural land within the heaths.

Cannock Chase is an AONB and is heavily used for recreation due to its proximity to the Birmingham conurbation and its large country park. The AONB includes the Cannock Chase Special Area of Conservation (SAC), designated because it is the most extensive area of heathland in the Midlands. The character of the vegetation is intermediate between the upland or northern heaths of England and Wales and the heaths to the south. Within the heathland, a unique assemblage of species occurs, with many species that are at either the southern or the northern extent of their range, including species such as cowberry and crowberry, and the main British population of the hybrid bilberry, a plant of restricted occurrence. There are important populations of butterflies and beetles, as well as European nightjar and five species of bat (SAC selection data, Joint Nature Conservation Committee) . The open heathland provides a sense of tranquillity, as the Chase is largely devoid of settlements. Historic parks such as Beaudesert, Teddesley and Wolseley are a feature of the landscape lying around the edge of Cannock Chase.

To the west of Cannock Chase a gently undulating landscape is characterised by a regular enclosure pattern of low-hedged fields, intensively managed plantation woodlands and coverts and numerous small watercourses set within the narrow flood plains of the rivers Penk and Sow.

East of Cannock Chase and extending south is a landscape of villages and hamlets set within intensive arable farmland that becomes more steeply undulating and wooded in the area between Tamworth and Sutton Coldfield. The more rural parts around Chorley are mainly used for stock rearing, although livery is increasingly prevalent. Here, small- to medium-sized irregular fields and small woodlands dominate, with intact hedgerows lining sunken lanes. Historic parks such as Shugborough, Beaudesert, Teddesley and Wolseley are a feature. Lichfield is largely a Georgian brick-built city, with some earlier brick and timber-framed buildings, a Gothic stone cathedral and a medieval street pattern. Many listed buildings survive within the historic core and contribute to its character.

South of the Chase, the landscape is dominated by the settlements, tips, open cast sites, quarries and reclaimed areas within the coalfield, and the landscape and settlement pattern of the Black Country is complex. Many of the towns have a strong historic core, and some older buildings survive.

Some of the settlements such as Dudley, with its castle, wooded hill, medieval street plan and remaining Georgian buildings, have a strong sense of identity. Much of the area between the Chase and the Black Country conurbation has an urban fringe character, and settlements such as Cannock and Burntwood extend along the straight roads and field boundaries of 19th-century enclosure. Between the dense urban areas are small farms, patches of derelict land including disused quarries, and young woodlands, in addition to parks, golf courses and public open spaces. Small mature woods, pools and fragments of heathland are found and natural regeneration is common, contributing to a mosaic of valuable habitats.

A large area of heathland at Chasewater Country Park includes a large reservoir, which feeds the canal network to the south. The canal network here includes the Cannock Extension Canal, a short section of canal designated as an SAC due to its large population of floating water-plantain, which is at the eastern limit of the plant’s natural distribution in England. Fens Pools SAC in Dudley, part of the Barrow Hill Local Nature Reserve (LNR), is a series of smaller pools that overlie Etruria Marls and Coal Measures of the Carboniferous Period. The site shows evidence of past industrial activities and includes a wide range of habitats, from open water, swamp, fen and wetland communities to unimproved neutral and acid grassland and scrub. Great crested newts occur as part of an important amphibian assemblage (SAC selection data, Joint Nature Conservation Committee). Other important open spaces include Sandwell Valley, the area around Barr Beacon, and Sutton Park National Nature Reserve (NNR) to the east within the suburban setting of Sutton Coldfield.

Rising above the plateau on which much of the Black Country lies are prominent small hills extending from south-west to north-east across the area. They include Rowley Regis, Turners Hill and Wren’s Nest Hill. Forming prominent landmarks, they separate the core of the Black Country from the strongly undulating landscape of the Stour valley. To the north of Birmingham and west of West Bromwich there are many more areas of open land, primarily in agricultural use but with a large historic park at Sutton Park and with fragments of heathland, such as Barr Beacon. There are medium-sized fields, generally with good-quality hedgerows, patches of ancient enclosure fields and areas of semi-natural vegetation including acid grassland, pools, fens and fragments of ancient woodland. Narrow, hedged lanes are often present and there is a real feeling of countryside despite the nearness of the built-up area.

The landscape through time

The central and higher parts of the NCA are comprised of rocks mostly of Carboniferous age, with the southern half traversed by a discontinuous ridge of hills. The Rowley Hills, composed of dolerite (an igneous rock intruded into the Coal Measures about 300 million years ago), lie at the centre of the ridge. To the north-west of the Rowley Hills, older limestone rocks of Silurian age form the steep-sided features of Castle Hill, Wren’s Nest Hill and the high ground of Hurst Hill and Sedgley Beacon. Much of this area forms the exposed section of the South Staffordshire Coalfield and is covered by poorly drained heavy soils derived from glacial till.

Surrounding the coalfield are rocks of the Sherwood Sandstone Group of Early Triassic age. The sediments derived from the sandstones infilled ancient rift valleys east and west of the coalfield, historically forming wide desert basins that today form the gently rolling landform interspersed – where pebble beds predominate – by long, usually well-wooded ridges and hilly areas such as Cannock Chase and Barr Beacon. Cannock Chase is underpinned by the pebble beds of the Kidderminster Formation, which give rise to well-drained soils forming an important aquifer and to fertile, easily worked soils. Locally, the Bromsgrove Formation sandstones have been used as a building stone for churches and walls.

This area once formed the eastern fringe of the area settled by an ancient Celtic people called the Cornavii (The Cornovii, Graham Webster, 1991). Prehistoric evidence of human settlement includes bronze-age barrows on Cannock Chase, the iron-age hill fort of Castle Ring and a number of other sites. The majority of the area would have been extensive woodland and marshland. It is likely that the woodland was managed and utilised for grazing, with small-scale clearance commencing in the late prehistoric period.

The main evidence for Roman occupation can be found at Wall (Letocetum), an important military staging post and posting station near to the Roman roads of Watling Street and Ryknild (Icknield) Street.

After the Norman conquest the area was declared a royal forest and would have been dominated by open woodland interspersed with grazed areas and some farmland and settlements. Cannock Chase was carved out of this royal forest and granted to the Bishop of Lichfield in 1290. The city of Lichfield has its origins in the 7th century, and Cannock and Rugeley both developed as local market towns in the late 12th century.

Piecemeal clearance and colonisation of the land continued throughout the medieval period, particularly around the settlements and small hamlets. These were frequently associated with industrial activities such as quarrying, mining, edge-tool manufacture and transport. By the mid-1600s the landscape had become more open, with more extensive heathland, due to timber extraction to produce charcoal for the local iron furnaces. Woodland, however, remained within the medieval deer parks of Beaudesert, Haywood, Teddesley, Wolseley and Sutton and on higher ground.

A large-scale programme of enclosure occurred between the 1770s and 1880s, although some areas remain unenclosed to the present day. The 18th and 19th centuries also saw the layout of more formal parks, notably Shugborough, and the intensification of arable farming and horticulture on sandstone-derived soils on the fringes of the growing urban areas of the Black Country and dairying on the heavy, poorly drained soils in the northern part of the area.

During the 17th century the Black Country and south Staffordshire rapidly developed into one of the country’s largest centres for mining and quarrying of coal, iron and Silurian limestone as well as for manufacturing. The arrival of the canals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries sparked a further rise in activity. Individual towns came to specialise in the manufacture of particular goods; examples are locks in Willenhall and leather goods in Walsall. By the 1850s much of the coal had been worked out in the Black Country, and significant areas of land were reclaimed for industrial and residential use. The mining of coal moved north to Cannock, Burntwood and Hednesford in the 19th century, where large-scale mining of the concealed measures beneath led to the rapid expansion of these settlements. Sutton Coldfield developed as a dormitory suburb for Birmingham.

During the early part of the 20th century, Cannock Chase was used for military training and, from 1921 onwards, planting of conifers on the heath began. The designation of the Cannock Chase AONB in 1958 protected it from excessive development and it now provides a very popular recreational resource.

Recent developments include the expansion of residential settlements and industrial estates; reclamation of former mines and spoil tips; open cast mining; sand, gravel and clay extraction; waste disposal; and road developments – all of which are changing the character of the area. Ex-industrial mining sites now provide important bat hibernacula and educational and recreational opportunities. The construction of the M6 Toll has increased the opportunities for further land use changes. In many areas around the NCA, farming is now giving way to livery – particularly around the fringes of settlements.