National Character Area 148

Devon Redlands - Description

The Devon Redlands today

The rolling, hilly landscape of the Redlands, with its deep red soils, is the classic landscape of W.G. Hoskins’ eloquent descriptions of Devon. It is a landscape of mixed farming, but as the land rises to The Culm in the north-west (284 m) pasture predominates and the red soils disappear. The principal rivers, of which the Exe is the largest, are characterised upstream by steep, wooded valley sides. Some of the valley woodlands are oak dominated and of high conservation value. In the upper valleys, particularly in summer, there is a very strong sense of enclosure created by the tall, thick hedgerows supporting many herbs and wild flowers, with small, lush meadows connected by attractive, fast-flowing streams.

Towards the coast, the hills gradually decrease in height (176 m) and appear more rounded with gentler, convex slopes. The river valleys widen into more open flood plains emphasised by larger fields, low-cut hedgerows or fences and a lack of tree features. Arable dominates on the better, flatter land around the centre of the NCA, although the lower flood plains are generally devoted to permanent pasture. The coast is dominated by striking red cliffs and rocky shores. The sea has eroded to form well-developed wave-cut platforms and spectacular stacks, such as at Ladram Bay. The geological significance of the coast from Exmouth eastwards is such that it forms part of England’s only natural World Heritage Site. The rivers Exe, Teign and Otter break through the sandstone cliffs into estuaries of reedbeds and salt and grazing marshes; all are protected at their mouth by sand or pebble spits extending from long beaches. Significant bird populations, including the avocet, use the estuaries over winter. The Exe Estuary is one of the most highly designated sites in south-west England, recognised at international, European and national levels. The entire length of the coast in this NCA is accessible by the South West Coast Path National Trail.

To the east of the Exe Estuary, the land rises to dry, open heathland with both isolated and clusters of pines forming features. The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, on infertile, acidic soil, are of European importance, designated as a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation. They support significant populations of butterflies and birds such as the nightjar and the Dartford warbler, and are a distinctive feature of the area. The heaths are also of national landscape value, forming part of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This designation covers the south- eastern corner of the NCA from the coast, stretching 11 km northwards. The Devon Redlands NCA also includes a small strip, just 33 ha, of the Blackdown Hills AONB on its north-eastern boundary.

To the south-west of Exeter, the Haldon Hills, a ridge of heathland and woodland, dominate the skyline. Long fingers of coniferous plantation and broadleaved woodland follow ridge lines, enclosing steep pasture on both sides of the dramatically rising ridge. Conifer plantations are softened by wide margins of bracken, birch and heath and there are far-reaching views eastwards over the Exe Estuary and beyond to the Blackdowns and westwards to Dartmoor. Both the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths and Haldon provide significant areas of open access. The heaths tend to be frequented by local visitors while Haldon has become a major regional mountain biking centre, with 220,000 visitors in 2011/12.

Much of the Devon Redlands, away from the coast, is relatively sparsely populated, with attractive villages, hamlets and scattered farmsteads. Many settlements are of medieval origin, linked by winding, often deeply sunken lanes. The Permo-Triassic sandstones which dominate the character of the area are also traditionally used as building materials, along with breccias, volcanic rocks and the smooth, rounded pebbles of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths. Older buildings often have thatched roofs and red-tinged cob walls. Complexes of farmstead buildings, originating from before the 18th century, include linhays – open-fronted shelter sheds for cattle.

Most of the villages have been in existence since the 10th and 11th centuries and have an irregular form and pattern. They usually lie at the heart of the parish and contain the parish church and one or two substantial farms. The predominant pattern of historic settlement, however, is dispersed in the form of hamlets, farmsteads and dwellings. The inland towns – Cullompton, Tiverton and Crediton -have their origins in the wealthy cloth industry of the Middle Ages and continue to be important local towns. Along the coast and around the estuaries settlement is much denser.

Exeter, a regional city, is prominently and strategically located at the head of the Exe Estuary. The city is a hub for major transport links into Devon and Cornwall and its infrastructure now dominates the landscape, particularly to the east and south of the city with the location of the M5 and regional airport. Small historical villages are scattered along the fringes of the Exe and Teign estuaries, and residential growth has changed the form and setting of all these settlements in recent years. Along the coast there are significant towns that evolved because of their maritime connections. Teignmouth and Exmouth began as ports before developing into fashionable seaside resorts, along with Dawlish. The encroachment of large-scale residential development on the hills that form a backdrop to these towns has significantly changed their landscape setting, and this is particularly noticeable from the sea.

The landscape through time

The geological history of the Devon Redlands is characterised by alternating periods of marine incursion and mountain building. During the Carboniferous Period (359 to 299 million years ago), the area lay in a marine basin; tropical erosion of the surrounding land mass generated large quantities of sediment, which were transported by rivers into the basin and deposited on the seabed, forming thick layers of sandstones, shales and mudstones. Towards the end of the Carboniferous Period, a mountain-building event, known as the Variscan Orogeny, occurred and led to folding and faulting of the older Devonian and Carboniferous rocks and to widespread uplift of Devon. Associated volcanic activity included the intrusion of lavas, known as the Exeter Volcanic Series, and turned the shales into slates. A semi-arid climate dominated the following Permian (299 to 251 million years ago) and Triassic (251 to 200 million years ago) periods, causing rapid erosion of the surrounding mountain ranges and the creation of thick deposits of windblown materials and coarse breccias and sandstones that were laid down by impermanent rivers. After the Triassic, into the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (146 to 66 million years ago), sea levels rose once more, depositing sands, clays and some chalk and resulted in the formation of the Greensand that now underlays the Haldon Hills. Following the Tertiary Period of mountain building (65 million years ago), erosion removed most of the chalk and left areas of flint gravels; the Haldon Hills are capped by such gravels. They now form a distinctive and prominent range of flat-topped hills in the south-west of the NCA.

The lower-lying softer landscape has been gradually shaped by river erosion over the last 2 million years. It is thought that the ice sheet from the last ice age (around 18,000 years ago) did not reach this NCA; however, the area was subjected to tundra-like periglacial climates and, as ice melted and sea levels rose, river valleys and estuaries were flooded. The landscape has also been shaped by centuries of human activity; Mesolithic and Neolithic sites and finds (10,000 to 4,500 years ago) occur across the NCA. A notable example is the Neolithic causewayed enclosures on Raddon Hill. Bronze- age (4,500 to 2,700 years ago) barrows exist, for example on the Haldon Hills, and iron-age (2,700 to 2,000 years ago) hill forts including Woodbury Castle and Stoke Hill and lesser, enclosed settlements of farmstead scale are all evident across the NCA. This type of small-scale settlement lasted through the Roman period (roughly 43 ad to 400), alongside much less common Roman sites, notably the city of Exeter. By 180 to 200 ad the fortress site had become a well-established civilian town with a new wall enclosing 38 ha, twothirds of the wall still exists today. Outside Exeter there are Roman camps, forts and fortlets, a few villas and fragments of the imperial road system, most notably the road from Exeter to Dorchester. Both Cullompton and Tiverton have evidence of Roman settlement.

Medieval and post-medieval archaeology is all around and beneath the Redlands as well, as in prominent monuments such as the Norman Tiverton Castle and Exeter Cathedral (begun in 1114). Most settlements were in existence by the 10th and 11th centuries; they usually lie at the heart of the parish and contain the parish church. The villages historically contained only one or two substantial farms, and houses of various dates. This has resulted in villages taking an irregular form and plan. Outside the villages there is a medieval pattern of isolated farmhouses or hamlets and small groups of farmhouses and dwellings including a high proportion, by national standards, of 16th-century or earlier date, surrounded by their own buildings and land. This dispersed settlement pattern resulted in an intricate and extensive network of roads and lanes, with a high number of bridges that still exist today, for example the medieval bridge at Bickleigh. Turnpiking (post-1750) led to road improvements that influenced today’s main road system. Some milestones and tollhouses remain, for example at Newton Poppleford. Farmhouses and houses are built in characteristic vernacular styles using locally distinctive materials such as cob, breccias, volcanic rocks or smooth round pebbles and thatch.

From the 16th century a vibrant wool and cloth industry became established across the area, shaping the three main inland towns and generating significant wealth for Exeter. The industry led to the construction of Exeter Quay (1564-66) and the Exeter Ship Canal, with exports to France, Spain and the Netherlands. High-quality woollen and worsted cloth was produced in Cullompton until 1977 and continues in Tiverton today. While the wool trade played a role in Crediton’s past, the church was far more significant in its growth; Saint Boniface was probably born in Crediton around 672.

There is a high frequency of designed landscapes in this NCA, including a series of villas and villa landscapes in prominent positions along the east shore of the Exe Estuary; secondary landscape parks such as Pynes (near Cowley Bridge), Downes near Crediton and Oxton on the lower slopes of the Haldon Ridge; and finally the big landscape parks such as Mamhead, Shobrooke, Poltimore, Powderham, Killerton, Haldon and Knightshayes. The frequency of these designed landscapes is given emphasis by their visibility and often their public access. This period also saw the development of the coastal towns within the Redlands. Exmouth, although a fishing port and ferry dock since the postmedieval period, became a notable seaside town in the early 18th century, with day trippers from Exeter. Its significance as a seaside resort grew through the late Georgian and Victorian periods, as did Teignmouth, particularly after the arrival of the railway in 1846. However, Teignmouth has a much longer history as a small seaport, fishing town and market town, with a flourishing trade until the early 19th century in granite (from adjoining Dartmoor), pipe clay, manganese and timber. It is thought that ship building, which continues today, began in at least the 17th century. The port is now important for the export of ball and fire clay, extracted in the adjoining South Devon NCA. Both Exmouth and Teignmouth are characterised by late Georgian and early Victorian architecture, including some notable features such as Exmouth’s sea wall, begun by John Smeaton in 1841, which now forms a popular promenade, and the Grand Pier at Teignmouth.

The Victorian influence is apparent across the Redlands, with perhaps Isambard Kingdom Brunel having had the most influence with the development of the main railway line from Bristol to Exeter (opening in 1841) and beyond via Teignmouth, as well as branch lines to Exmouth and Barnstaple, and the Exe Valley line which closed in 1964. The development of new infrastructure since the 1970s has similarly led to enhanced access to the NCA and influenced growth and development. The motorway reached Exeter in 1977, a time when the city started to experience significant areas of residential and light industrial development around its periphery. From the motorway lead the two major trunk roads into Cornwall, the A38 (dualling complete in 1977) which passes over the Haldon Hills and the A30 (dualled in the 1980s) which sweeps around the south of the city before heading north and currently creates a boundary between the city and surrounding mixed farmland.

During the 1970s and 1980s there was large-scale housing development on the fringes of all the key towns, which, in many cases, has changed their shape. There is also evidence of scattered development in the open countryside and around smaller settlements, including a moderately high rate of barn conversions for accommodation, manufacturing and service industries. The dualling of the A30 eastbound from Exeter to Honiton occurred later (1999) and has opened the area east of Exeter for the most recent large-scale development in the NCA. A new community is under development, as are a SkyPark business park, a science park and an intermodal freight facility, and associated new infrastructure. This area of the NCA also includes the regional airport which has experienced a significant increase in flights over the last decade. This development has significantly changed the tranquillity and character of the landscape and will continue to do so with further predicted increases.

Other changes across the NCA include the implementation of a Heathland Management Plan for the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, and there has also been quite a significant change of use on the Haldon Hills with the development of a mountain biking centre. Renewable energy technologies are starting to have a cumulative impact and larger developments in adjoining NCAs are influencing the setting of the NCA in places.