National Character Area 122

High Weald - Analysis: Landscape Attributes & Opportunities

Analysis supporting Statements of Environmental Opportunity

The following analysis section focuses on the landscape attributes and opportunities for this NCA.

Further analysis on ecosytem services for this NCA is contained in the Analysis: Ecosytem Services section.

Landscape attributes

Heathland, notably Ashdown Forest Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA).

Justification for selection:

  • An extensive mosaic of elevated heathland and woodland with far reaching views. Used for hunting in the middle ages it is a formally registered common.
  • Ashdown Forest is considered one of the most important and extensive areas of heathland in south-east England and supports several uncommon plants, has rich invertebrate fauna and important populations of heath and woodland birds. It is internationally important and designated as an SAC for wet and dry heath and an SPA for breeding populations of Dartford warbler and nightjar.
  • Areas of heathland are also found in St Leonard’s Forest and smaller patches elsewhere although much has been lost, increasing the significance of these remaining blocks.
  • Ashdown Forest is the largest free public access space in south-east England, lying at the heart of the High Weald AONB and is a particularly popular and important recreational asset.
  • Ashdown Forest is characterised by the presence of plants such as heather, dwarf gorses and cross- leaved heath, some areas of scattered trees and scrub, areas of bare ground, gorse, wet heaths, bogs
    and open water.

Coastline of geological, biodiversity and recreational value.

Justification for selection:

  • Hastings Cliffs – an area of underdeveloped coastline consisting of actively eroding soft cliffs of sands and clays and associated varied habitats and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for vegetated sea cliffs of the Atlantic and Baltic coasts.
  • The cliffs are important for their bryophyte interest and maritime species and are geologically important, representing the most southerly exposures of the Lower Hastings Beds.
  • The cliffs are golden and tower over 100 m above sea level.
  • Hastings and Bexhill are seaside resort towns on the south coast offering recreational opportunities.

High density of extraction pits, quarries and ponds.

Justification for selection:

  • The High Weald has more than 10,000 ponds concentrated on the clay, with some on silty sandstone (High Weald AONB Management Plan, 2014-2019, High Weald AONB Unit) including ‘hammer ponds’ originating from the Wealden iron industry.
  • Iron stone exploitation, quarrying of stone from the Hastings Beds for building and extraction of sand for brick making has left a number of quarries and extraction pits.

Dispersed historic settlement pattern, farmsteads and hamlets with late medieval villages. Strong vernacular architecture characterises the NCA.

Justification for selection:

  • Dominance of traditional timber framed buildings with steep roofs often hipped or half-hipped and an extraordinarily high survival rate of farm buildings dating from 17th century or earlier.
  • Timber, tile, brick, Kentish ragstone and sandstone are traditional building materials.
  • The High Weald has one of the highest concentrations of surviving early farmsteads anywhere in Europe (High Weald AONB).
  • The rich and varied colours of locally derived building materials reflect the diversity of geology
    underpinning the area and add significant interest to the landscape generally.

Ancient routeways in the form of ridge-top roads and a dense system of radiating droveways often narrow, deeply sunken and edged with trees and wildflower-rich verges and boundary banks.

Justification for selection:

  • Ancient routeways form part of the habitat mosaic of the High Weald, many still used today, the routes are features which have been used for centuries and form an important part of the landscape, ecology and history of the High Weald.
  • The routeways provide an extensive network of roads and paths allowing access to some of the most
    intimate and tranquil parts of the area.

Small irregularly shaped fields bounded by hedgerows, shaws and woodlands.

Justification for selection:

  • These form part of the landscape and habitat mosaic and an essential component of what is a rare, surviving essentially medieval landscape.
  • Hedgerows and shaws are important to landscape character and ecological connectivity, often giving the area a feel of a small-scale landscape and a ‘patchwork quilt’ effect.
  • Ecologically they represent a reservoir of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers and are important sources of food and shelter for invertebrates, small mammals and birds. Hedgerows and shaws are also important for linking fragmented areas of semi-natural habitat within the agricultural landscape.
  • Many hedgerows run along historic boundaries.
  • The soft, sinuous forms of the field boundaries add texture and variety to the landscape and make a significant contribution to the overall arboreal character of the landscape.

Grasslands including species-rich unimproved meadows and dry acidic grassland.

Justification for selection:

  • Unimproved meadows are an important part of the heritage of the NCA.
  • Within the High Weald AONB boundary there are 655 ha of species-rich unimproved lowland meadows and dry acidic grassland.
  • Remaining meadows are often small, fragmented and hard to access and as a result securing appropriate management can be difficult.
  • Many unimproved grasslands include a diverse range of plant and animal species including rare indicator species such as dyers greenweed, pepper saxifrage and green winged orchid.
  • Unimproved grasslands have undergone significant decline in the 20th century and protection and
    maintenance of remaining habitat is a priority.


Justification for selection:

  • Four reservoirs within the NCA; Bewl Water, Darwell, Ardingley and Weir Wood reservoirs
  • The largest is Bewl Water (the largest reservoir in south-east England, supplying 2 million customers) (High Weald NCA Interim Objectives, Natural England, 2010) which supplies water to the Medway towns, local villages, North Maidstone and also Darwell Reservoir. It is also important for tourism and recreation, as are Darwell and Ardingley.
  • Weir Wood Reservoir supports a rich community of breeding birds and is designated as a SSSI.
  • The reservoirs comprise large sheets of water with sinuous edges and meandering inlets reflecting their origin as gill valleys, reflective surfaces, particularly in autumn when the surrounding wooded landscape is bright with autumn colours.

Water catchments and associated wetland habitats.

Justification for selection:

  • The NCA covers major water catchment areas – Rother, Ouse, Medway, Arun and Adur, Cuckmere and Romney marsh.
  • The High Weald is a source of a number of major rivers in south-east England and has dendritic drainage pattern with numerous small streams forming the headwaters of the main rivers.
  • Threats to the extent and connectivity of associated wetland habitats of these rivers.
  • Surface water is important for abstraction all be it in lesser quantities than from groundwater.

Geological features.

Justification for selection:

  • The High Weald lies at the core of the Wealden anticline and is geologically complex, dominated by a corrugated dome of sandstones and clays belonging to the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds – forming the ridges and valleys.
  • Scattered outcrops of sandstone outcrops which support sandrock bryophytes communities.
  • Numerous stream valleys and steep ravines.
  • Geological interest of the coast and most southerly exposures of the Hastings Beds.

Woodlands – ancient woods, gill woodlands, and shaws.

Justification for selection:

  • The area remains one of the most densely wooded areas in England with abundant semi-natural ancient woodland as well as chestnut coppices and conifer plantations.
  • Decline in active woodland management particularly coppicing has led to a corresponding decline in species associated with coppice, including woodland butterflies such as fritillaries.
  • Gill woodlands are characterised as lying over steeply incised valleys where a stream has eroded the underlying rock. These provide a micro-climate and support rare species such as the ivy leaved bell flower and hay scented buckler fern.
  • Map evidence shows that there are more than 1,000 gills in the Weald.
  • Many of the gill woodlands support a number of ‘Atlantic’ plants uncommon in south-east England and many only found in the Weald and the west of Britain.


Justification for selection:

  • The total area of Registered Parks and Gardens is over 4,500 ha with 56 sites.
  • The wealth of parkland is representative of park and garden styles ranging from the 16th to the 20th century.
  • Many have trees which are century’s old and important habitats for various species. Once lost these habitats are irreplaceable within a short timescale.
  • Historic parklands are an important part of the cultural landscape.
  • Eridge Park SSSI is considered to have one of the richest parkland lichen floras in Britain.

A landscape rich in heritage assets and historic environment features and elements.

Justification for selection:

  • There is a legacy of sites associated with the iron industry – in the first two centuries of the Roman occupation and during Tudor and early Stuart periods the Weald was the main iron producing region in Britain.
  • The Battle of Hastings Registered Battlefield is the site of one of turning points in English history.
  • A large number of listed buildings (7,370) many representing the agricultural and industrial vernacular and the gentry buildings resulting from the wealth generated from these activities.
  • 91 Scheduled Ancient Monuments.
  • Many upstanding, earthwork and buried heritage assets including hill forts, medieval settlement sites, Mesolithic remains, earthworks, abbeys, castles, iron bloomeries, furnaces and working sites, Roman sites, Roman roads, parklands, medieval moated sites and underground archaeology.

Rights of way, open access land and other recreational opportunities.

Justification for selection:

  • Recreation is supported by the area’s 3,043 km rights of way network, including the Sussex Border Path, High Weald Landscape Trail and Weald Way, as well as a significant area of open access land.
  • Further significant recreational opportunities are provided by the area’s reservoirs, with watersports and angling provided by the Ardingly, Weir Wood and Bewl Water reservoirs and recreational
    opportunities offered by the coast.


Justification for selection:

  • Tranquillity levels have declined notably in recent years, with the area recorded as ‘undisturbed’ having decreased from 76 per cent in the 1960s to 44 per cent in 2007.
  • The largest areas of tranquillity lie away from the main transport corridors and major settlements. Nevertheless, the pastoral, heavily wooded, medieval character of the landscape has a strong sense of tranquillity, further accentuated by the traditional character of villages, sunken lanes, the wooded ghyll (gill)s and intimate views, which together also create a strong sense of timelessness.

Landscape opportunities

  • Maintain the existing extent of woodland and particularly ancient woodland, maintaining and enhancing the landscape character, ecological functioning and connectivity of woodland at a landscape scale, protecting the historic environment and historic assets of the woodlands, increasing output of sustainably produced high quality timber and underwood for local markets and contributing to renewable energy sources.
  • Maintain existing quantity of gill woodlands and enhance their quality for features of interest.
  • Protect the geological resources and exposures of the Purbeck Group and Hastings Beds of the Wealden series including the sandstone outcrops, maintaining nationally important geological exposures, to conserve the fern, moss and liverwort communities they support and to protect their value as some of the most significant sites of prehistoric archaeology in addition to the inland geological features exposed in active and disused quarries, road cuttings and natural exposures.
  • Maintain and enhance the complex mosaic and pattern of High Weald habitats and the distinctive pastoral fields and areas of heath. Improve the condition and connectivity of fields and heaths and their associated and interrelated habitats, including hedgerows, woodlands, ditches, and ponds and plan for the extension and or linking of existing habitats in order to strengthen landscape character and increase climate change resilience.
  • Manage and enhance the character, condition and quality of rivers, standing water habitats and areas of flood meadow, fen, wet woodland and grazing marsh that provide some of the fine-grain components of the landscape. This will also help to create a more extensive ecological network of wetland and riverine habitats, increasing adaptation to climate change, as well as helping to improve water quality and help alleviate flooding through water storage.
  • Maintain and enhance the distinctive pattern of dispersed settlement of historic farmsteads, hamlets and villages, to promote sustainable development in rural locations and meet local needs for affordable and where possible land based workers, and enhance the design and quality of new development in the landscape meeting local distinctiveness and design guidance.
  • Protect from damage and appropriately manage the area’s rich and distinctive historic environment including parks and wood pastures, ancient routeways, archaeology, settlement patterns and field systems, and significant industrial heritage linked to the iron industry. Identify educational, access and research opportunities to further the understanding of these assets and link communities with their local heritage, while securing appropriate management of important sites.
  • Manage existing and future developments to ensure that sense of place is maintained by making reference to local vernacular building styles and materials, and settlement patterns and distributions. Ensure that proposed growth is sustainable and protects and enhances the character of the area with new building sympathetic to local styles. Where development is permitted, ensure good green infrastructure is included to bring about multiple benefits for people and the environment.
  • Work to manage and maintain the existing public rights of way network which not only delineate patterns of occupation and provide excellent access but also provide an essential network of ecological connections across the wider countryside. Increase the number of connecting permanent and permissive routes to link promoted routes, high profile greenspaces and tourist attractions where appropriate, helping to improve peoples’ physical and mental health through contact with inspirational landscapes and access to the countryside, while ensuring recreational pressures are balanced against the needs of landscape and nature conservation.
  • Conserve the coastal strip, including the geological, geomorphological and biodiversity assets, allowing for continuance of natural processes on the unprotected cliffs of international biological and geological importance.
  • Facilitate and promote the use of the sustainable transport throughout the area and to major settlements beyond, to reduce car dependency and further help maintain the levels of tranquillity of the landscape and particularly within the AONB.