National Character Area 141

Mendip Hills - Key Characteristics

  • A chain of prominent limestone hills, cored by Devonian and Silurian rocks, extending inland from the coast and rising up sharply from the surrounding lowlands. An open limestone plateau with karst features including complex underground caves and river systems gives the area a unique character. Sandstone outcrops form the highest features. Dramatic gorges, cliffs and escarpment slopes surround the plateau. To the west the land breaks into individual hills.

  • The plateau and hill tops are largely treeless, except for a few old ash pollards, wind-shaped shelterbelts and conifer plantations. The slopes and valleys surrounding the plateau have a wide range of woodlands forming an attractive mosaic with calcareous grassland and agriculture. There is a more wooded nature to the eastern Mendips.

  • Variable enclosure patterns with larger, rectangular 18th-century field patterns bounded by drystone walls on the plateau and smaller, irregular fields with hedgerows on the scarp slopes and eastern Mendips.

  • The majority of the NCA is under improved pasture for dairying, with some horticulture in the south-west.

  • The centre and west of the area is characterised by unimproved neutral meadows or calcareous grassland on the plateau, contrasting with acid heathland on the sandstone hill tops, unimproved calcareous grassland particularly on the southern slopes, and broken and undulating ground, known locally as ‘gruffy ground’, resulting from the lead industry which has re-vegetated to form important semi-natural habitats such as calaminarian grassland – grassland found on soils with high metallic content.

  • The caves, woodland, hedgerows and grazed fields provide excellent conditions for greater horseshoe bats which are recognised in two Special Area of Conservation (SAC) designations.

  • Natural surface water is almost absent on the plateau owing to the permeability of the karst landscape, aside from where abandoned mine workings have retained, or created over time, areas of water. At the foot of the plateau springs emerge as the source of the Cheddar Yeo and Axe , River Sheppey and other streams.

  • Many industrial archaeological sites, reflecting the past lead, coal and cloth industries. The plateau has an outstanding assemblage of heritage assets from prehistoric features, such as burial mounds and hill forts, through to Second World War remains.

  • Large-scale quarrying of limestone is particularly active in the eastern Mendips with super-quarries such as Whatley and Torr Works, though two smaller quarries, Callow and Batts Combe, remain active in the western Mendips.

  • Buildings are constructed of red conglomerate, grey limestone and pale grey Doulting Stone. Older buildings in the Mendips are modest cottages in rough, exposed stone with almost no detailing of windows and doorways.

  • Villages are concentrated along the springline at the foot of the scarp slopes. Elsewhere, settlement is scattered. Characteristic church towers are visible from great distances and designed landscapes of country houses with wooded parks are prominent in the east.

  • Roman roads cross the hills contrasting with narrow sunken lanes which negotiate the scarp slopes. Major transport routes such as the M5 and A38 cut through the area using natural valleys. The A37 and A39 cut across the centre.