National Character Area 119

North Downs - 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

A distinctive chalk downland ridge rising up from the surrounding landscape, extending from west to east as a series of undulating ridges and rounded hills with extensive views.

Justification for selection:

  • Chalk downland ridge dominated by chalk soils define the area. The carved topography provides local variations and land marks and the elevated ridge allows for impressive long views south, and at Dover across the Channel to France.
  • The shape of the downland ridge is of geomorphological interest, contributing to our understanding of mountain formation and erosion processes.

Tracts of unimproved chalk grassland, scrub and heath, concentrated on steep slopes, cliffs and verges.

Justification for selection:

  • Much original chalk grassland has been lost to intensive arable cultivation and scrub encroachment through loss of grazing and the habitat is now rare in the UK. Remaining tracts are important for biodiversity including over 1,000 ha with SAC designation and reinforce landscape character.
  • Chalk grassland is a distinctive downland habitat, supporting a wide variety of vegetation types. This includes nationally rare plant species such as early gentian, groundpine, early spider orchid and late spider orchid, and nationally scarce species such as man orchid and lady orchid. Several of these species are at the edge of their continental range and have their stronghold in this NCA. Late spider orchid in particular is wholly restricted to Kent. Rare invertebrates include the black-veined moth and straw belle moth. The area is also important for chalk grassland bryophytes.
  • Chalk scrub supports box and juniper and rare plant species, for example, meadow clary, lady and man orchids, greater yellow rattle, ground pine, cut leaved germander, white mullein, burnt orchid, green winged orchid, narrow lipped helleborine and yellow birds nest. It also supports a wealth of invertebrates for example Duke of Burgundy fritillary, grizzled skipper, brown hairstreak, silver spotted skipper and rufous grasshopper which is almost entirely confined to the chalk hills of southern England. There are breeding bird communities including numbers of linnet, lesser whitethroat and whitethroat. All add interest, variety, colour and sound to the landscape.
  • Wye National Nature Reserve (NNR) and Lydden Temple Ewell NNR are both home to chalk downland of international importance, these reserves are key sites for biodiversity and also offer a range of access and education opportunities.

A rich historic landscape, including prehistoric barrows and megaliths, iron-age hill forts, defensive coastline installations, historic parklands, wood pasture, veteran trees and orchards as well as dene holes, ancient paths, drove roads and trackways. A rich cultural heritage and connections with science, art, politics and music.

Justification for selection:

  • Barrows and iron-age hill forts form important features along the ridgeline of the open downs.
  • A range of historic assets including 202 Scheduled Monuments, 28 Registered Parks and Gardens covering 2 per cent of the NCA and 4,177 Listed Buildings.
  • Ancient routes are found across the NCA including the ‘Pilgrims Way’, an ancient trackway running from Winchester to Canterbury. Stane Street Roman Road runs from Chichester, passing through the western end of the NCA on its route to London. Watling Street and Stone Street in the East of the NCA are also both important.
  • Parkland has been identified as a priority within this NCA based on original extent within the landscape and subsequent rates of loss (English Heritage 2006).
  • Strong associations with military history including the Second World War. Military remains include Dover Castle (with the command centre used for the Dunkirk evacuation located within its earlier tunnels), Tudor forts, Napoleonic defences, gun emplacements and pill boxes.
  • Rochester Cathedral and Castle fall into the NCA, on the boundary with the North Kent Plain. Guildford Castle also sits on the boundary with Thames Basin Lowlands.
  • Traditional orchards still exist in the east although are limited in extent.
  • The NCA has evoked inspiration to a range of famous individuals including Churchill, Darwin, Henry Moore, Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash and Jane Austin.

Small nucleated villages along spring lines, within valleys and on the lower dip slope with scattered farmsteads and farm buildings linked by rural, often sunken lanes, with a strong local vernacular of flint, chalk and Wealden brick.

Justification for selection:

  • Historic buildings include tile-hung oast houses in Kent. A high density, by national standards of pre-1750 and pre-1550 buildings. Hop farming and resulting oast houses had a major impact on the landscape in the 19th and 20th centuries. Farmsteads that retain unconverted oast houses, early to mid 20th century hop buildings and features such as hop-pickers huts are highly significant (Farmstead Character Statement, North Downs, English Heritage).
  • With increased urban development associated with the London fringes to the west and transport infrastructure further east, the importance of maintaining the rural settlement patterns grows – contributing to the area’s historic sense of place, reinforced by the distinctive local vernacular.
  • Vernacular building materials are an expression of the underlying geology both from the NCA (chalk and flint) and from adjacent NCA (Wealden brick).

Distinctive chalk cliffs in the east where the chalk meets the sea and inland chalk exposures.

Justification for selection:

  • As well as an immediately recognisable landscape feature the chalk exposures are of importance for their geodiversity and biodiversity. Inland chalk quarries also provide important exposures as well as other designated and non-designated sites of geological interest. Mole Gap to Reigate escarpment SAC and SSSI contains important exposures, supporting bat roosts, including those of Beckstein Bats and a range of other wildlife.
  • The chalk cliff foreshore sequence along this stretch of coast is a reference section, critical to understanding the development of the European chalk sequence.
  • The White Cliffs of Dover are one of England’s most distinctive landmarks and an area of international importance (Dover to Kingsdown SAC) The chalk exposed along this coast is critical to our understanding of chalk sequences across Europe and understanding the landslips at Folkestone Warren helps us understand how similar landslips work around the world.
  • Two stretches of the coast are defined as Heritage Coast, South Foreland and Dover-Folkestone. Heritage coasts represent stretches of our most beautiful, undeveloped coastline, which are managed to conserve their natural beauty and where appropriate to improve accessibility for visitors.
  • Chalk cliff exposures include cliff-ledge and maritime rock crevice plant communities, with an occurrence of rare and scare species such as sea stock, wild cabbage and oxtongue broomrape. Associated breeding bird colonies include kittiwakes and nesting peregrines.
  • Coastal defences are associated with major areas of port development.
  • Inland chalk exposures within numerous quarries along the length of the downs are of geological and biological interest. Numerous smaller chalk pits are scattered throughout. In land the mix of disused chalk quarries and pits provide critical evidence of our geological past. Many are now identified as geological SSSIs and Local Geological Sites. For example form chalk pits near Bulham are Britain’s most prolific source of chalk (Upper Cretaceous) marine vertebrates including fish, turtles, marine lizards, pliosaurs and plesiosaurs.
  • The Mole Gap is one of the classic geomorphological localities in south-east England, noted for its variety of landforms which include periglacial debris fans, river cliffs and swallow-holes.

Extensive ancient semi-natural woodland cover, including oak-ash on the upper dip slope, beech-yew-ash-hornbeam covering the steeper slopes of the dry chalk valleys, and large areas of yew-with-box on the Surrey scarp. Sweet chestnut coppice is a feature of the Kent dip slope.

Justification for selection:

  • This is a well-wooded NCA, containing over 25,800ha of woodlands over 2ha of which 12,700ha is ancient woodland, a nationally important resource.
  • Woodland is primarily found on the steeper slopes of the scarp and valley sides and areas of the dip slope capped with clay-with-flints.
  • A variety of woodlands support rare plant species such as box and green hound’s-tongue, as well as invertebrates and notable breeding bird and mammal communities such as hawfinch and dormice, with those located on thin chalk soils possessing a highly distinctive character. The North Downs Woodlands SAC consists of internationally important mature beech woods and in particular ancient yew woodland, which occurs here and within the Mole Gap to Reigate Escarpment SAC.
  • The lotting up of some woodlands particularly in the east of the NCA, makes their co-ordinated conservation management very difficult to implement.
  • The existing woodland resource of the NCA offers good potential for biomass and high quality timber products.
  • Ranmore Common in Surrey comprises a block of ancient and secondary woodland. An area of acidic soils has given rise to open heathy woodland. Several species of butterflies and moths have been recorded including satin weave moth and the site also supports a breeding bird community including nightjar.

The river landscapes of the Wey, Mole, Darent, Medway and Stour, that cut broad valleys through the chalk ridge in addition, important chalk streams and remnant wetland habitats.

Justification for selection:

  • The river valleys cut through the chalk ridge, producing distinctive local landscapes and hosting areas of important wetland habitat. Chalk rivers are a priority habitat and nationally they are relatively rare as a river type, located in south and east England they are the principal resource of chalk rivers in Europe.
  • The Stour is a typical chalk river while the Darent, which rises in the Greensand to the south, exhibits many of the characteristics of a chalk river, rich in plant and animal life and supporting brown trout fisheries.
  • The stretches of the Wey and the Mole pass through the North Downs and the latter is of geomorphological interest for its swallow-holes, chalk cliffs and periglacial debris fans. The rivers attract bird life such as kingfisher and Lapwing.
  • The tidal Medway supports important tracts of UK BAP priority habitat, including areas of intertidal mudflat, flood plain grazing marsh, reedbed and fen.

Thick hedgerows and shaws

Justification for selection:

  • Hedgerows and shaws enclose a predominantly irregular field pattern and contribute to the wooded character of the landscape.
  • Fields across the downs are generally bounded by thick hedgerows, shaws and woodland edges, but can vary in shape and size reflecting a process of piecemeal enclosure by agreement; there is little evidence for Parliamentary-type enclosure across the majority of the landscape. Often the scarp tops are an assart landscape with irregular field patterns bounded by woodland. These hedgerows and shaws have multiple benefits from their contribution to landscape character to their role as wildlife corridors.

Rare arable habitats within a mixed-farmed landscape.

Justification for selection:

  • Arable farmland occupies a large area within the North Downs. Historically there was a profusion of wildflower species, especially associated with the thin chalky soils, and mammal and farmland bird species, including yellow hammer, corn bunting and grey partridge.
  • Ranscombe Farm is a nationally important botanical site and has been considered one of the richest sites for arable plants in the UK (Byfield, A.J. & Wilson, P.J, 2005). Important arable plant areas; identifying priority sites for arable plant conservation in the United Kingdom, Plantlife International, Salisbury. UK). The site hosts a range of rare arable plant species including corncockle, rough mallow and broad-leaved cudweed (Ranscombe Farm Reserve).
  • More intensive land management has restricted arable plants, and these are now a threatened group of species both locally and nationally with several species considered nationally rare. Pockets do remain where conserved in unsprayed field edges and following other management practices such as those under Agri-Environment Schemes aimed at enhancing biodiversity in arable farming.

Significant remaining areas of tranquillity relative to the developed nature of much of the surrounding landscape.

Justification for selection:

  • Around 30 per cent of the area is still classified as undisturbed according to CPRE data, with these areas highly valued given the proximity of London and the expanding Thames Gateway immediately to the north and the line of large towns to the south including Reigate and Redhill in Surrey and the growth area of Ashford in Kent.
  • The sense of tranquillity is much enhanced by the extensive woodland cover to the urban areas immediately outside the NCA boundary.

Extensive public access, including North Downs National Trail and Pilgrims Way plus other recreational land uses.

Justification for selection:

  • There are just over 2,826 kilometres of Public Rights of Way, while just under 3 per cent of the NCA (3,566 ha) is Open Access/Registered Common. This is of particular importance given the location of the North Downs so close to large centres of population and with the Kent part of the downs lying between areas of growth along the Thames corridor area to the north and Ashford to the south. In Surrey, Purley, Caterham, Leatherhead, Dorking, Reigate, Redhill and Guildford fall within or close to the boundary of the NCA.
  • The North Downs Way runs through much of the NCA and is of significant strategic importance, both as a long distance path and as a link between other local routes.

Small patches of remaining dark night skies in the east.

Justification for selection:

  • The area of dark night skies in the east has decreased since the 1990s, leaving small patches that are particularly significant given the generally high levels of light pollution in the region as a whole.

Landscape opportunities

  • Protect, conserve, enhance and appropriately manage the highly distinctive chalk cliff coastline, heritage coast and seascape, maintaining natural processes needed to conserve the internationally important stretches valued for their wide variety of rare and scarce species and geological interest as well as important inland geological exposures found predominantly in quarries.
  • Protect, conserve and enhance the character of much of the downland landscape devoid of development and urban intrusions, retaining and expanding the remaining areas of tranquillity and dark night skies.
  • Protect, conserve and enhance the characteristic medieval settlement pattern of small nucleated villages along spring lines, within valleys and on the lower dip slope linked by winding, often sunken lanes, along with the strong local flint, chalk and Wealden brick vernacular of traditional architecture, with new building sensitive to local styles and materials.
  • Protect from damage and appropriately manage and enhance the area’s archaeological evidence, historic environment and cultural heritage, including prehistoric megaliths and hill forts, defensive coastline installations, historic parklands, in-field and lane-side veteran trees, traditional orchards on the Kent dip slope, and ancient paths, drove roads and ‘hollow ways’. Identify opportunities for the interpretation, further research of, education and access to the surviving historic resources.
  • Manage arable cropping patterns to encourage rare arable plants and habitats for farmland birds and mammals. In particular encourage land management interventions which provide food and shelter for farmland birds such as grey partridge, corn bunting, turtle dove and lapwing. Manage, conserve and enhance the areas of ancient semi-natural and broadleaved woodland, ensuring that each woodland area can be managed as a single entity. This includes the oak-ash woodland on the upper dip slope, beech-yew-ash-hornbeam of the dry chalk valley sides and scarp slopes, and large areas of internationally important yew-with- box on the Surrey scarp. Reintroduce active coppice management where this will enhance wildlife interest, especially in the large areas of sweet chestnut coppice on the dip slope within Kent. Managing woodlands will also provide a source of fuel and timber products.
  • Manage, conserve and enhance the rivers Darent and Stour and other chalk streams to maintain their wildlife interest, while restoring, significantly expanding and re-linking the wetland habitats of the Medway Gap and those of the area’s other valley floors, bringing rivers back into continuity with their flood plains where this will help sustain these wetland habitats.
  • Manage, conserve, enhance and restore the characteristic pattern of thick well-treed hedgerows and shaws, forming a predominantly irregular field pattern.
  • Plan for significant expansion of extensively grazed areas of internationally important unimproved chalk grassland, including expanding and re-linking existing fragments to create a habitat network, through restoration of suitable arable and scrub-encroached areas to chalk grassland, while managing important associated habitats and enhancing traditional downland character including chalk scrub heath, and calcareous flushes at the foot of the scarp.
  • Improve peoples’ physical and mental health through contact with inspirational landscapes, and help boost rural businesses. Preserving and improving national trails and other main routes. Increase the number of connecting permanent and permissive routes to link national trails, high profile green spaces and tourist attractions. Where appropriate, upgrade paths to increase capacity for horses and cyclists and provide new sustainable routes along the river valleys.
  • Protect the chalk pits and disused chalk quarries, for their landscape, biodiversity and geodiversity value, maintaining important inland geological exposures.
  • Work with the protected landscape partnerships of the Kent Downs and Surrey Hills AONBs to help meet the ambitions of their management plans and conserve and enhance the outstanding scenic and natural beauty of the area.
  • Work in partnership to tackle the challenges associated with urban fringe pressures on the North Downs, sharing best practice and learning from landscape scale projects which have successfully driven forward improvements in the urban fringe environment (Valley of Visions) and strengthened local landscape character, biodiversity and engagement with local communities.