National Character Area 119

North Downs - Key Facts & Data

Landscape and nature conservation designations section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty fall within the NCA covering 57 per cent of the area: the Kent Downs AONB (66,944 ha) and the Surrey Hills AONB (11,361 ha). Small areas of the coastline, less than 1 per cent, fall under Heritage Coast designation – South Foreland (558 ha) and Dover-Folkestone (267 ha) (Natural England, 2011).

Relationship with the coast

The adjacent coastline is covered by the following Shoreline Management Plans:

  • River Medway & Swale Estuary
  • Isle of Grain to South Foreland
  • South Foreland to Beachy Head

The adjacent coastline includes the following Marine Plan – Marine Character Areas (MCAs):

  • Goodwin Sands and North Dover Strait
  • Hythe and East Wear Bays
  • Thames and Medway Estuaries







Designated nature conservation sites

The NCA includes the following statutory nature conservation designations (Natural England, Special Protection Areas; Special Area of Conservation; Ramsars; National Nature Reserves; Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Local Nature Reserves, 2021):

Please note: (i) Designated areas may overlap (ii) all figures are cut to Mean High Water Line, designations that span coastal/marine areas below this line will not be included.

Condition of designated sites
All designated sites within England are covered by Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI) units. The condition to these SSSI units within the NCA are as follows (Natural England, Sites of Special Scientific Interest Units, 2021):



Landscape and nature conservation designations map for NCA119

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Landform, geology and soils section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Elevation

Elevation ranges from 0m to a maximum of 268m on the chalk escarpment in Surrey. The White Cliffs of Dover at their highest point reach 150m above sea level. (Natural England 2011, North Downs Natural Area Profile, Countryside Character Area description).

Landform and process

The backbone of the Downs is a distinctive ridge with a steep south-facing scarp and northern dip slope. The ridge is cut by numerous dry valleys, some containing winterbournes. The Downs end abruptly in the east at the distinctive landmark of the White Cliffs. During the ice ages although not glaciated the area Now under the influence of very cold tundra-like conditions at the edge of the ice sheets. Processes of erosion and deposition during this period have contributed significantly to the formation of the present landscape (North Downs Natural Area Profile, North Downs Countryside Character Area Description British Geological Survey map).

Bedrock geology

The North Downs are structurally part of the Wealden Anticline, a large dome of rocks folded during the Alpine Orogeny (mountain-building episode). The North and South Downs partially surround the older sediments which have since been exposed by erosion. The geology of the North Downs is dominated by tilted layers of Upper Cretaceous Chalk containing bands and seams of flint nodules. The Chalk dips to the north with the consequence that increasingly younger rocks are exposed in this direction. This Chalk makes up 94 per cent of the NCA area – the remainder is composed of small areas of Palaeogene sediments including shallow marine sands from the Thanet Sand Formation and sands, silts and clays – deposited on a coastal plain or under shallow marine conditions – of the Lambeth Group. Some of Britain’s youngest Tertiary (Pliocene) sediments – the Lenham Beds – are found in chalk solution pipes exposed in Lenham and Hart Hill quarries. (North Downs Natural Area Profile, North Downs Countryside Character Area, Description, British Geological Survey maps).

Superficial deposits

The upper part of the dip slope is capped with extensive drift deposits of clay-with-flints. Deposits of Coombe Rock, derived from periglacial weathering are found at the foot of the downs. There are also some river terrace deposits (North Downs Natural Area Profile, North Downs Countryside Character Area Description, British Geological Survey maps).

Designated geological sites

The NCA includes the following geological sites (Natural England, Geological and Mixed Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 2021):

wdt_IDNCA_IDNAMENCAAreaHaInterest typeArea (ha) 2021Percent of NCA (2021)Count
2361NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND COASTAL PLAIN37,669.6Geological6.80.01
2371NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND COASTAL PLAIN37,669.6Mixed1,029.52.75
2382NORTHUMBERLAND SANDSTONE HILLS72,694.6Geological45.40.14
2393CHEVIOT FRINGE51,591.3Geological17.10.02
2404CHEVIOTS36,487.9Geological165.00.52
2414CHEVIOTS36,487.9Mixed3,488.99.61
2425BORDER MOORS AND FORESTS127,155.9Geological85.70.18
2435BORDER MOORS AND FORESTS127,155.9Mixed35.80.01
2446SOLWAY BASIN98,350.4Geological7.20.02
2456SOLWAY BASIN98,350.4Mixed5,569.25.74

Soils and Agriculture Classification

Shallow lime rich soils over chalk and deeper freely-draining loams where windblown deposits have particularly influenced soil development, cover nearly two thirds of the NCA. Slightly acid loamy and clayey soils with impeded drainage typically associated with clay-with-flints cover about a third; the remaining soils are deep freely draining loamy drifts over chalk and slowly permeable, seasonally wet soils developed over clays. The shallowest chalk soils, typically on the escarpment, at its base and in the dry valleys, support areas of high quality unimproved chalk grassland and arable farming with rare arable weeds. Clay-with-flint soils on the upper parts of the dip slope supports oak/ash woodland and scrub with beech, ash and maple common on the valley sides, such as Box Hill. Occasional small pockets of acidic sandy soils on the Downs in Surrey give rise to heathland and chalk heath (North Downs Countryside Character Area Description, North Downs Natural Area Profile).

The main grades of agricultural land in the NCA are broken down as follows (as a proportion of total land area) (Natural England, Provisional Agricultural Land Classification, 2019):


Landform, geology and soils map for NCA119

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Key waterbodies and catchments section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Major rivers/canals

The following major rivers/canals (by length) have been identified in this NCA (Natural England, data informing the 2014 National Character Area Profiles, 2010):

wdt_IDREF_CODENAME_1NameLength (km)SumOfShape_Length
11NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND COASTAL PLAINRiver Aln7.67,587.2
21NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND COASTAL PLAINRiver Coquet5.55,516.0
31NORTH NORTHUMBERLAND COASTAL PLAINWhiteadder Water2.92,904.9
410NORTH PENNINESBlack Burn11.911,853.4
510NORTH PENNINESCroglin Water10.010,042.3
610NORTH PENNINESCrowdundle Beck4.34,337.4
710NORTH PENNINESDevil's Water20.520,464.6
810NORTH PENNINESHarwood Beck9.79,740.2
910NORTH PENNINESRiver Allen4.94,889.0
1010NORTH PENNINESRiver Derwent15.315,268.4

Please note: other significant rivers (by volume) may also occur. Tidal stretches of rivers are not included, which may include some major rivers.

The Tidal Medway also cuts through the scarp. The dip slope is incised by a number of dry valleys some contain streams which occasionally flow, depending on the level of the chalk aquifer.

Water quality

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) are areas designated as being at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution. These can impact surface water (waterbodies and waterways located above ground) and groundwater (water bodies and waterways located below ground).

Waterbodies such as lakes can also be designated as “eutrophic waters” if the enrichment of the waterbody by nitrate pollution causes accelerated growth of algae, impacting the quality of the water and the balance of organisms within it.

The following NVZs are located within the NCA (Environment Agency, Nitrate Vulnerable Zones Designations, 2021):

Water framework directive

River basin management plans cover river basin districts and describe the challenges that threaten the water environment and how these challenges can be managed and funded. The plans include the classification of water quality of surface waters and ground waters.



Click on the Water Framework Directive layers on the below map to view the corresponding river names.

Key waterbodies and catchments map for NCA119

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Trees and woodlands section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Total woodland cover

Ancient woodland is any area that has been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD. National Forest Inventory (NFI) woodland includes all forests and woodlands (0.5 hectares and over). The total woodland cover within the NCA is as follows (Natural England, Ancient Woodland, 2021; Forestry Commission, National Forest Inventory, 2020):

Distribution and size of woodland and trees in the landscape

Woodland is a dominant feature of the landscape and is found primarily on the steeper slopes of the scarp, valley sides and areas of the dip slope capped with clay-with-flints. Nearly half of the woodland is ancient and many are designated for their biodiversity value. There are extensive areas of yew with box woodland on parts of the scarp in Surrey. The NCA also has large areas of replanted woodland with sweet chestnut or conifers. Well-wooded hedgerows, shaws and individual trees, including many ancient and veteran trees, are important components of the landscape and contribute to the strongly wooded character (North Downs Natural Area Profile, North Downs Countryside Character Area Description, Countryside Quality Counts).

Woodland types

A statistical breakdown of the area and type of woodland found across the NCA is detailed below (Forestry Commission, National Forest Inventory, 2020):

Area and proportion of ancient woodland and planted ancient woodland sites (PAWS) within the NCA (Natural England, Ancient Woodland, 2021):


Trees and woodlands map for NCA119

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Boundary features and patterns

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated.

Boundary features

Hedgerows, often well wooded and as wider woodland shaws, are the main boundary types. The estimated boundary length is 8,613 km. As of March 2011 a total of 864 km were under an Environmental Stewardship hedgerow boundary option (Natural England 2011 Countryside Character Area description, Countryside Quality Counts, 2003).

Field patterns

Much of the area is characterised by small irregular fields. This pattern reflects a gradual and piecemeal clearance of woodland (assarting) over a long period of time. Early enclosure of fields and land Now driven by the Kentish custom of ‘Gavelkind’ where land Now divided between all brothers and sisters leading to a fragmented and partitioned field pattern. Evidence of parliamentary type late enclosure is limited to a few areas of the NCA which encompass flatter and more easily worked terrain such as in east Kent where the chalk dip slope extends across the gently undulating landscape north of Dover (Draft historic profile, Countryside Character Area description, Countryside Quality Counts, 2003).

Agriculture section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

The following tables provide the most recently available statistics from Defra on agriculture within the NCA.

Farm type

The following farm types are located within this NCA (Defra, Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June, 2016):

Farm size

The following table outlines the sizes of farms within the NCA (Defra, Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June, 2021):

Farm ownership

The following table outlines the ownership of farms within the NCA (Defra, Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June, 2016):

Land use

The following table outlines the types of agricultural land use within the NCA (Defra, Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June, 2016):

Livestock numbers

The following livestock are farmed within the NCA (Defra, Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June, 2021):

Farm labour

The following table outlines the types of farm labour within the NCA (Defra, Structure of the agricultural industry in England and the UK at June, 2021):

Please note: (i) Some of the Census data are estimated by Defra so may not present a precise assessment of agriculture within this area (ii) Data refers to commercial holdings only (iii) Data includes land outside of the NCA where it belongs to holdings whose centre point is recorded as being within the NCA.



Note that the below map only shows agri-environment scheme coverage, and not other schemes.

Agriculture map for NCA119

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Key habitats and species section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Habitat distribution/coverage

Large tracts of native and ancient semi-natural woodland, including oak-ash on the upper dip slope, beech-yew-ash-hornbeam covering the dry chalk valleys, and large areas of yew-with-box on the Surrey scarp. Areas of species-rich unimproved chalk grassland are concentrated on steep slopes, cliffs and verges, supporting numerous scarce and rare plant and invertebrate species. There is a notable distinction between swards east and west of the Medway, with those to the east characterised by tor grass and those to the west more typically dominated by upright brome and fescue. Maritime vegetation associated with the White Cliffs, including chalk grassland and a full zonation of maritime cliff communities found on chalk substrates, supporting many rare and scarce plant species and breeding seabird colonies. Wetland complex in the Medway gap sustained by the tidal river, including intertidal mudflats, flood plain grazing marsh, reedbeds and flooded gravel pits. The Rivers Mole, Darent and Stour also provide important wetland habitats. The Darent and Stour are chalk rivers – a nationally important habitat type. There are also localised patches of heathland and chalk heath on the sandy soils on top of the Downs, notably in Surrey. Localised areas of calcareous flushes are found at the foot of the escarpment. In addition the NCA contains important arable habitats. These support nationally important assemblages of arable birds and rare arable plants (North Downs Natural Area Profile).

Key Habitats

The NCA contains the following areas of key main habitats, as mapped by the national Priority Habitat Inventory (Natural England, Priority Habitats Inventory, 2021):






Key habitats and species map for NCA119

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Settlement and development patterns section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Settlement patterns

Most settlement in the area is in the form of small, nucleated villages, scattered farmsteads including oasts and barns. A predominantly rural landscape punctuated by a few large settlements but with significant urban development along the boundaries of the NCA. There has been increased urban development in the western part of the area towards London (North Downs Countryside Character Area description, Countryside Quality Counts, 2003).

Main settlements

More urban-fringe influence and modern development is associated with the land fringing Croydon, Purley and south London in the western part of the Downs, with Dorking, Redhill and Guildford located close to the boundaries of the NCA. In the east, Dover is the main settlement, but the Medway towns and the towns of Folkestone, Canterbury, Maidstone, Ashford and Sevenoaks are again within close proximity to the boundary of the NCA. The total estimated population for this NCA (derived from ONS 2001 census data) is: 588,203 (North Downs Countryside Character Area description, Countryside Quality Counts, 2003; Natural England, 2012).

Local vernacular and building materials

Distinct local materials of flint, chalk, brick, timber and tiles are found within the NCA. Timber-framing Now the traditional building form with thatch for roofing, although thatch has largely been replaced by plain clay tiles from the Weald.
Wealden bricks were widely used from the later 17th century onwards, often for the corners and door / window surrounds, combined with walls of local flint (Draft historic profile, North Downs Countryside Character Area description, Countryside Quality Counts, 2003).

Settlement and development patterns map for NCA119

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Key historic sites and features section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Origin of historic features

Evidence of early human activity or settlement within the area is supported by prehistoric megaliths and barrows. Drove roads and ancient routes including the Pilgrims Way cross the Downs in addition to Roman roads. This NCA has strong associations with military history and remains include Rochester, Guildford and Dover Castle (with command centre), Tudor forts, Napoleonic defences, gun emplacements and pill boxes. Historic parklands are also a feature of the area, from the functional medieval park to the designed ‘English landscape’ parkland of the 18th and 19th centuries (Draft Historic Profile, North Downs Countryside Character Area description).

Designated historic assets

The NCA includes the following designated historic assets (Historic England, National Heritage List for England, 2021):

Listed buildings

The NCA includes the following listed buildings (Historic England, National Heritage List for England, 2021):

Heritage at Risk Register

The NCA includes the following designated historic assets listed within the Heritage at Risk Register (Historic England, Heritage at Risk Register, 2023):



Key historic sites and features map for NCA119

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Recreation and access section contains a map

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated. The maps contain live frequently updated datasets.

Public access

The following areas of public access for recreation are located within this NCA (Natural England, 2021; National Trust, 2021):


Please note: Public access areas may overlap.

The following linear routes or public access for recreation are located within this NCA (Natural England, 2021; Sustrans; 2021):

Recreation and access map for NCA119

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Experiential qualities

Note that numbers and figures in the body of the text are based on the 2014 profiles, unless otherwise stated.

Tranquillity

Based on the CPRE map of tranquillity (2006) lowest scores for tranquillity are associated with the fringes of London in the west and the bordering settlements of Chatham, Guildford, Maidstone and Reigate, along with the port of Dover in the east. Higher scores for tranquillity are found on the hinterland of the dip slope.

A breakdown of tranquillity values for this NCA are detailed in the table below (CPRE, Tranquillity Map, 2006):

Dark skies

Light pollution is a generic term referring to artificial light that shines where it is neither wanted nor needed, and can impact on people’s experience of the countryside within the NCAs. CPRE host an interactive map, depicting the light pollution and dark skies within the NCA.

Intrusion

The 2007 Intrusion Map (CPRE) shows the extent to which rural landscapes are ‘intruded on’ from urban development, noise (primarily traffic noise), and other sources of visual and auditory intrusion. This shows that around 30 per cent of the area is classified as ‘undisturbed’. The majority of undisturbed land is concentrated in the east of the NCA, although small patches associated with wooded areas are found south of Cobham, around Lullingstone Castle at West
Kingsdown and the Downs east of Guildford. A breakdown of intrusion values for this NCA is detailed in the table below.

A breakdown of intrusion values for this NCA is detailed in the table below (CPRE, Intrusion Map, 2007):

Notable trends from the 1960s to 2007 are the significant increase in disturbed or intruded land – 28 per cent.