National Character Area 144

Quantock Hills - Description

The Quantock Hills today

The Quantocks curve inland from the Bristol Channel and provide superb views from their open moorland and heath-covered ridge. The western slopes are steep and dissected by thickly wooded combes below the springline. However, the gently undulating eastern slopes are well farmed, with a mixture of hedged pastures and arable land that exposes the red sandy soils. Narrow lanes meander through the peaceful Quantock countryside before riding up through woodland to more open and exposed summits. Within a relatively small area, the Quantock landscape shows immense variety and on its heights there is an air of solitude and wildness.

The Quantock Hills are a discrete landform with a prominent and rounded profile. The area is underlain in the north mainly by Devonian Hangman Sandstone, forming the highest ground of the hills, and in the south by Devonian Ilfracombe Slates (with thin limestones) and Morte Slates. These rocks are bordered to the south and east by a belt of red Triassic sandstones. The whole mass of the Devonian rocks and Triassic sandstones is surrounded by an extensive area of red Mercia Mudstone.

The Quantock soils are, however, mainly brownearths and many of these soils have been completely or partially podsolised. Water moving through the peat and head deposits surfaces in flushes and springs along the steeper western scarp, feeding the streams. These streams have cut down to form deep, incised combes that are thickly wooded. In contrast, to the east the land falls as a gentler dip slope with long, broad valleys through which streams flow into the Vale of Taunton and Quantock Fringes NCA, where they contribute to the public water supply through the Hawkridge and Durleigh reservoirs. The area is also part of the upland catchment for the River Parrett.

At their core, the Quantock Hills are a landscape of heather moorland, including heather, bracken, purple moor-grass and bilberry. Being largely devoid of settlement and lacking much visible infrastructure, the area imparts a feeling of space and remoteness unusual for such a small area. This sense of wildness is heightened by occasional glimpses of red deer. In the more sheltered areas, there is a landscape of scattered farmsteads, built of dark red sandstone. Around them is a maze of small, irregular, hedged fields of pasture, connected by winding, sunken lanes. On the eastern dip slope of the Quantock Hills the landform is much gentler. Arable cultivation and larger fields are present and deep red soils are visible for part of the year.

The extensive heathlands and ancient semi-natural oak woodlands of the Quantocks are nationally important wildlife habitats and are rich in species. The heathland habitats include acid flushes which are botanically the richest habitats in the NCA, home to specialist plants such as round-leaved sundew.

Red deer are the most iconic species of the hills and roe deer populations are increasing. Pied flycatchers nest in the woodlands and there are populations of rare nightjar within the NCA. In the spring, some areas of the ancient woodlands have a blue carpet of bluebells. In some valleys, the invasive and non-native rhododendron had become abundant, but in recent years a determined campaign has begun to remove this invasive species from the landscape.

Although the Quantocks are still quite wooded, in some areas conifers (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites or PAWS) have largely replaced the original oak and beech trees. Large areas of deciduous woodland do remain and are characteristic features of the landscape, as are the notable beech hedgebanks and ancient hollow ways. These overgrown beech hedgebanks form such a distinctive feature that they will need careful management to ensure that they are conserved, especially where they line popular walking routes across the hills.

The landscape of the Quantock Hills has been shaped by human influence since at least the Bronze Age, with numerous small, round burial mounds, settlement remains and other monuments which can still be seen throughout the hills. Triscombe Quarry and West Quantoxhead are major quarries within the Quantock Hills.

Triscombe Quarry has left a huge gash in the steep western escarpment, exposing the Hangman Grits of the Old Red Sandstone. Abandoned quarries within the NCA have become valuable habitats.

Some of the farmsteads are built of local slate and sandstone rubble. The Devonian Red Sandstone of the Quantock Hills, however, has been widely used in the area and the design of the church towers is noticeably more ambitious here than on Exmoor. The larger manor houses and mansions which lie around the edge of the area, such as Nettlecombe Court, Combe Sydenham and Dunster Castle, are also of Devonian Sandstone although red brick has commonly been used in the larger country houses that are scattered about the Quantock landscape. The small villages and hamlets that scatter the area almost exclusively retain their local character. The stone-built, thatched cottages are particularly noteworthy and many are still topped by a traditional straw animal.

The open, treeless landscape of the hill tops is favoured by horse riders and walkers and its beauty is enhanced by sweeping changes as purple, green and gold chase each other across the hill tops from season to season.

The landscape through time

The Quantocks were formed by thick sequences of slates and sandstones that were deposited in environments which represent coastal plain, delta tops and slopes, and which occasionally supported coral reefs. Repeated sea-level changes and the seaward growth of deltas mean that these environments and associated sediments occur several times through the Quantocks’ Devonian successions. The Quantocks are in fact a fault-bounded inlier of Devonian rocks, surrounded by more recent mudstones and red sandstones of Triassic age, which represent the deposits of large river systems that crossed a desert plain.

Over the last 2 million years, the area was not directly impacted by the repeated advances and retreats of the great ice sheets of the ice age. However, periglacial conditions – including permafrost, freeze thaw and various solifluction processes – played a major role in creating many of the valleys and combes that are characteristic of the Quantock landscape today.

The Neolithic Period witnessed the introduction of farming, alongside more intense woodland clearance. Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, the landscape of the Quantock Hills was changed more systematically to one with areas of pasture, mostly in the north. Fields, most probably banked, were found mainly in the southern end of the NCA. In fact, around the defended settlement at Higher Castles, the layout of some of the current field boundaries suggests that they started life as part of an iron-age landscape. This means that some parts of today’s landscape might be over 2,000 years old.

Although small in extent, the Quantocks make up one of the few remaining moorland landscapes in southern Britain, of national importance for the legible survival of monuments dating from the Neolithic Period and especially the Bronze Age. These include numerous cairns resulting from land clearance and bowl barrows dating from around 2400-1500 bc, extensive cropmark evidence for settlement and land use, and large-scale, dramatic examples of iron-age hill forts and smaller defended enclosures such as Ruborough Camp and Dowsborough Hill Fort.

Much of the present settlement pattern of farming settlements and farmsteads, linked by hollow ways and farming a landscape of strip fields, fields enclosed from woodland and rough ground (later enclosed by fields), was established in the 8th to 11th centuries.

The mid to late 14th century saw more changes to the landscape that can still be seen today. Bad weather, the Black Death and the collapse of the manorial system caused a huge reduction in population and often much movement of the remaining people. On the lower part of the hills there is evidence that areas of broadleaved woodland grow over medieval fields and much of today’s heathland covers the remains of arable fields. Some farming hamlets shrank to individual farmsteads, a process that (as in Exmoor) continued into the 19th century, and strip fields and rough ground began to be enclosed on a piecemeal basis into fields. Small manors continued to develop as a distinctive feature of this landscape.

The Parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries led to the enclosure of some of the higher land that had not been enclosed during or since the medieval period. These fields are generally larger and more rectangular than the earliest fields and are often hedged with stone-faced banks topped with beech trees. The use of lime to dress the generally acid soils of the region is evidenced by the many lime kilns that dot the area. By the 18th century, both coal and limestone were being imported from Wales, which led to the development of coastal lime kilns – the remains of which can still be seen at Kilve and East Quantoxhead.

In the NCA, there are many small quarries that once supplied road stone and building material. The most developed sites are on the western side of the hills, with examples at West Quantoxhead, Halsway and Triscombe. The latter two were created in the 18th century, and Triscombe did not close until the late 1990s. Some copper mining took place in the area and there is evidence of this industry in today’s landscape.

Substantial deer parks were developed, many of which were the basis of 18th and 19th century landscape parks and still survive as parkland today. It was probably during this time that the tree ring enclosures were constructed on the moorland.

The major impact on the area during the early part of the 20th century was the establishment of extensive coniferous plantations. This resulted in damage to the archaeological landscape as well as changing the habitat balance of the landscape. While in some areas woodland has damaged archaeological interest, there will be other situations where the presence of woodland may have reduced the impact of even more damaging agricultural operations.

During and after the Second World War, there were rapid changes in agriculture as farmers were encouraged to increase production through mechanisation and widespread use of agricultural chemicals. This pressure to intensify resulted in the agricultural improvement of grassland and the reduction of permanent pasture. Remnant species-rich pastures are now rare and fragmented, only being found on a few of the steeper slopes within some of the combes.

Many fields on the coastal side have long been in arable production but, during the latter half of the 20th century, there was a shift towards conversion of remaining grassland to arable. On such land, many hedgerow boundaries have deteriorated or been removed. There are areas where hedges, previously laid, are now flailed, creating a severe ‘box shape’; this may also have led to fewer hedgerow trees. In other areas, hedges are still maintained by laying and efforts have been made to regenerate failing beech hedgebanks.

In more recent years, agricultural subsidies have encouraged changes in the crops grown, leading to bright splashes of colour in the more muted tones of the landscape. Demand for energy crops has led to the planting of fairly large areas of miscanthus within the rural landscape.

Some areas of the Quantocks are under increasing pressure from commuters, moving in from Taunton. This is subtly changing the patterns of settlement and land use. Many smallholdings that are no longer in agricultural ownership have become horse paddocks with pressure for new stabling and ménages.

The Quantock Hills was England’s first AONB, being designated in 1956 (confirmed in 1957). The Quantocks have become an increasingly popular destination for recreation. A 2003 survey by the AONB service showed that there can be up to 5,000 visitors on the hills on a busy day. Such large numbers of visitors have led to extensive erosion on and around the tracks across the hill tops. Heavy use for horse riding continues to result in erosion and braiding of tracks. The legal and illegal use of 4×4 vehicles on tracks and restricted byways is also a major cause of damage and erosion. The area is also popular with mountain bikers.

Due to the poorly developed public transport links, most visitors to the area require somewhere to park their cars. Parking areas were mainly spontaneous in origin, since the red sandstone provides a hard standing once turf is cut away. Subsequent regeneration is difficult once the topsoil is gone. Some parking areas are at hill-top locations and provide direct access to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with no buffer between the two.