National Character Area 120

Wealden Greensand - 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 long, narrow belt of Greensand typified by scarp/dip slope topography, with dissecting river valleys.

Justification for selection:

  • The Greensand ridge is a conspicuous feature running west-east across the south-east and defines the NCA. The highest point in Surrey is found at Leith Hill.
  • Long-reaching views are afforded over the adjacent Low Weald, South Downs and London from the prominent scarp summits.
  • The topography contributes to the intimate character of the landscape, particularly in the west.

A complex geology of Upper Greensand, Gault Clay and Lower Greensand, including geological exposures in quarries.

Justification for selection:

  • The complex geology contributes to the diversity of landscape character and land use.
  • Important geological exposures dominated by the Lower Greensand, including undeveloped sea cliffs between Folkestone Warren and Hythe, plus inland exposures of Upper Greensand in Hampshire and west Sussex and the ragstone exposures of the Lympne Escarpment in Kent, all supporting important wildlife communities including diverse moss and liverwort flora.
  • Quarries are occasionally striking elements in the landscape, providing geological exposures to facilitate further understanding of the Greensand ridge and our understanding of past climate change. The economic value of the underlying geology is evident in the large number of quarries across the NCA.
  • Geological exposures within quarries are also important as hibernation sites for bats, including Natterer’s, Daubenton’s and brown long eared bats.
  • Well planned restoration of former extraction sites and appropriate management of existing sites provides an opportunity for positive landscape and environmental change.

Extensive belts of ancient mixed woodland of hazel, oak, beech and birch and chestnut coppice reflecting the diverse geology, surviving mainly on river valley floors and steep scarp slopes, including areas of international importance.

Justification for selection:

  • East Hampshire Hangers SAC are highly distinctive localised landscape features and internationally important for wildlife; these cloak the steep chalk and upper Greensand escarpment in Hampshire and support yew and beech woodland of international importance.
  • East Surrey and west Kent have distinctive wooded commons or charts, many of them ancient.
  • Many ancient woodlands have suffered from inappropriate management, including planting with conifers.
  • Many of the NCAs woodlands are important for their assemblages of vascular plants, birds, invertebrates and bryophytes, as well as supporting ground flora species which are indicative of ancient woodland.
  • Conifer woodlands, including large commercial estates are also a strong element of the landscape, with extracted timber used locally for building timber and fence posts.

Remnant lowland heathland mostly concentrated in west Sussex, Hampshire and west Surrey. Heathland habitats include dry and wet heath, acid grassland, scrub, woodland, bog and open water.

Justification for selection:

  • Heathland is a visually prominent feature of the Greensand, contrasting with other land uses and bringing a diversity of colour, textures and sounds to the NCA.
  • Lowland heathland was once extensive across the ridge but there has been a dramatic decline in habitat over the past century, with much former heath now covered by secondary woodland. Remaining areas are mostly concentrated in west Sussex, Hampshire and west Surrey, although Hothfield Heathlands contain Kent’s last valley bogs and one of its few remaining fragments of open heath. Heathland is now a nationally and internationally rare and threatened habitat.
  • Heathland developed on sandy and acidic soils which were maintained as open and grazed landscapes since at least the Bronze Age, when much of the original woodland cover was cleared by early man for agriculture, and are part of the NCAs cultural heritage.
  • Internationally important areas still survive displaying the full range of habitats, including over 2,500 ha with SAC designation and over 3,000 ha with SPA designation. Woolmer Forest is noted as containing the largest diverse area of lowland heathland in Hampshire outside of the New Forest.
  • Open heathland commons continue to be compromised by encroaching birch, oak and pine scrub, due to a decline in traditional management regimes.
  • Heathland supports a number of rare species, including birds such as the Dartford warbler, nightjar, stonechat and woodlark. They also support, amphibians and reptiles including, adder and common lizard, and butterflies such as the silver studded blue, small copper and green hairstreaks. Spiders and their webs also adorn the heathland habitats including the bog raft spider.

Coastal habitats and sea cliffs.

Justification for selection:

  • The Greensand ridge meets the coast of Kent between Folkestone Warren and Hythe. While most of the coastal strip is now built up, the undeveloped sea cliffs provide an important geological exposure. They support some scrub and acid grassland habitats and are extremely important for insect fauna.
  • Part of the coastline falls into the Dover-Folkestone Heritage Coast.
  • The coastline will continue to be affected by sea level rise, with coastal squeeze an issue along the defended coastline.

The area’s rivers and streams and their associated wetland habitats, including the Arun/Western Rother, the Wey, Mole, the Medway and Stour. Ponds and lakes are also a feature found throughout.

Justification for selection:

  • Surface water is an important feature on the Greensand, with rivers and streams draining off the dip slope.
  • Wetland habitats, most notably associated with the rivers Arun, Western Rother and Wey, include alluvial grazing meadows with drainage ditches, marshy grassland, reedbeds and wet woodland of high biodiversity value. Otters have recently been recorded on the river Wey.
  • The special and evocative species, such as the Bewick’s swan and ruff, ramshorn snail, wetland invertebrates and nationally rare and nationally scarce plant species found within the Arun Valley are recognised as being of international importance protected by SAC, SPA and Ramsar designations.
  • Flood plain grasslands, marshes, ponds and lakes support a number of species including, cut grass, true fox sedge and marsh stitchwort.
  • Large parts of the fertile river flood plains have been agriculturally improved and drained which has resulted in a general degradation of major river flood plain landscapes.
  • Ponds and lakes are a characteristic feature, including hammer ponds in Hampshire, west Sussex and Surrey associated with the early iron industry, acid pools and ponds derived from peat cutting on heathlands, manmade lakes in parklands and numerous small farm ponds particularly on the Gault Clay. Many of these waterbodies are rich in wildlife habitats and important for plants and inverts.
  • The rivers are important for recreation, providing opportunities for walking and angling as well as some water based activities including boating and canoeing. The Wey and Medway navigations are not only important for recreation and tourism but they also provide important links to the local industrial heritage.
  • The River Wey has a remnant water meadow system with associated historic bridges, now designated as scheduled monuments.

Unimproved acid grasslands found in commons, parkland, and as patches within heathland and golf courses, plus other unimproved areas of pasture and occasional areas of acid bog.

Justification for selection:

  • The band of Gault Clay at the foot of the North Downs in Kent would once have supported a large number of small, unimproved pastures on less acidic soils, a few of which remain at sites, such as Trottiscliffe Meadows SSSI.
  • Most of the acid grasslands are found in commons, parklands, patches within heathland and along road verges. There has been a loss of unimproved grasslands where agricultural improvement has taken place.
  • Unimproved grasslands are scarce and fragmented.

Irregular field patterns predominate, with small fields dominant in the west and medium-sized fields more common in the Rother Valley and central and eastern parts; hedgerows and shaws form characteristic boundaries.

Justification for selection:

  • Irregular field patterns are characteristic of the NCA and reflect historical enclosure.
  • On the Gault Clay, hedgerows are species-rich with occasional oak trees. Hedgerows on acidic soils have fewer species and are sometimes gappy, with urban fringe pressures contributing to their decline.
  • Boundary features in the form of shaws and hedgerows are important as wildlife refuges and corridors within the farmed landscape, supporting wildlife such as dormice.

Agricultural land comprises a mosaic of mixed farming, with pasture and arable land, set within a wooded framework, with a fruit growing orchard belt persisting in Kent.

Justification for selection:

  • The diversity of agriculture reflects the underlying geology and contributes to the NCA’s character.
  • Distinctive hop fields and orchards were once a familiar feature along the Greensand but have been extensively replaced by arable production. Many orchards and plats have been grubbed out and replaced by arable fields or more intensive types of fruit production.
  • There are a cluster of cobnut plats, particularly around Plaxtol in Kent. These are valued for their historical, cultural, wildlife and landscape value, and are thought to include one of the largest single blocks of old cobnut plat remaining in the UK. The last functioning hop garden in Surrey is found in the Wealden Greensand NCA.
  • Arable land provides foraging and overwintering sites for a range of farmland bird species.

Rural settlement pattern is a mixture of both dispersed farmsteads and hamlets and some nucleated villages. Historic buildings including oast houses and timber-frame buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Distinctive sunken lanes cut into the sandstone connecting farmsteads and settlements.

Justification for selection:

  • Modern development now dominates the eastern half of the NCA, while the south-west still remains essentially rural.
  • Oast houses are a highly characteristic farm building type (associated with the hop industry), especially in the north and west Kent but are also found in the Hampshire, part of the NCA. Oasts are rare in the southern part of the area. Most Kentish examples date from the late 18th and 19th centuries, although there are some examples of older oast houses built within earlier barns. The majority of Hampshire oasts are of late 19th century date. Only a small number of unconverted oast houses survive. Farmsteads that retain unconverted oast houses, early to mid-20th century hop buildings and features such as hop-pickers huts are highly significant.
  • Sunken lanes are historic and characteristic features of the landscape but are at risk from road improvements leading to the erosion of the enclosed and winding character of the local road network. As well as being of historic interest they are important for exposures of the underlying bedrock geology and biodiversity, often home to ancient trees.

Local vernacular including the use of Greensand, ragstone and, in the west, malmstone, bargate stone, plus dark carrstone patterned in the mortar between stones (‘galleting’) in Surrey, and timber-framing and weatherboarding.

Justification for selection:

  • The use of local sandstone reflects the underlying geology. In the west, Malmstone, a soft creamy coloured Greensand has historically been widely used and harder, darker ragstone is still used in the central and eastern parts of the character area. The use of stone gives the buildings of the area a distinctive character, especially when entering the area from the west, where across most of Hampshire there is no local building stone.
  • There is no direct alternative for Malmstone, and no local quarries in operation to provide material for repairs.

Numerous historic parklands, including Petworth in Sussex, Knole, Squerries Court and Leeds Castle in Kent.

Justification for selection:

  • Many parklands contain distinctive ancient pollards, which provide important wildlife habitats, along with unimproved grassland. Acid grassland within parklands is also important, where it remains unimproved it is maintained by light grazing.
  • Lack of appropriate management can be an issue, and a number of parklands are in need of ongoing restoration. The ancient pollard trees need to be re-cut to prevent them becoming top-heavy and appropriate replacements planted. Where traditional management has declined, the habitats that these parklands sustained have become fragmented.
  • Fungi and lichens often abound in old parkland both on below and among the veteran trees.

Other historic features including Palaeolithic remains, bronze-age barrows and iron-age hillforts on the scarp tops, plus small quarries, military remains, Abbeys, castles, historic bridges over the River Wey and relics of the iron industry including hammer ponds and the former royal hunting forest at Woolmer.

Justification for selection:

  • A number of historic features including 283 scheduled monuments.
  • Prehistoric scarp-top features are closely associated with the Pilgrim’s Way, which runs in parallel along the adjacent North Downs;
  • Bronze-age barrows provide a link to a prehistoric ritual landscape.
  • Hammer ponds, notably in the west, provide important wildlife habitats and links to the NCA’s industrial past and geodiversity.
  • A series of historic bridges over the River Wey are designated as scheduled ancient monuments are of great historic significance.
  • Military features associated with the coast are notable in the east and include the Royal Military Canal.
  • The monastery at Waverley Abbey was the first Cistercian house to be established in Britain.
  • Historic features provide opportunities for education and research and are important links to our cultural heritage.
  • Woolmer Forest has important historic associations. Formerly a royal hunting forest, it also has associations with military history. Both these aspects of history are important locally and also in land management decisions.

Remaining pockets of tranquillity, especially in the south-west.

Justification for selection:

  • 27 per cent of the NCA classified as undisturbed according to CPRE data.
  • The south-west of the NCA retains a distinctive tranquil character. Remaining pockets of tranquillity in the centre and east are particularly valuable given the extent of surrounding development.

Recreation supported by 3,315 km of public rights of way, with over 6,700 ha of open access land, representing over 4.5 per cent of the NCA.

Justification for selection:

  • Recreation links connect with the adjacent North Downs and South Downs national trails, while the south-west forms part of the South Downs National Park.
  • The Surrey Greensand is particularly important for recreation given its proximity to London.
  • Recreational pressures may increase as a result of new housing development. This may have important implications for the more sensitive habitats, particularly heathlands which are vulnerable to disturbance.

Landscape opportunities

  • Protect and enhance the intimate rural character of the south-west and remaining areas of tranquillity throughout the NCA, especially within the protected landscapes, including the rural settlement pattern of dispersed farmsteads and hamlets and some nucleated villages and the distinctive sunken lane network.
  • Protect, conserve, and enhance the historic and geological environments, including a) through the restoration of historic parklands, with re-introduction of pollard management to conserve wildlife rich veteran trees where appropriate, b) conservation of geological exposures further benefiting wildlife communities and exposures at the coast c) conservation and appropriate restoration of historic buildings including oast houses and timber framed barns d) maintenance of other historic features such as hammer ponds and prehistoric monuments along the scarp.
  • Manage and significantly enhance the variety of ancient and broadleaved woodland throughout the NCA which reflects the underlying geology, expanding and re-linking woodland blocks where appropriate. Reintroduce active coppice management and pollarding where this will enhance wildlife interest and enhance adaptation to climate change. Managing woodlands may also provide a source of local fuel and timber products. Where woodlands form part of the mixed farm mosaic support landowners in integrating woodland management into their farm business.
  • Manage and enhance the wetland habitats associated with the area’s rivers, notably the Arun, Rother and Wey, including alluvial grazing meadows with drainage ditches, marshy grassland, reedbeds and wet woodland, expanding and reconnecting habitats to enhance landscape, biodiversity and habitat adaptation to climate change.
  • Manage and enhance the agricultural landscape through the restoration of hedgerow boundaries, especially where they will reinforce historic field patterns and enhance landscape character in peri-urban areas, while reinforcing the wildlife network. In addition, seek to integrate environmentally beneficial land management into the farmed landscape which will benefit pollinators and help strengthen the network of habitats Where remaining, support the restoration and continued management of traditional orchards for their contribution to sense of place, sense of history and genetic diversity.
  • Plan for a landscape-scale approach to the sustainable management of the area’s lowland heathlands. Expanding, improving, connecting and buffering heaths, where feasible, while reconnecting and engaging communities with their local heathlands. The management of heathlands will need to maintain both the ecology associated with lowland heathlands while providing for the needs of local communities and visitors.
  • Enhance the area’s acid grasslands and other unimproved pastures that occur among the heathlands (as well as in parkland and commons), to significantly enhance landscape as well as habitat adaptation to climate change and to improve the overall network of habitats.
  • Plan for the creation of new landscapes especially within the eastern half of the NCA, including areas of sustainably managed broadleaved woodland, to help assimilate existing and disused mineral workings and landfill sites into the landscape, and provide a robust landscape framework for new and existing development, significantly enhancing landscape character and strengthening the wildlife network and adaptation to climate change.
  • Improve physical and mental health, through contact with inspirational landscapes, and to help boost rural businesses. Preserving and improving routes, including at the coast. Increase the number of connecting permanent and permissive routes to link with the North Downs and South Downs national trails, high profile greenspaces and tourist attractions. Where appropriate, upgrade paths to increase capacity for horses and cyclists and provide new sustainable routes along the river valleys. Recognise and manage the impacts of access on sensitive sites, where recreational pressures threaten their ecological integrity and avoid enhanced access provision where it may have a detrimental impact on key biodiversity sites.
  • Work with the protected landscape partnerships of the Kent Downs AONB, Surrey Hills AONB and the South Downs National Park to help meet the ambitions of their management plans to conserve and enhance the outstanding scenic and natural beauty of the area.
  • Conserve and protect the quality and quantity of surface waters and the sandstone aquifer through partnership working at the catchment scale, supporting existing catchment initiatives and encouraging the implementation of land management practices to improve the quality of water and help meet the objectives of the Water Framework Directive.
  • Plan for landscape scale projects which enhance habitat connectivity in the peri-urban, urban and rural environments, taking account of the urban fringe pressures and the opportunities for well planned and managed green infrastructure to deliver societal, economic and environmental benefits in and around urban areas, where development is allocated and permitted.
  • Plan and manage for the effects of coastal change by allowing the operation of natural coastal processes where possible, and improving the sustainability of current management practices.