National Character Area 120

Wealden Greensand - Description

The Wealden Greensand today

The local character of the Wealden Greensand varies as a result of changes in local topography, soils and land use, but it is unified throughout by the underlying geology and the distinctive springline settlements below the Downs. The scenic beauty and special qualities of the landscape are recognised in the fact that 51 per cent of the area has been designated as protected: the South Downs National Park in the south-west, the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to the west and the Kent Downs AONB to the east. Panoramic views across adjoining NCAs are frequent and extensive from the Greensand ridge above the scarp face.

Overall the NCA has a well-wooded feel, accounting for 25 per cent of the NCA, with extensive areas of woodland, both ancient mixed woods and conifer plantations. Variety is provided by more open areas of heath and acid grasslands on acidic soils, by the river valleys, by the parkland landscapes and by the mixed farming found throughout the area, with marked differences between the western, central and eastern areas.

To the west, in Hampshire, Sussex and West Surrey, the Greensand forms an intimate landscape with a diverse character – from the more or less parallel sandstone ridges to the steep and dramatic scarp slopes, and the rounded clay vales containing river valleys with broad plains. The small pasture fields and linear woodlands of the scarps and ridges give way to larger and more regular field patterns and regular-plan farmsteads – the result of the successive reorganisation and enlargement of farms. This arable landscape of large, geometric fields is encouraged by the light, fertile soils of the Western Rother plain that cuts through the sandstone. It provides a local contrast with the more intimate nature of the sandy soils dominated by small pasture fields. On the higher ground, these sandy soils support some extensive heathland, including two Special Protection Areas (SPA) and three SAC. These heathlands give the landscape an impressive purple hue in mid to late summer, from the darker purples of the bell heather to the soft mauves of the ling/common heather. The species associated with these habitats – such as the Dartford warbler, nightjar, woodlark, amphibians, reptiles and butterflies (including the silver-studded blue butterfly and green hairstreak) – all add diversity to the landscape in sound, colour and texture.

A notable feature of the southern arm of the Wealden Greensand is the Arun Valley, which is designated as an SPA and a Ramsar site: it is a wetland of international importance for waterfowl including shoveler, teal, wigeon and Bewick’s swan, which can all be found overwintering at the site. The site is also a candidate SAC for the populations of shining ram’s-horn snail that it supports. The Arun Valley is a complex of meadows and ditches that contain many rare plants including cut-grass, true fox-sedge and sharp-leaved pondweed. As well as being botanically important, the nature reserves at Amberley Wildbrooks and Pulborough Brooks are a key resource for access and environmental education within the valley.

Further north and east, from Hampshire and into Surrey, the slopes become steeper and are typically densely wooded: the steep hanger ash, chalk-beech and mixed woodlands of East Hampshire are a locally dominating feature and have been designated as an SAC for their rare woodland composition. These woodlands are also important for the assemblages of invertebrates, plants, bryophytes and birds that they support. Farming is mixed and includes commercial fruit growing near Selborne. Hedgerows tend to mark the boundaries of the small, irregular fields. The intimate, almost secretive, feel of much of the west of the Wealden Greensand is reinforced by the deep, stream-cut gulleys and tree-lined, winding, sunken lanes leading to small settlements built of sandstone or malmstone. This mixed intimate character continues across Surrey, with woodland cover increasing. Surrey is the most wooded part of the area, with a high proportion of ancient mixed wood.

Besides the woodland, the Surrey Greensand is characterised by open rolling farmland. In the south, a traditional farmscape of small fields and thick hedgerows is retained. On flatter land, however, arable use is more prevalent. This area is heavily populated with settlements such as Redhill, Reigate and Dorking.

The proximity to London and the longstanding affluence of this area are reflected in the numerous notable houses, parks and gardens. This affluence continues to shape the landscape, with some of the farmland given over to smallholdings and recreational uses such as pony paddocks. In many areas, the settlements bring a suburban feel that contrasts with the essentially rural landscape of the south-western end of the NCA.

The main river valley in Surrey is that of the River Wey, which cuts a broad, watery plain with open meadows and typical waterside vegetation (including willow, alder and wet meadows). The Surrey Greensand is particularly important for recreation, as it is easily accessible from London and many of Surrey’s major towns. The Wey provides an opportunity for water-based activities, as well as cycling and walking routes along the towpath. The overall landscape, although mixed, is unified by the wooded character engendered by the many woodlands and shaws.

Further east, into Kent and beyond, the dramatic, wooded topography becomes less distinctive: being less wooded, the landscape here does not afford such an impression of intimacy. The area is also more marked by modern human influence, with major towns such as Maidstone, Sevenoaks and Ashford, and numerous communication routes. Notable among the latter are the M25, M26 and M20 motorways, and other major road and rail routes. Generally, the Kent Wealden Greensand in the east is relatively more open with mixed farming. The central area of the belt, near the Medway, where lighter loams occur, is an important commercial fruit growing area. Cobnut production, while much reduced in extent, is still a notable feature around Plaxtol. While orchards have tended to be replaced by arable fields, there is some evidence of new orchard planting occurring on the ridge. The River Medway flows through Maidstone and is a key recreational asset, offering riverside walks and boat trips. Further east, the Great Stour and East Stour both rise on the Greensand before joining upstream of Ashford and flowing northwards. A key characteristic of this area are the large areas of woodland dominated by sweet chestnut coppice, originally planted to support the hop industry and more recently for use as renewable fuel.

At its south-eastern extreme, the Greensand forms a notable scarp, formerly a sea cliff, giving extensive views over the Romney Marshes. The NCA meets the coast in Kent, extending from Folkestone to Hythe. Most of the coastal hinterland is heavily developed and protected by sea walls, groynes and shingle beaches – with the exception of Copt Point, where undeveloped, eroding cliffs are designated for their wildlife and geological interest. This part of the coastline forms part of the defined Dover-Folkestone Heritage Coast. The beaches and coastal amenities provide important recreational opportunities and contribute to the local economy.

The landscape through time

The Wealden Greensand NCA follows the outcrop of the Lower Greensand Escarpment of the Wealden Anticline. The oldest rocks in the NCA (bordering the Lower Weald NCA) belong to the Lower Cretaceous Weald Clay Formation, which is in turn overlain by the Lower Greensand Group and the Gault and Upper Greensand Formations. The complete sequence varies in age from approximately 125 to 100 million years old. At this time deposition was occurring in the Wessex Basin, which was enclosed by uplands to the north, west and south. The basin was initially dominated by the fluvial sediments of the Wealden Group (exposed in the Low Weald and High Weald NCAs). The subsequent rise in sea level led to the deposition of the marine Lower Greensand sediments, which include the Atherfield Clay (offshore muds and silts) and the Hythe, Sandgate and Folkestone Formations (shallow marine sands). The Greensand is so-called due to the green mineral glauconite, however this is usually oxidised to more a typical yellow or brown. Another characteristic rock type of the Lower Greensand is the ‘rag and hassock’ of the Hythe Formation – ‘rag’ being a hard, sandy limestone and ‘hassock’ a sand speckled with glauconite. The continued rise in the sea level and the establishment of a deeper sea led to the deposition of the Gault Clay and Upper Greensand. Eventually, the Upper Cretaceous chalk formed the North and South Downs that now surround this NCA.

The collision of Africa with Europe led to a period of mountain-building know as the Alpine Orogeny (from about 65 to 2.5 million years ago), with associated folding and faulting in south-east England that produced the characteristic anticline of the Weald. Although the area was not glaciated during the Pleistocene, it was affected by interglacial and glacial climate changes. Erosion during the tundra-like cold periods produced landslips, in particular cambering and gullying, between about 135,000 and 12,500 years ago. A number of the gullies have been filled by Pleistocene wind-blown sand and silt known as loess. The nutrient-poor, acid, sandy soils covering the Folkestone and Hythe Beds form a broad escarpment that is often associated with tracts of heaths and commons. The more fertile soils over the Sandgate and Bargate Beds, which have a high lime content, give rise to heavier and wetter soils that are often dominated by pasture. The heavy Atherfield Clay lies below. The Upper Greensand has outcrops of calcareous sandstone (‘malmstone’) in Hampshire and West Sussex, which was used as a building material. It closely resembles the calcareous Kentish ragstone, which occurs as part of the Lower Greensand at the opposite end of the area. The local architecture is linked to the underlying geology, with Greensand stone giving many buildings a distinctive character and local identity.

The Wealden Greensand has been occupied since the earliest times, with the presence of Palaeolithic flint tools at Oldbury Hill in Kent and traces of a Neolithic hearth at Abinger. On the whole, the generally nutrient-poor Greensand soils have not been as extensively cleared for agriculture as some other areas, and many ancient woodlands have survived – although often in fragmented patches and on steeper slopes. Woodlands throughout the area provided a renewable source of fuel and materials for domestic, agricultural and industrial use. Coppicing trees and shrubs, such as hazel, hornbeam, sessile oak and sweet chestnut, was an important part of the rural economy and also led to the development of a rich woodland flora. Coppice products included fencing materials, firewood, thatching spars, hop poles (mostly sweet chestnut in Kent) and charcoal. In the western part of the NCA, where clay ironstone occurs, coppice woodlands were vital for the early iron industry. This was responsible for the large hammer ponds, like the Waggoners’ Wells within the Bramshott and Ludshott Commons Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Hampshire.

The wide variation in soil acidity and fertility across the NCA is reflected in the range and diversity of both agriculture and the semi-natural habitats that occur within it. Accordingly, this was essentially an area of mixed farming, with the balance differing locally: fruit growing in Kent, dairying around Petersfield and hop growing around Maidstone. While the NCA remains a mixed farming area today, the balance has shifted, with dairying significantly reduced and hop gardens only functional in very few instances. Areas of fruit (mainly commercial as opposed to traditional), pasture and arable are all still prevalent. Most field patterns still reflect the irregularity of ancient enclosure or enclosure by agreement, with regular Parliamentary-type enclosure generally restricted to late enclosure of heathland.

Heathland was very extensive on the Greensand ridge as recently as the 18th century, having developed on the sandy and acidic soils that were maintained as open and grazed landscapes since at least the Bronze Age. Once an important part of the rural economy, heathland provided grazing land, bedding for stock and a source of fuel. As the markets for some of these products declined, so did their place in the rural economy. As a result, much of this former heathland has been built on, converted to more productive agricultural land or forestry plantations, or has suffered due to lack of management, resulting in a dramatic decline over the past century. In other places, the absence of grazing stock and traditional use of heathlands has allowed bracken to spread, and pine, birch and oak trees to become established. These trees have replaced the typical wet and dry heathland plant communities, and a high proportion of the original Greensand heaths are now covered with secondary woodland.

The system of ‘common land’, whereby groups of people had collective grazing or harvesting rights over an area of land, had much to do with the creation and survival of some important Greensand habitats. Heathland was often common land, as were some of the ancient woodlands. Cattle and sheep grazed the wooded commons, and in autumn these areas provided foraging for pigs. Commoners could also gather firewood from the woods. Such wooded commons (or charts) were mostly found in East Surrey and West Kent. Although much overgrown, the charts of today still display a typical structure and suite of species that are the result of their traditional use.

The Greensand is scattered with landmarks that document the activities of previous centuries and make important contributions to England’s heritage. These include Waverley Abbey, remains of the first Cistercian abbey in England, and a series of historic bridges over the River Wey, linked to the remnant water meadow system and thought to have been built by the monks of the Abbey. The Chilworth Gunpowder Mills also provide a link to a thriving past industry that used water from the Tillingbourne, a tributary of the Wey, to power the mills. For a time, these mills were the only authorised gunpowder producer in Britain. Iron making (using the local ironstone) and Wealden timber (for charcoal) were important industries, with numerous hammer ponds found along the foot of the north-west escarpment. Old quarries (where ironstone, building stone and sand on the heathland areas were all extracted) are features of the landscape and a reminder of the economic value of the underlying geology – as are today’s operational mineral working sites.

The woodland provides a backdrop to the many landscaped parks of the area, and has been used by designers such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to frame 18th- and 19th-century landscapes. Many of these parkland landscapes remain today. Oast houses are a highly characteristic farm building type associated with the hop industry, and many timber-framed buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries survive – including barns and Wealden hall houses (‘A type of vernacular medieval timber-framed hall house traditional in the south-east of England’).

Settlement across the area is a mixture of dispersed farmsteads and hamlets, and some nucleated villages, often linked by small, deeply sunken lanes through the easily eroded areas of soft sandstone. While the south-western part of the area remains essentially rural, improved transport links from the later 19th century led to increased development of the eastern half as it became a commuter belt. Significant 20th century development has altered the character of much of the area east of Dorking, with the expansion of towns such as Maidstone, Reigate, Ashford and Folkestone, and the development of major transport networks including motorways and the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link.