About the Area
‘An unexpectedly big landscape’
"It is a bold landscape, an unexpectedly big landscape, with the satisfying amplitude that makes line more important than colour." So wrote Desmond Hawkins in his extraordinary book, Cranborne Chase.
Two viewpoints confirm this appreciation of the landscape of the Chase. Standing near the beech copse on the summit of Win Green, just inside Wiltshire, the observer looks southwards across high, seemingly limitless chalk downland into which deeply incised valleys have been cut. These give way to the more intimate densely wooded character of the heart of the Chase and the rolling landscape of its lower margins around Sixpenny Handley.
Less than 10 miles to the south-east of Win Green, the view northwest from Pentridge Knoll includes the Dorset Cursus, Roman Ackling Dyke and it reveals the essence of the Chase heartland. Huge rolling fields, best seen in late summer when the golden cereals are ready for harvest, are fringed on the north by the Chase’s woods and coppices: ‘One of the few remaining woodlands of undoubtedly primeval date,’ as Thomas Hardy described these ancient trees in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
This is a dramatic and historic place where ‘voices in the landscape’ can still be heard.
The LP area's outstanding chalk downland landscape evokes a strong sense of the iconic English countryside. The distinctive vibrant villages, profoundly rural character and historic traditions give the area its sense of place.It is a living landscape, which continues to be influenced by those who work with and manage the land and contribute to the local rural economy. The landscape provides important ecosystem services that deliver benefits such as fresh food, water, fuel and clean air, along with less tangible benefits of inspiration, health and well-being.
The key natural and historic/cultural landscape characteristics and qualities that make the Cranborne Chase and Chalke Valley LP area distinctive are:
- The unusual wooded chalk downland of Cranborne Chase – as the traditional heart of the former Medieval royal hunting grounds, the inner bounds of Cranborne Chase evoke an ancient landscape with a rich patina of stunning, interrelated natural, built and cultural assets.
- The distinctive Chalke Valley and its string of settlements – with strong historical, natural and social links to Cranborne Chase as evidenced by the historic Medieval parishes that continue to provide a slice of river bottom, valley sides and open downland grazing beyond.
- A peaceful, profoundly rural and living landscape – this is a sparsely populated and largely unspoilt area, with a strong sense of remoteness, tranquillity and expansive dark night skies, which is maintained as a living agricultural landscape.
- Grand and dramatic downland landscapes – the scale of the downland offers wide expansive skies, dominant skylines, dramatic steep escarpments and panoramic views, which combine to create an intense landscape experience.
- Unity of the underlying chalk geology — expressed in the distinctive and sometimes dramatically sculpted landforms, open vistas, escarpments and coombes.
- Woodland and trees — the landscape is overlain by a woodland mosaic that includes eye-catching hill-top copses, veteran parkland trees and avenues, extensive areas of wooded downland and ancient forest, together with more recent game coverts.
- High level of survival of habitats – notably ancient woodland, chalk streams and lowland calcareous grassland (including the second largest area of uninterrupted chalk downland in Britain at Martin Down National Nature Reserve).
- Distinctive settlement pattern – a largely intact pre 1750 historic settlement pattern of villages with a dense concentration of listed buildings seen along the river valley, on the downland and along the scarp spring line (such as Sixpenny Handley; Tollard Royal; Ashmore; Berwick St John; Broad Chalke; Iwerne Minster; Bishopstone; Coombe Bissett; Tarrant Gunville; Bowerchalke; and Martin).
- Strong sense of place and local distinctiveness — represented by the use of local vernacular building styles and materials (knapped flint, brick, cob, clunch, clay tiles and straw thatch) and small-scale vernacular features (such as sunken lanes and distinctive black and white signposts).
- A landscape etched with the visible imprint of the past — including earthworks, former settlements, field systems and water meadows, with a high level of survival of Medieval land use patterns, woodland archaeology and a wealth of Prehistoric, Roman and Saxon archaeological sites notable for nationally important monument groups forming ceremonial complexes or monumental landscapes.
- A rich land use history – concentrations of ancient enclosure, ancient woodland and former common land with numerous ancient hilltop forts and barrows.
- A legacy of historic designed landscapes — a concentration of historic parklands, estates, and manor houses together with Historic Parks and Gardens of national and county importance, including Rushmore Park.
- Literary, artistic and cultural associations of national distinction – the area has been celebrated in the works of numerous important artists, archaeologists, scholars and writers.
The area’s extraordinary heritage
The pre-historic landscape that is Cranborne Chase — nowhere else in overcrowded southern England contains such a diverse mix of prehistoric settlements, burial mounds and ceremonial centres, Roman roads and villas, Dark Ages defensive boundaries, Norman castles and Medieval manors.
Within the Landscape Partnership Scheme area alone there are approximately 250 Scheduled Ancient Monuments made up of grassy lumps, bumps and ditches so large that it is hard to believe they were cut by hand with flint tools.
All the features that pimple and carve scars across a mysterious landscape provide evidence to support a rich heritage, and myths and legends abound here, proving particularly compelling on a misty morning as the sun rises in the upper Avon valley.
Although most designated sites are understood, a walk through any ancient woodland or along the Shire Rack (the ancient boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire) indicates that many other features lie unrecognised and unappreciated for their cultural or natural value.
If you look hard enough you can see funnelled boundaries and entrance points where the Romans are likely to have monitored trade and passage between administrative areas. These even pre-date current county boundaries. Veteran trees were used for pagan purposes; coppice was possibly planted as a form of defence from cavalry, rather than as a woodland crop, or for pales to keep the deer in certain areas. Larches were left to be turned into lofty lookout towers to monitor deer across the ‘chase’. This very word comes from hunting, a pastime enjoyed by numerous royal figures through history — King John, King Henry VIII and King James I to name just three.
Rare plants and wildlife in abundance
With the LP area consisting of grassland, ancient woodland, arable land, steep sided chalk escarpments (which boast some of the best species- and flower-rich downland in the country) and the river valley itself bounded by former water meadows, these elements make up a special mosaic that provides an incredibly diverse mix of habitats for flora and fauna in a relatively small area.
The River Ebble, a chalk stream — a globally rare habitat — runs through the valley and is a Wild Trout Protection Zone, as well as a haven for otter.
Rising above the Ebble, extensive arable fields are home to brown hare and farmland bird species, such as corn bunting, linnet, turtle dove, grey partridge, lapwing and yellowhammer.
Equally, rare arable flowers, such as shepherd’s needle, thrive in the LP area in pockets, as do the prickly poppy, rough poppy, with its distinctive seed pods, and Venus’s looking-glass, whose mirror-like oval fruits inside the seed-capsule give the plant its name.
Juniper, one of the rarest plants in the UK due to a complex set of circumstances, including climate change, loss of habitat, changes in management of suitable habitats and increasing populations of rabbits, can also be spotted, as can knotted hedge-parsley.
In spring you can see profusions of cow slip — a favourite of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which can be found in parts of the region, as can the nationally scarce checked-wing Marsh Fritillary. Rare bats call the LP area home too.
Even the area’s road verges boast a plethora of scarce plants. Look out for the pretty small scabious the next time you are driving along.