Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs: Part of the Extensive Belt of Chalkland That Stretches across Southern England, Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Is Very Rural and Refreshingly Uncrowded. Natalie Hoare Discovers How Its Rich Cultural and Historical Heritage Has Long Been a Draw to Archaeologists

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Slap-bang in the middle of southern England lies one of the largest and most sparsely populated bits of protected land in the country. Spread across Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire with a sliver in Somerset, this vast area has a lengthy title to match: Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). A mouthful it may be, but when it comes to sweeping pastoral views, chocolate-box villages and archaeological riches, it's hard to beat.

Designated in 1981, it's the sixth-largest AONB in England and Wales at 983 square kilometres and, according to those tasked with its management, one of the most bucolic. 'I believe that this is one of the most deeply rural of all the AONBs,' says Linda Nunn, the AONB's manager. 'More than 85 per cent of it is agricultural land and there are no large towns within its boundaries, only those skirting around its edges.'

Just 33,000 people inhabit the AONB itself, which 'is nothing for its size', says Nunn. 'People use the phrase "hidden jewel" an awful lot, but I would truly say that this is a hidden rural jewel because it's so close to the surrounding market towns and the large conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole, yet it's still incredibly tranquil.'

In 2006, a nationwide study commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England took an in-depth look at people's perceptions of tranquillity; whether they can see pylons, see or hear a road, and so on. 'The study used 80 different sets of criteria, which included emotional responses from local people as well,' says Nunn. 'Those results have all been number crunched and then plotted on a map.' The overwhelming majority of the resulting map for the AONB is dark green--indicating areas that are most tranquil.

Many people only encounter the area from behind the wheel of a car, en route to somewhere else via the A30 or A303. And while the views are pretty spectacular, even from the road, you need to leave the main traffic arteries to really get under the skin of the place. 'Once you start going off along the footpaths and bridleways, you start getting unique views that you've just never seen before,' says Nunn.

On a clear day, you can see for an incredible distance--'easily as far as the Needles on the western edge of the Isle of Wight', says Nunn--from one of the many vantage points provided by the high-rolling open downlands.

'But this AONB has a lot of different sides to it,' says Nunn. 'It also has the deep chalk combes, good-sized areas of ancient woodland, little roads that climb up on top of the downs one minute and then descend down into an enclosed valley the next. And I haven't even started on the history.'

ROYAL PLAYGROUND

One of the many places where you can immerse yourself in all of this rural tranquillity is Martin Down, a large national nature reserve that, according to Natural England, contains 'an exceptional collection of plants and animals associated with chalk downland and scrub habitats', among them rare and unusual plant species with evocative, almost mythical names such as bastard toadflax, field fleawort and dwarf sedge.

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Arriving there on a disorientatingly misty and damp weekday morning in January, I'm rewarded with a taste of what this area must have been like when it was part of a vast royal hunting ground. 'Nearly two thirds of the AONB was a medieval hunting area called the Cranborne Chase,' explains Emma Rouse, the AONB's Historic Environment Action Plan project officer.

Most royal hunting grounds disappeared during the early Tudor period, but Cranborne Chase was the last place in the UK to uphold the traditional laws. 'Those rights weren't disenfranchised here until 1829, around the same time as the agricultural revolution,' says Rouse.

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While nationally, chalk grassland has suffered a sharp decline, Martin Down hasn't changed markedly from when it was an oversized royal playground--largely thanks to the protection the area was afforded by the crown. …