Standing atop the windswept heather-covered dome of Will's Neck, a superb patchwork of West Country farmland stretches out below. In the distance, the Bristol Channel and Wales come into view, the horizon punctuated by the just-visible Severn River suspension bridges. Gazing eastwards, there are views of Bridgewater, the Somerset Levels, Glastonbury Tor and the Mendip Hills.
At 386 metres above sea level, Will's Neck is the highest point in the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and is reputed to offer views of nine counties on a clear day. Stretching from the Vale of Taunton Deane to the Bristol Channel, the Quantock Hills form an impressive 19-kilometre ridge of sandstone that was England's first AONB--and the UK's second--declared shortly after the Gower Peninsula in Wales in May 1956.
The name Quantock is thought to derive from the Celtic word cantuc, meaning rim or circle--a reference to the slightly curved line of these hills. The hilltops themselves are largely covered by upland heath--the western gorse and bell heather that grow there in profusion turn the hilltops yellow and purple during late summer.
The heathland descends into areas of broadleaved woodland containing sessile oak, ash, hazel and others, forestry land and farmland used for both grazing and agriculture. Many combes--short valleys or deep hollows--each with distinct characteristics and harbouring a wealth of wildlife, cut into the side of the hills and several picturesque villages and hamlets are dotted around their lower slopes.
With a total area of 100 square kilometres, Quantock Hills is one of the more compact AONBs, but despite this, an array of fauna has made the Quantocks its home. Four species of deer can be spotted, as can semi-wild ponies, adders and badgers. In terms of birdlife, skylarks, buzzards (from which the AONB takes its emblem), snipe, reed bunting, warblers, chats and many others live in and around the area.
The land that makes up the AONB is largely divided into privately owned farms and estates, with Somerset County Council, the National Trust and Forest Enterprise England owning the remainder. The land within the AONB's borders is criss-crossed by an extensive network of public footpaths and bridleways, which last year were trodden or ridden on by 500,000 people. According to Barbara Child, chairman of West Somerset District Council, many come from nearby villages and towns. "The Quantocks is a popular area," she says. "It doesn't really need promoting as we have a number of local visitors who regularly use and love the hills."
Chris Edwards, the AONB's manager, has lived in nearby Taunton for ten years. "The area has several other protection statuses in addition to being an AONB," he explains. "The Quantocks' coastline on the Bristol Channel, for example, has the same underlying geology as the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site in Dorset and East Devon and is an SSSI [Site of Special Scientific Interest], and the hilltop heathland areas, which are a mixture of gorse heathland and upland oakwood, also have SSSI status, as well as being a Special Area of Conservation under the EU's habitats directive."
Combined, these serve to protect a landscape that contains habitat of international importance: nearly ten per cent of the world's maritime heathland lies within the Quantocks SSSI and the coast between the villages of St Audries and Kilve is considered to be of international geological importance. Jurassic marine deposits, alternating layers of limestone and shale known as lias, exist here, containing some of the earliest fossil ammonites recorded in Britain.
A characteristic and prominent feature of the Quantock Hill's landscape are beech hedgebanks. These typically consist of earth banks--some reinforced by stone laid in decorative chevron patterns--topped by a row of beech trees. The trees traditionally acted as a boundary between fields and property capable of containing livestock, but today, many are growing freely. …