Magazine article Geographical

High Weald: Natalie Hoare Heads to the UK's Fourth Largest AONB, Which Is Often Described as a Quintessential English Landscape, Harbouring Pristine Meadows, Historic Heathland and the Highest Proportion of Ancient Woodland to Be Found Anywhere in the British Isles

Magazine article Geographical

High Weald: Natalie Hoare Heads to the UK's Fourth Largest AONB, Which Is Often Described as a Quintessential English Landscape, Harbouring Pristine Meadows, Historic Heathland and the Highest Proportion of Ancient Woodland to Be Found Anywhere in the British Isles

Article excerpt

Flying in to Gatwick airport, over Sussex, Surrey and Kent, I'm often struck by how the elaborate tapestry of fields and woodland below belies the fact that this is the most crowded corner of the British Isles, home to millions of people.

It's the same on the ground here in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which stretches across most of Sussex and parts of Surrey and Kent. I know that I'm standing within one of the most densely populated protected landscapes in the UK, but I just can't shake the feeling of peace, tranquillity and solitude. Rolling ridge lines that gently oscillate into the distance are interspersed by secluded valleys that support an irregular pattern of meadows, heathland and farmland divided by hedgerows and copses of ancient woodland.

HUMAN LANDSCAPE

Driving along one of the many roads that crown these ridges, it quickly becomes clear that you're never far from someone's home. Your eye is frequently drawn to the white tip of an oast house peeping from behind a hedgerow, an attractive timber-framed farmhouse nestling at the end of a lane, or a weather-worn sandstone church that looks as if it's been hewn straight from the ground.

'The High Weald is a very human landscape,' says Sally Marsh, joint director of the AONB. 'It has one of the highest population levels of any protected landscape, but it doesn't feel like it. The reason is our dispersed historic settlement pattern. Ever since people settled here, they've been living and intimately working in this landscape, which meant they needed to be close to it.'

With an estimated population of 121,000, the AONB is, indeed, well populated for a protected area, but because most live among scattered farmsteads, hamlets and villages, it retains a surprisingly rural feel. The region's largest built-up area, the historic market town of Battle, is home to just 5,500 people, and there are around 100 villages to be found here, yet 38 per cent of the population lives outside of the villages in the countryside on historic farmsteads.

Since April 2006, the AONB has been running a research project into the character of High Weald settlements. 'We've surveyed all of the historic farmsteads on the High Weald using GIS,' says Marsh. 'We've counted between 2,500 and 3,000 dispersed across the AONB, which means you can't walk very far without being able to see one.'

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

SOLID FOUNDATIONS

The underlying geology has dictated the appearance, water resources and vegetation of the High Weald, which, in turn, have determined the settlement patterns, economic activity, accessibility and even architecture that, over thousands of years of human colonisation, have given the region its unique character.

'You have the North and South Downs on either side of the AONB, stretching from Horsham in the west to Hastings in the south, then you have the Low Weald, which encircles the High Weald--a very resistant dome of sandstone,' says Jason Lavender, joint director of the AONB.

This resistant rock is exposed at regular intervals across the AONB as distinct sandstone outcrops, such as High Rocks near Tunbridge Wells and Harrison's Rocks near Bewl Water. Elsewhere, particularly in the AONB's wooded parts, the sandstone ridges have been exposed to the action of fast-flowing water over millions of years, creating steep-sided ravines, known locally as gills.

The streams that run in the gills are fast flowing in winter and gentle trickles in summer, but remain sheltered, shaded and damp for most of the year, providing the perfect conditions for a variety of rare and unusual plant species. 'The gills are internationally important for cryptogams, mosses, liverworts, ferns and lichens, as well as for particularly rare species such as the Tunbridge filmy fern,' says Marsh.

The hard sandstone also proved to be a first-rate building material. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.