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.’
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.
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.
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. ‘This unimproved chalk grassland, a few simple tracks and no fences – it’s like a little pocket from the past,’ says Rouse. ‘During the 19th century, it stretched all the way from Salisbury to Shaftesbury.’
Today, the huge flocks of sheep have shrunk somewhat, and the shepherds have been replaced by a system of fences that are regularly moved around, along with their woollen captives, to help maintain the grassland, just as deer and sheep would have done in the past.
The royal hunting reserve not only helped to protect the character of the area while much of the rest of England’s grasslands and woodlands were being cleared, enclosed and developed, but it also helped to preserve another very important aspect of the area – its archaeology. ‘One of the reasons we have so many archaeological features here is because the land wasn’t enclosed earlier, so it hasn’t been ploughed for as long,’ says Rouse.
Like the nearby World Heritage sites of Stonehenge and Avebury, the AONB’s landscape bears the imprint of successive eras of human activity in the form of some impressive archaeological features. It’s well stocked with Iron Age hill forts, boundary dykes, field systems and burial mounds.
The Neolithic Dorset Cursus is perhaps the largest and best-known feature. Believed to be around 5,000 years old, it consists of two massive banks and ditches, 82 metres apart, running parallel for ten kilometres across the landscape.
‘The middle section is aligned on the midwinter sunrise, and it’s probably some kind of ceremonial or ritualistic monument, but nobody really knows,’ says Rouse. ‘Subsequently, it became a focus for later activity. There’s a whole mass of henges, a bit like Avebury or Stonehenge but on a smaller scale, some Neolithic round barrows and then, going into the Bronze Age, there are hundreds of round barrows.’
The area’s historical riches – which include 550 scheduled ancient monuments – also helped to spark the imaginations of several prominent antiquarians and historians, whose visits to the area prompted something of a revolution in archaeological thinking. ‘We were at the centre of people beginning to understand about history and archaeology, and the fact that there even was a pre-Roman history,’ says Rouse. ‘[This area has] a legacy of antiquarian and archaeological discovery that wasn’t linked to the flood and Adam and Eve, but to prehistoric societies of which people weren’t previously aware.’
One of the central figures was Victorian gentleman Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, whose discoveries on Cranborne Chase during the late 19th century marked a new systematic approach to archaeological excavations and later led to him being regarded as ‘the father of British archaeology’.
‘People take it for granted that these people took a bigger view of history,’ says Rouse. ‘That whole period was marked by people discovering geology, the antiquity of the Earth, Darwin and evolution. It’s a really important period – the history of how we now see the world – and this area played an important part in that. People are still drawn to that history, but it would be great if they ventured beyond Stonehenge and came to appreciate what we have to offer right here.’
Get up on the downs
‘This AONB has an extraordinary number of rights of way – 1,500 kilometres’ worth. You could really get away from it all, recharge the batteries and walk for weeks without stopping – it’s absolutely stunning.’
Linda Nunn, AONB manager
Farmland birds fight back
‘This area is one of only four nationally important areas for six iconic farmland birds: lapwing, skylark, turtle dove, tree sparrow, grey partridge and yellow wagtail. They’ve been declining since the 1970s by as much as 90 per cent due to changes in farming practices, but we’ve started a project to help bring them back, working closely with farmers.’
Tracy Adams, South Wiltshire Farmland Bird Project adviser
‘Win Green is great – it has easy access for all on foot, or you can drive up to it and enjoy the beautiful panoramic views. On a clear day, you can see the Isle of Wight. I go up there just to sit and admire the view or to show it off to someone else.‘
Jo Taylor, AONB support officer
‘At the top end of the Ebble Chalke Valley, you can see one of the many chalk streams within the AONB. It’s quite common to have the road on one side, the settlements and houses on the other and these itty-bitty stone bridges as the link between them. It’s quite a nice common feature of the area and locally distinctive.’
Emma Rouse, Historic Environment Action Plan officer
First published May 2010