Blackdown Hills

Geobox Protected Area
name = Blackdown Hills
native_name =
other_name =
other_name1 =
category_local = Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
category_iucn =

image_size =
image_caption = Blackdown Hills AONB near Dalwood, Devon
country = England
region = Devon Somerset
region_type = Counties
location = south-west England
lat_d =
lat_m =
lat_s =
lat_NS =
long_d =
long_m =
long_s =
long_EW =
elevation =
biome =
biome_share =
biome1 =
biome1_share =
geology = Upper Greensand
geology1 =
plant =
plant1 =
animal =
animal1 =
area = 370
area1 =
area1_type =
length =
length_orientation =
width =
width_orientation =
highest =
highest_location = Staple Hill
highest_lat_d = 50
highest_lat_m = 56
highest_lat_s = 34
highest_lat_NS = N
highest_long_d = 3
highest_long_m = 05
highest_long_s = 25
highest_long_EW = W
highest_elevation = 315
lowest =
lowest_location =
lowest_lat_d =
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lowest_lat_s =
lowest_lat_NS =
lowest_long_d =
lowest_long_m =
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lowest_elevation =
established_type = AONB
established = 1991
established1_type =
established1 =
management_body = Blackdown Hills AONB
management_location = St Ivel House, Hemyock, Cullompton, Devon, EX15 3SJ
management_lat_d = 50
management_lat_m = 54
management_lat_s = 52
management_lat_NS = N
management_long_d = 3
management_long_m = 13
management_long_s = 55
management_long_EW = W
management_elevation =
visitation =
visitation_year =
free_type =
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The Blackdown Hills are a range of hills along the Somerset-Devon border in south-western England, which were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1991.cite web|url=|title=What is an AONB|work=Blackdown Hills AONB|accessdate=2008-05-13]

The plateau is dominated by hard chert bands of Upper Greensand with some remnants of chalk, and is cut through by river valleys. The hills support an extensive range of wildlife leading to the designation of 16 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

There is evidence of human occupation since the Iron Age. Fortifications include the remains of ancient hill forts, Norman motte-and-bailey castles and Second World War airfields. There are also religious buildings such as Dunkeswell Abbey and village churches. The hills are crossed by a network of minor roads with major transport routes including the M5 motorway running around the periphery.


Straddling the borders of Somerset and Devon, the Blackdown Hills AONB covers an area of convert|370|km2|sqmi|0|lk=on. [cite web|url=|title=Landscape|publisher=Blackdown Hills AONB|accessdate=2008-09-14] Heavily cut with sharp valleys, the hills reach their highest point of convert|315|m|ft|0|lk=on above sea level at Staple Hill in Somerset. The hills in the southern part of the area, near Honiton in Devon, are more gentle. The Blackdown Hills are a sparsely populated area; much of the land is used for dairy farming.

The River Culm rises at a spring (gbmapping|ST2205016050) near Culmhead and flows west through Hemyock, then Culmstock to Uffculme before joining the River Exe on the north-western outskirts of Exeter. The name of the river is thought to mean 'knot' or 'tie', in reference to the river's twists and loops; [cite book | last = Hesketh | first = Robert | title = Devon Placenames | publisher = Bossiney Books | date = 2008 | location = Launceston | isbn =9781899383986 ] or is derived from a Celtic river-name meaning "winding stream". [cite book | last = Mills | first = A. D. | title = Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names | publisher = Oxford University Press | date = 1998 | location = Oxford | isbn =0192800744 ] The River Otter rises near Otterford, where a stream feeds the Otterhead lakes: (gbmappingsmall|ST225152). It then flows south forconvert|32|km|mi|0|lk=on through East Devon to the English Channel at the western end of Lyme Bay. The Permian and Triassic sandstone aquifer in the Otter Valley is one of Devon's largest groundwater sources, supplying drinking water to Taunton. [cite web|url=|title=Contaminated Land Inspection Strategy|last=Smith|first=Mike|date=2001|publisher=East Devon District Council|pages=25|accessdate=2008-09-15] The other rivers are the River Yarty and the Corry Brook.

Villages in the northern, Somerset part of the hills include Staple Fitzpaine, Buckland St Mary, Whitestaunton, Wambrook and Churchstanton. The larger, more southerly area in Devon includes Dunkeswell, Upottery, Smeatharpe, Hemyock, Blackborough, Yarcombe, Membury, Stockland, Sheldon and Cotleigh.


The geology of the Blackdown Hills together with the adjoining East Devon AONB is unique in south-west England,cite book|last=Ryder|first=Lucy|title=Change and Continuity: a Study in the Historic Landscape of Devon|pages=22|publisher=University of Exeter|date=November 2006|series=Doctor of Philosophy in Archaeology, Dissertation|volume=1|url=] cite web|url=|title=Blackdown Hills Plan 2004 – 2009|pages=4-5|publisher=Blackdown Hills AONB|format=PDF|accessdate=2008-05-13] forming part of the only extensive outcrop of Upper Greensand in the region. [cite web|url=|title=Blackdown Hills|work=Landscape|publisher=Natural England|accessdate=2008-09-14]

The Blackdown Hills form a flat plateau dominated by hard chert bands, made up of clay with flints, of Upper Greensand with some remnants of chalk. [cite web|url=|title=An introduction to the Blackdown Hills the palaeoenvironmental results and a selection of Historical Records|publisher=University of Exeter|accessdate=2008-09-14] The cretaceous rocks rest over eroded Jurassic and Triassic beds, with an outcrop of Rhaetian beds. [cite book|last=Hardy|first=Peter|title=The Geology of Somerset|publisher=Ex Libris Press|location=Bradford on Avon|date=1999|isbn=0948578424] In the western areas the Upper Greensand is devoid of calcareous material but the sands yield fossils of marine bivalves and gastropods (snails) preserved in silica. [cite web|url=|title=Devon (including Plymouth and Torbay)|work=England's Geology|publisher=Natural England|accessdate=2008-09-14]


Along with the rest of south west England, the Blackdown Hills have a temperate climate that is generally wetter and milder than the rest of England. The mean temperature is approximately 10 °C (50 °F) and shows a seasonal and a diurnal variation, but because of the modifying effect of the sea the range is less than in most other parts of the United Kingdom (UK).cite web|url=|title=Temperature|work=South-west England |publisher=Met Office|accessdate=2008-09-15] January is the coldest month with mean minimum temperatures between 1 °C (34 °F) and 2 °C (36 °F). July and August are the warmest months, with mean daily maxima around 21 °C (70 °F). December is normally the most cloudy month and June the sunniest.cite web|url=|title=Sunshine|work=South-west England|publisher=Met Office|accessdate=2008-09-15] High pressure over the Azores often brings clear skies to south-west England, particularly in summer.

Cloud often forms inland, especially near hills, and acts to reduce sunshine. The average annual sunshine totals around 1,600 hours. Rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions or with convection. In summer, convection caused by solar surface heating sometimes forms shower clouds, and a large proportion of rain falls from showers and thunderstorms at this time of year. Average rainfall is around 31–35 inch (800–900 mm). [cite web|url=|title=Rainfall|work=South-west England|publisher=Met Office|accessdate=2008-09-15] About 8–15 days of snowfall is typical. [cite web|url=|title=Snowfall|work=South-west England|publisher=Met Office|accessdate=2008-09-15] From November to March, mean wind speeds are highest; winds are lightest from June to August. The predominant wind direction is from the south-west. [cite web|url=|title=Wind|work=South-west England|publisher=Met Office|accessdate=2008-09-15]


There are 16 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the Blackdown Hills ranging from the convert|156|ha|lk=on|adj=on Black Down and Sampford Commons to Reed Farm pit at just less than convert|1|ha|acre|sing=on. In total they cover convert|640|ha, or just under 2% of the AONB. Of these SSSIs 79% are deemed by English Nature to be being positively managed. SSSI is a conservation designation denoting a protected area in the United Kingdom, selected by Natural England, for areas with particular landscape and ecological characteristics. It provides some protection from development, from other damage, and (since 2000) from neglect, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

The grasslands, heathland, meadows and mire support extensive populations of birds such as Barn owls ("Tyto alba") and nightjar, with butterflies including Marbled White ("Melanargia galathea"), Green Hairstreak ("Callophrys rubi") and the Gatekeeper Butterfly ("Pyronia tithonus"). The flora includes the Heath Spotted-orchid ("Dactylorhiza maculata"), Corky fruited water dropwort ("pimpinelloides"), Green-winged Orchid ("Anacamptis morio"), Heather ("Calluna vulgaris"), Lousewort ("Pedicularis") and Birds foot trefoil ("Lotus corniculatus"). The hedgerows and woodlands are made up of Ash, Hazel ("Corylus"), Grey willow ("Salix cinerea") and Pedunculate Oak ("Quercus robur") which support populations of Dormouse ("Gliridae"), Common Lizards, Siskin, Stinking iris ("Iris foetidissima") and the Purple Hairstreak butterfly ("Neozephyrus quercus"). The rivers and streams are home to Kingfisher, Otter and the Daubenton's bat. [cite web|url=|title=Wildlife|publisher=Blackdown Hills AONB|accessdate=2008-09-15]

Blackdown and Sampford Commons have extensive surviving examples of the heathland, carr woodland and marshy grassland habitats that have developed on the acidic soils overlying the Greensand and Keuper Marls of the Blackdown Hills. The heathland supports a typical invertebrate fauna, including a wide variety of butterfly species, and with spiders notably abundant. The site is regionally important for birds which favour heathland habitats. [cite web | title=Black Down and Sampford Commons | work=English Nature | url= | accessdate=2006-08-12]

Quants, a grassland clearing in a forestry plantation well-known for its butterflies including Duke of Burgundy, Marsh Fritillary and Wood White, [cite web | title=The Quantocks | work=English Nature | url= | accessdate=2007-01-24] is a candidate for Special Area of Conservation (cSAC). These are designated under the European Commission Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) as internationally important habitats.


Palaeoenvironmental studies have shown that organic material began to accumulate on the Blackdown Hills in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods with areas of open meadow, grass land with small woodland components being identified. [cite web|url=|title=Palaeoenvironmental report for the Blackdown Hills|last=Hawkins|first=Charlotte|publisher=University of Exeter|accessdate=2008-09-14]

Notable archaeological sites include the Iron Age hill forts at Membury Castle, Hembury and Castle Neroche. Hembury is a Neolithic causewayed enclosure near Honiton. It dates to the late fifth and early fourth millennia BC and is believed to have been the capital of the Dumnonii tribe. The fort is situated on a promontory to the North of and overlooking the River Dart at approx convert|178|m|ft|abbr=on above sea level. [cite book
last = Sellman | first = R.R. | title = Aspects of Devon History
publisher = Devon Books | location = Exeter | year = 1985 | isbn = 0861147561
chapter = The Iron Age in Devon (ch.2) | pages = pg.11 (Map of Iron Age hill forts in Devon including Hembury Castle)
] It has given its name to some of the earliest Neolithic pottery in southern Britain. An Iron Age hill fort was later built on the same site. [R.R.Sellman; Aspects of Devon History, Devon Books 1985 - ISBN 0861147561 - Chapter 2; The Iron Age in Devon. Map Page 11 of Iron Age hill forts in Devon includes Hembury.] There has been archaeological evidence found on the site of Roman Military occupation, suggesting a Fort within the existing Iron Age site. It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Fourteen hill slope enclosures, dating from the Iron Age have been identified on the Blackdown Hills, [cite web|url=|title=Hill Slope Enclosures in the Blackdown Hills: A Case Study|last=Chapman|first=Bronwen|publisher=University of Exeter|accessdate=2008-09-14] and prehistoric remains, from about 100 BC, have been found in Hemyock.

Castle Neroche is a Norman motte-and-bailey castle on the site of an earlier hill fort near Staple Fitzpaine. The hill rises to convert|260|m|ft|0 on the northern escarpment of the Blackdown Hills. The castle was probably built by Robert of Mortain in the 11th century and probably went out of use in the 12th century. [cite book |last=Adkins |first=Lesley and Roy |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=A field Guide to Somerset Archeology |year=1992 |publisher=Dovecote press |location=Stanbridge |isbn=0946159947 ] Around the crossroads at Staple Fitzpaine there are several large sandstone boulders. They are called devilstones and are said to have been thrown by the Devil from Castle Neroche. According to legend if you prick them with a pin they draw blood. English word 'Stapol' means pillar or post and it is thought likely that this gave the village the first part of its name. [cite web |url= |title=The villages of Staple Fitzpaine, Curland and Bickenhall, |accessdate=2007-09-30 |format= |work=Stoke St ] The second part of the name comes from the Fitzpaine family who owned the manor between 1233 and 1393.cite book |last=Bush |first=Robin |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Somerset: The complete guide |year=1994 |publisher=Dovecote press |location=Wimbourne |isbn=187433627X ]

A Roman bath house and Edwardian folly in the village of Whitestaunton were excavated by the television series Time Team. [cite web | url= | publisher= Channel 4 | work= Time Team microsite | title= A Roman bath house and Edwardian folly | date= 11 January 2004 | accessdate= 2008-02-09] There is also evidence of iron workings in the Romano-British period, at Dunkeswell, which Radio-carbon dating has placed in the 2nd century. [cite web|url=|title=1st Century Romano-British Iron Workings |publisher=University of Exeter|accessdate=2008-09-14] It has been suggested that these and other iron based technologies gave the hills a fairly industrial landscape during the Romano-British period, providing a source of the name Blackdown Hills. [cite web|url=|title=GIS distribution maps of iron working in the Blackdown Hills|last=Wiecken |first=Julia|publisher=University of Exeter|accessdate=2008-09-14] Local iron ores were smelted at Hemyock in small bloomeries (furnaces) to produce pure iron until the Middle Ages. [cite web|url=|title=History of Hemyock|publisher=Hemyock web site|accessdate=2008-09-15]

At Simonsburrow a battle between the native Britons and King Ine's Saxon army, put an end (temporarily) to the Kings expansion to the west. In 710, Ine and Nothhelm fought against Geraint of Dumnonia, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;cite book |last= Swanton|first= Michael|title= The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle|year= 1996| location=New York|publisher= Routledge|isbn=0-415-92129-5] John of Worcester states that Geraint was killed in this battle.John of Worcester was a twelfth-century chronicler who had access to versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that have not survived to the present day. See Campbell (ed.), "The Anglo-Saxons", p. 222. For the chronicle text, see Forester, "Chronicle", p. 36.] Ine's advance brought him control of what is now Devon, the new border with Dumnonia being the river Tamar.cite book |last= Kirby|first= D.P.|title= The Earliest English Kings|year= 1992|location=London|publisher= Routledge|isbn=0-415-09086-5]

Just to the north of Culmstock at Culmstock Beacon, is one of a chain of Elizabethan beacons built to warn of possible invasion by the Spanish Armada. [cite web|url=|title=Culmstock|work=BBC Devon - home town|publisher=BBC|accessdate=2008-09-15] On 5 November 1380, King Richard II granted Sir William and Lady Margaret Asthorpe a licence to crenellate the Hemyock manor house; meaning the permission to fortify it. [cite web|url=|title=Licence to Crenellate Hemyock|publisher=Hemyock Castle|accessdate=2008-09-15] Over the centuries, Hemyock Castle had many notable owners including Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham. During the English Civil War it was held for Parliament, subjected to a brief but brutal siege and eventually "slighted "to destroy its military value. Parts of the castle walls, towers and moat still remain. They are a scheduled ancient monument and include displays of history and archaeology. The castle was also owned by General Sir John Graves Simcoe the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada in 1792. [cite web|url=|title=John Graves Simcoe – Ontario's First Lieutenant-Governor |publisher=Ontario Heritage Trust|accessdate=2008-09-14] He is buried at Wolford Chapel near Dunkeswell. The chapel is now owned by the Province of Ontario. [cite web|url=|title=Wolford Chapel (Devonshire, England) |publisher=Ontario Heritage Trust|accessdate=2008-09-14]

Cold Harbour Mill was built around 1800 to exploit the available water power of the River Culm and was used for wool and yarn production until its commercial closure in 1981. It is now managed by an educational trust and plays a role in telling the industrial history of the area. [cite web|url=|title=Coldharbour Mill|publisher=Coldharbour Mill|accessdate=2008-09-15]

The Wellington Monument is located on Wellington Hill at gbmapping|ST137171, convert|3|km|mi|abbr=on south of Wellington, Somerset. It was erected to celebrate the Duke of Wellington's victory at the Battle of Waterloo. The foundation stone was laid in 1817, on land belonging to the Duke, but the monument was not completed until 1854. Its design was inspired by an Egyptian obelisk, but in the shape of the type of bayonet used by Wellington's armies.cite book |title=Curiosities of Somerset |last=Leete-Hodge |first=Lornie |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1985 |publisher=Bossiney Books |location=Bodmin |isbn=0906456983 |pages=67 ] It is now owned by the National Trust, and is floodlit at night. The viewing platform is currently (2007) closed due to safety concerns. [cite web | title=Quantocks, Exmoor and South Somerset | work=National Trust website | url= | accessdate=2007-10-14]

The artist Robert Polhill Bevan worked in the Blackdown Hills from 1912–1925 as a guest of landowner and amateur artist Harold Harrison. Until the end of his life Bevan continued to paint in the Bolham valley and nearby Luppitt his angular style sitting well with the strong patterning of the landscape. [cite book|last=Bevan|first=Robert|title=Robert Bevan: A Memoir by his Son|publisher=Studio Vista|location=London|date=1965] Many of the images that he produced in the area are now in national museums. In the Second World War, airbases were built at Dunkeswell, Upottery and Culmhead.Ashworth, Chris (1982). "Action Stations", Volume 5: "Military airfields of the South-West". Cambridge: Patrick Stephens Limited. ISBN 0-85059-510-X.] Dunkeswell Aerodrome airport codes|N/A|EGTU was built in the Second World War by the RAF, briefly used by the USAF, and then the Fleet Airwing 7 of the USN. It was the only American Navy air base commissioned on UK soil during the Second World War.

Government and politics

The Blackdown Hills have, since 1991, been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). As they have the same landscape quality, AONBs may be compared to the national parks of England and Wales. AONBs are created under the same legislation as the national parks: the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. However, National Parks, unlike AONBs, have their own authorities and have special legal powers to prevent unsympathetic development. By contrast, there are very limited statutory duties imposed on local authorities within an AONB. Further regulation and protection of AONBs was added by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

The total population of the Blackdown Hills AONB in 2001 was 13,300; of which 10,500 live in Devon and 2,800 within Somerset. Many of the villages have their own parish councils which have some responsibility for local issues. The Blackdown Hills AONB is managed by a partnership of public bodies, local organisations and voluntary groups with an active interest in the hills. Funding is provided by Devon and Somerset County Councils, East Devon, Mid Devon, South Somerset and Taunton Deane Councils and Natural England.

The AONB straddles the borders of three parliamentary constituencies: Tiverton and Honiton, Taunton and Yeovil. The area is also part of the European Parliament's South West England constituency.

Religious sites

Dunkeswell Abbey, a Cistercian monastery and offshoot of Forde Abbey, was founded in 1201 by William de Briwere. The abbey was closed in 1539 and granted to Lord Russell. It was mostly demolished promptly, though a section remained in domestic use until the 19th century. In 1842, a parish church was built on a part of the site. Some surviving fragments of monastery include the partial end wall of the cellerars range and parts of a gatehouse. Some carved fragments survive within the Victorian era church. [Anthony New. "A Guide to the Abbeys of England And Wales", Constable, pp156-157.]

The Church of St Peter in Staple Fitzpaine was originally build in the Norman style, and has a Norman doorway reset in the south aisle. The chancel dates from the 14th century; the north aisle was added and the church refenestrated in the 15th century. The tower dates from about 1500. The south porch and the vestry are much more recent, dating from 1841. The crenellated 3-stage tower, has merlons pierced with trefoil headed arches set on a quatrefoil pierced parapet. The church has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building. [cite web | title=Church of St Peter | work=Images of England | url= | accessdate=2007-09-29]


The Blackdown Hills are crossed by a network of minor roads. There are several major roads including the A30, A303 and A35. The M5 motorway is at the northwestern boundary of the AONB. The Reading to Plymouth railway line and the remains of the Grand Western Canal run, quite close in places, to the west of the M5 motorway but do not pass through the Blackdown Hills.

The Culm Valley Light Railway opened in 1876, having been built by local enterprise. The line was purchased by the Great Western Railway, which had operated it from the start, in 1880. The line closed to passengers in 1963 but served the milk depot at Hemyock until its closure in 1975. [cite book|last=Messenger|first=Michael J. |title=The Culm Valley Light Railway: Hemyock Branch of the Great Western Railway|publisher=Twelveheads Press|location=Truro|date=1993|isbn=978-0906294291]

Dunkeswell Aerodrome airport codes|N/A|EGTU is now a busy civilian airfield with a mix of light aircraft, microlights and parachuting.

See also

*List of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Somerset
*List of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Dorset


External links

* [ Blackdown Hills AONB] – official website

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