AONB Designation

AONBs and National Parks were brought into being by the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act to secure their permanent protection against development that would damage their special qualities, thus conserving a number of the finest landscapes in England for the nation’s benefit.

The primary purpose of AONB designation is to conserve and enhance natural beauty.

In pursuing the primary purpose, account should be taken of the needs of agriculture, forestry other rural industries and of the economic and social needs of local communities. Particular regard should be paid to promoting sustainable forms of social and economic development that in themselves conserve and enhance the environment.

Recreation is not an objective of designation, but the demand for recreation should be met so far as this is consistent with the conservation of natural beauty and the needs of agriculture, forestry, and other uses.

 What Difference Does The Designation Make?

Stronger planning protection

38 AONBs in England and Wales have equal value and protection to National Parks. Mendip Hills AONB is a member of the AONB Family listed in full on the Landscapes for Life website. Planning decisions remain with the local planning authorities.

More funding for conservation

Includes specific funding for the AONB Partnership as well as targeting of other schemes such as agri-environment grants.

Involving local people

About 20,000 people live in or close to the Mendip Hills AONB. Through events and community projects, and representation in decisions, local people share in the care and management of the area.

The Mendip Hills AONB Management Plan (PDF Download 7MB) and Delivery Plan (PDF Download 160KB) have identified priorities and actions.

Designated in 1972 the Mendip Hills AONB covers 198sq km from Bleadon in the west to Chewton Mendip in the east.

The Mendip Hills have a very strong character defined by their geology and position rising abruptly from the Somerset Levels. Species-rich scarp slope woodlands, calcareous grassland and the sparsely settled open plateau defined by rectilinear dry stone wall enclosures contrast with the Chew Valley with a pattern of hedgerows, spring line settlements, and lakes.

National Character Areas

All the above contribute to the Mendip Hills AONB special qualities and the wide range of benefits the area provides to society – defined as ecosystem services in the National Character Areas (NCA) 141 Mendip Hills and 118 Bristol, Avon Valleys and Ridges.

National Character Areas are areas that share similar landscape characteristics, and which follow natural lines in the landscape rather than administrative boundaries, making them a good decision-making framework for the natural environment. For each NCA, Statements of Environmental Opportunity suggest possibilities for future enhancement of the landscape.

Sense of History

The history of the landscape is evidently ranging from prehistoric settlement and activity to World War 2 archaeology. The prehistoric henges of Gorsey Bigbury and Priddy Circles form in combination with over 300 Bronze Age barrows, a ritual landscape of national significance. Large hill forts from the Iron Age such as Dolebury and smaller sites such as Banwell are evidence of a complex pattern of territories and lordship. Quarries and pitted landscapes are evidence of lead mining and other extraction activity some of which continues today. Field patterns reflect the various histories of enclosure and settlement.


The AONB has 7 nationally designated geological and 8 mixed interest (geological and biological) SSSIs and 18 Local Geological Sites reflecting the importance of the geological interest. These include natural features of exposed rocks, dry gorges, sinkholes, areas of sunken ground and cave systems of the classic Carboniferous Limestone karst landscape to sandstone peaks and a long history of quarrying and mining which ties it closely to the history and culture of the area.


The Mendip Hills are accessible to the large populations of Bristol, Bath and Weston-super-Mare and the smaller surrounding settlements. Access to the outdoors is fundamental to promoting healthier lifestyles. Tourism is important to the local economy, Wookey Hole and Cheddar Gorge drawing in large numbers of visitors. Caving, climbing, cycling, and walking are also popular activities.


There are 27 SSSI’s covering 2712 ha, 3 Special Area of Conservation (SAC), 1 Special Protection Area (SPA) and 2 National Nature Reserves within the Mendip Hills AONB. Ash woodland and calcareous grasslands are internationally designated as well as sites for greater horseshoe bats. The Cheddar pink (flower of Somerset) is found only in Cheddar Gorge.


The entire area lies over an important Carboniferous Limestone aquifer which is designated as a Major Aquifer Unit making a major contribution to public water supply and supplying Bristol and the surrounding area via Cheddar, Blagdon, and Chew Valley reservoirs. The Mendip aquifer also supplies the hot springs in Bath.


The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designates the UK’s AONBs as Category V – Protected Landscape/seascape – ‘a protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value’.