Special Qualities

May Blog 5/12

There are 12 special qualities you need to understand and experience on the Mendip Hills. Each month in 2019 we’ll be introducing you to one of these special qualities. Individually they are important, together they are what makes Mendip an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Sunbathing on the Mendip Hills #mendipgrasslands

Where’s the best place to sunbathe on the Mendip Hills? All living things love a south facing area where you can get maximum exposure to those rays. From the slopes above Wells all the way along to Hellenge Hill above Bleadon the south facing slopes of the Mendip Hills are a very special place for plants, animals and us.

These south facing slopes are covered in Limestone Grasslands; found on thin, well-drained, lime-rich soils associated with chalk and in our case limestone. The soil they put their roots into is thin and warms up fast meaning the plants need to be pretty special to live here.

The Mendip Hills supports the largest limestone grassland area of its type; shallow, sharply-draining soils, with an open swards (grassed area) characterised by the frequency of mouse-ear hawkweed Hieracium pilosella, wild thyme Thymus praecox and annual/biennial species such as yellow-wort. The grasslands are exceptional as they support a number of rare plants typical of the oceanic southern temperate and Mediterranean elements of the British flora. It’s like a permanent vacation for these plants as they feel like they’re sunning themselves around the Med!

If these plants feel like they’re on holiday all the time why should we care? Wildflower rich grasslands provide us with important ‘services’, often unseen but vital in supporting life. A wide range of wildflowers keeps nutrients in the soils; pollinating insects support the crops we need to eat; and because wildflower rich meadows thrive with low levels of fertiliser, this results in less pollution and water quality is improved. Remember another of the Mendip Hills AONB Special Qualities is the Limestone Aquifer that provides us all with clean water, so the limestone grasslands are part of this process as well and are working while on holiday!

Cheddar Pink

Most of these calcareous grasslands are maintained by grazing so don’t be surprised if you find sheep, cattle or ponies nibbling away to keep the sward short. On really steep slopes in Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe goats are used to keep the bigger grasses down and let the sun-lovers bask away.

Don’t worry about a bit of scrub, this change in habitat is an important part of the mix giving perches for birds and cover for rabbits.

Where are the best places for you to sunbathe with the famous Limestone Grasslands of the Mendip Hills? If you’re after the views as well then you could hop from one nature reserve to the next; Hellenge Hill, Crook Peak and Wavering Down, Piney Sleights, Shute Shelve, Bubwith Acres, Draycott Sleights, Westbury Beacon and Deer Leap.

These Limestone Grasslands are very rare and internationally important, making them one of our Special Qualities. Combined all these special qualities define the naturally beautiful and nationally protected Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

To find out more visit:
Somerset Wildlife Trust
National Trust
Mendip Limestone Grasslands SAC

Read our previous Blogs:
January #mendipwater (PDF Download 62KB)
February #mendipplateauu (PDF Download 140KB)
March #mendiparchaeology (PDF Download 114KB)
April #mendipchewvalley (PDF Download 104KB)

What Are The Special Qualities Of The Mendip Hills AONB?

Rising from the Somerset Levels are the distinctive Mendip Hills that with the lakes of Chew Valley and Blagdon form the 198sq kms that is the Mendip Hills AONB. The special qualities that create the Mendip Hills sense of place and identity are:

Evidence of human settlement


Dating back 500,000 yrs. Henge monuments, barrows and hillforts through to World War 2 sites are prominent features on the plateau. Romans and Victorians left a mining landscape that nature is reclaiming.

Stockhill Forest and East Harptree Woods are places where you can still see the old mining landscape.

A tough landscape famous for adventure and getting in touch with nature


The geology has created incredible opportunities for caving, climbing and cycling. But the tranquillity allows quieter activities like bird watching and simply walking.

Burrington Combe is a great place to start your adventure.

Distinctive limestone ridge


Windswept plateau punctuated by spectacular dry valleys and gorges, ancient sinkholes and depressions, and impressive rocky outcrops.

Cheddar Gorge probably the single best-known limestone karst feature in Britain.

Sparsely populated plateau


Settlements of Mendip stone along the spring line where the water emerges from the underground. Dark skies give you an incredible view of the stars at night and a sense of tranquillity.

Priddy is the only village on the plateau and sums up the tough character of Mendip.

Diverse and visible geology


Ranging from Devonian to Jurassic in a relatively small area making it one of the best areas in the country to appreciate the relationships between geology, landscape and natural history.

Ebbor Gorge will get you up close and personal to the rocks.

The Caves


For their wildlife, geological, archaeological importance. Avelines Hole the oldest burial site in Britain and Goughs Cave in Cheddar Gorge is one of the most important Palaeolithic sites in Europe and provides a breeding site for Lesser and Greater Horseshoe bats.

Burrington Combe is the safest place to see cave entrances without getting muddy. If you want to go further contact an outdoor adventure company.

The limestone aquifer


Feeding the reservoirs of Cheddar, Chew Valley and Blagdon lakes providing habitats of local and international importance for birds.

Chew Valley Lake is designated a Special Protection Area for bird species.

The Chew Valley


Is the sheltered, farmed landscape with fields divided with hedges, that contrasts the windswept plateau.

Drystone walls


That criss-cross the plateau dividing the farmland grazed by sheep, beef and dairy cattle. The walls are a vital lifeline for wildlife like adders, they are perfect for basking on and make a safe way of moving from one place to another.

Steep south-facing slopes of flower-rich limestone grasslands


Come to life in the summer.

Crook Peak and Wavering Down are spectacular places where you can move along these slopes and look out across Somerset

Ancient woodland combes


Located on the north and south slopes offering varied rich habitats of national and international importance for a wide diversity of wildlife including dormouse and bats.

Step into Kings Wood to get a taste of these wooded combes.

Views towards


The Mendip Hills from Exmoor, Quantocks, the Somerset Levels and Moors and Chew Valley.

Views out

Including across the Severn Estuary to Wales and the Somerset Levels to Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset coast.

Particular combinations of these special qualities form 11 distinctive landscape areas identified in the Mendip Hills AONB Landscape Assessment (1998).

For current work on the AONBs Landscape Character Assessment, Special Qualities and sensitivity studies go to our Planning page.

The special qualities are those aspects for which the area is designated and are the priorities for management.