Special Qualities

March Blog 3/12

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.

Time Travelling on the Mendip Hills #mendiparchaeology

Here’s your word of the day, palimpsest. Palimpsest originally refers to old parchment handwriting, where new text has been added on top but you can still see the earlier writing. The Mendip Hills is a perfect example of that concept on a landscape scale.

Any visit, anywhere on the Mendip Hills and you’ll be travelling back in time, even deep underground, peeling back the layers as you go. Recently cave divers in Wookey Hole found an intact Roman pot and the remains of others deep in the cave system. They are believed to have come from a burial chamber deep in the system that has been flooded by the River Axe over time. Read more here.

Over the other side of the Mendip plateau is Aveline’s Hole in Burrington Combe. This is another burial site, in fact it’s the earliest scientifically dated cemetery in Britain. Human bone fragments from about 21 different individuals, are thought to be between roughly 10,200 and 10,400 years old.

But the evidence of human settlement on the Mendip Hills goes back even further. Half a million years ago someone was scraping the meat from a deer bone with a flint in a cave. The cave collapsed at some point and was later discovered as part of the quarry above Westbury-sub-Mendip. Some of this ‘evidence’ is hard to find as it’s buried underground but after that early era of the caves being used during the Paleolithic, the evidence starts to become so much more easy to see.

The Priddy Circles are probably the most famous example of Neolithic earthworks dating back to approximately 2500 BC. Each one of these four circles are over 150m across, and they all sit just west of the Castle of Comfort pub. Despite the size and many investigations ‘there is little evidence to suggest how the monuments were originally used’, according to The Historic Landscape of the Mendip Hills by Elaine Jamieson.

Changing agriculture techniques, the Romans, Victorian industry, WWII, post-war forestry and now the modern planning system have all added layers that reveal stories about our beloved Mendip Hills.

There are 172 Scheduled Monuments across the designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s another key reason for the designation in the first place, one of our special qualities. Because there are so many and, like with the Priddy Circles where no-one has the complete picture, investigations continue across the hills. The AONB Partnership will continue to support these and their interpretation so that better understanding leads to better protection and people can read the palimpsest of Mendip.

There are many books on the archaeology of Mendip. A comprehensive guide referenced above is:
Jamieson, E. 2015. The Historic Landscape of the Mendip Hills. Historic England (ISBN 978 1 84802 042 9). You can also learn more about the archaeology on Mendip by visiting our Learning Zone.

Read our previous Blogs:
January #mendipwater (PDF Download 62KB)
February #mendipplateauu (PDF Download 140KB)

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.