Mendip Hills

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The Mendip Hills as seen from Crook Peak. Photograph by Chris Bollard.
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The Mendip Hills as seen from Crook Peak. Photograph by Chris Bollard.

The Mendip Hills are a range of limestone hills (karst) situated to the south of Bristol and Bath in north Somerset, England. The hills are bounded by the Somerset Levels in the south and west, and the River Avon and Chew Valley Lake in the north. The hills give their name to the roughly analogous local government district of Mendip, but some of the northern slopes are located in the bordering Unitary Authorities of North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset, part of the former County of Avon which was dissolved in 1996.

200 sq km of the Mendips are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a designation which gives the area the same level of protection as a national park.

Contents

Geology

The hills are home to a number of limestone features, including caves (Wookey Hole), limestone pavements, and a number of gorges, most famously Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe.

In addition to Carboniferous and some Jurassic limestone, parts of the hills are formed from Devonian sandstone and Silurian volcanic rocks. The latter are quarried for use in road construction and as a concrete aggregate. From the time of the Romans until the late Victorian era, the hills were also an important source of lead.

The highest point of the Mendip Hills is Beacon Batch on Black Down at 325 metres (1068 feet) above sea level. Black Down is of a moorland characteristic, with its steeper slopes covered in bracken and its flatter summit in heather and grasses rather than the pastureland which covers much of the plateau. In the Second World War, a bombing decoy was constructed on top of Black Down, and piles of stones (known as a cairn) were created to prevent enemy aircraft using the hilltop as a landing site.

Ecology

Much of the Mendip Hills is open calcareous grassland which supports a large variety of wild flowering plants and insects. Grazing by rabbits, sheep and cattle maintains the grassland habitat. Some of the area is native deciduous woodland.

Some of the area has been used intensively for arable agriculture, particularly since World War I. Some of this land is now being returned to grassland as the demand for arable land in Britain declines, but the use of fertilisers and herbicides have reduced the biodiversity in these areas.

The upland heaths of the west Mendips have recently increased in importance ornithologically, due to colonisation by the Dartford Warbler, which can be found for example at Black Down and Crook Peak. In Britain, this species is usually associated with lowland heath.

The woodlands at Stock Hill are a breeding site for Nightjar and Long-eared Owl.

The Waldegrave Pool, part of Priddy Mineries is an important site for dragonflies, including Downy Emerald (the only Mendip breeding site for this species) and Four-spotted Chaser.

A well known Mendip feature are the dry stone walls which fragment the pasture into fields. Contructed from local limestone and in an "A frame" design, the walls are strong yet contain no mortar.Unfortunately years of neglect are allowing many walls to disintegrate, being replaced or contained by a mix of barbed wire and sheep fencing. These dry-stone walls are of botanical importance, supporting important populations of the Nationally Scarce Wall Whitlow-grass.

History

The area contains many neolithic, iron age and bronze age remains, including barrows and forts. The caves of Cheddar Gorge in particular have preserved much archaeology as flood waters have washed artefacts into the caves and preserved them in silt. The cheddar man was found here.

The name is believed to be cognate with Mened (Welsh mynydd), a Brythonic term for upland moorland. The suffix may be a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon hop meaning a valley.

In recent centuries the hills, like the Cotswolds to the north, have been quarried for stone to build the cities of Bath and Bristol, as well as smaller towns in Somerset.

The Mendip Hills is home to the Mendip UHF television transmitter installed in the 1960's, the tallest mast in the region situated on Pen Hill near Wells.

Between 2003 and late 2004, a proposal ragedaover plans to errect a 300 foot Wind Turbine on the Mendip Hills near Chewton Mendip. After months of debate, the proposal was rejected by Mendip District Council supported by a range of local groups and organisations. The key arguments for rejection was that the proposed location for the turbine was on the edge of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, that the environmental impact and amount electricity generated would be nominal and that it would be a terrible eyesore in such a stunning environment.

Notable towns

See also

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