Cerne & Sydling Valley

The Cerne & Sydling valleys and associated chalk streams are characterised by a sweeping ‘U’ shaped landform with flat valley bottoms, steep valley sides, rounded hollows, and incised coombes leading up towards the surrounding rounded, open chalk uplands.

The distinctive river valleys that drain the chalk downs are key features of the National Landscape. The Cerne & Sydling valleys and associated chalk streams are characterised by a sweeping ‘U’ shaped landform with flat valley bottoms, steep valley sides, rounded hollows, and incised coombes leading up towards the surrounding rounded, open chalk uplands. The landscape has several distinctive elements. The historical transport routes that connect villages along the valley floor are enclosed by small-scale pastoral fields with dense hedgerows and hedgerow trees. With old water meadows along the floodplain and remnant parkland, these areas provide intimate and enclosed landscapes of subtle colours with strong historical associations. There is a branching pattern of narrow, steep-sided dry coombes, off the main central valley with small pockets of broad-leaved woodland and relic hazel coppice with rough chalk pastures and patches of scrub. Towards the upper slopes the valley becomes broader in scale with large arable field patterns and occasional scattered farms, providing a gradual transition to the surrounding open chalk uplands.

  • Enclosed, sweeping ‘U’ shaped chalk valleys with associated chalk streams and surrounding steep branching valleys, rounded hollows and open chalk uplands
  • Fine panoramic views afforded by distinct linear ridgelines running through the area, enabling appreciation of the structure of the farmed downland
  • Thin calcareous soils with underlying geology of chalk with occasional outcrops of greensand, supporting a number of sinuous grassland habitats that are of national importance
  • Incised valley slopes with large patches of semi-natural chalk grassland and occasional oak and ash broadleaved woodlands and relic hazel coppice
  • Clear chalk stream with floodplain supporting occasional water meadows, wet woodlands, cress beds and rough damp meadows
  • Winding rural lanes along the valley floor with a series of small nucleated villages of brick and flint, Ham Hill stone, thatch and cob. These, along with parkland landscapes with veteran trees, railings, flint walls and country houses along the valley floors, as well as occasional water meadow channels and barrows, contribute to the area’s rich historic and built heritage.
  • Smaller scale pastures and fields patterns on valley floor with species rich dense hedgerows, small broadleaved woodlands and occasional hedgerow trees
  • Large, straight-sided arable and pastoral fields of regular enclosures with trimmed hazel hedgerows, with post & wire on chalk uplands
  • Undeveloped rural character, with a sense of seclusion and tranquility. Modern development and intrusive features have limited impact and the area has largely maintained its dark night skies and traditional character, although modern farming practices and development have affected parts of the area.

Land shape and structure

The valleys drain into the River Frome to the south. The narrow valley bottom retains a sense of enclosure from the surrounding hollows and coombes rising towards the open uplands. The valley bottoms are particularly enclosed at the south and north of the Cerne Valley.

Soils and vegetation

The chalk provides free draining soils which on the steeper slopes support large areas of unimproved chalk grassland and patches of scrub. Small oak and ash broadleaved woodlands and relic hazel coppice are found dotted along the valley sides leading down towards damp chalk pastures along the valley bottom. A large area of wood pasture is found at Minterne Magna.

Settlement and land cover

Small nucleated settlements within the valley, namely Sydling St Nicholas, Forston, Nether Cerne, Cerne Abbas and Up Cerne, all with well-defined edges, follow the linear road system. The valley has a rich built heritage with remaining churches, manor houses and barns adding visual interest and often set within locally prominent groups of deciduous woodland.

Historic character

Regular enclosures predominate with scattered modern fields in the northern area with more open fields and with patches of downland in the southern part. Along the valley floor, water meadows are found. A landscape park is found at Minterne with a lake and ornamental gardens. A host of other features including 17th-century manor houses, several landmark churches across the valley floor the famous 180-feethigh Giant, carved into bare chalk and several clusters of Bronze Age barrows all add to the cultural interest of the valley. The network of field boundaries and footpaths often reflect the tracks, droves and hollow ways that took the livestock to and from the downs in prehistoric times.

Visual character and perceptions

The tight knit pattern of nucleated villages and sweeping valley sides defines the varied visual character of the Cerne & Sydling Valley. With a strong cultural association of settlement patterns, surrounding small pastures leading up towards the larger scale arable uplands, the area retains a strong sense of rural tradition.

Strength of character

The landscape is judged to have a strong character. The consistent landform of the intimate valley floor, sweeping valley sides and open uplands maintain a strong sense of visual unity and character throughout the area. The distinctive features such as the historic parklands, vernacular villages and dry coombes reinforce the strength of character of this chalk landscape. There are very few features that detract from the unspoilt rural agricultural character.


Significant areas of semi-natural chalk grasslands are found along the steeper valley sides with patches of scrub. Occasional small fragments of relic hazel coppice and small broadleaved woodlands are now mostly unmanaged. Along the valley floor, damp chalk pastures and meadows remain along extensive areas along the river corridor. Traditional water meadow management is no longer practiced. However, the natural form of the valley sides is strong and has been little altered by man. Settlements are generally in a good condition with occasional boundaries in need of repair. Overall landscape condition is good and stable.

The overall management aim should be to conserve the strong pattern of existing features, whilst restoring woodlands and meadows, chalk grasslands and boundary features. To maintain undeveloped rural character, careful consideration should be given to the design of developments such as settlement extensions and large agricultural barns.  Sensitive siting and tailored landscaping measure should be pursued. Indirect effects arising from farm diversification and intensification should be considered, particularly where widespread changes to landscape management may arise.


Planning guidelines

  • Conserve and enhance the distinctive undeveloped character of the open downland landscape and the long ranging views especially from roads, Rights of Ways and key viewpoints.
  • Encourage maintenance and replacement of important boundaries, particularly parkland railings and flint walls, along the valley floors.
  • Conserve the character of rural lanes and features such as finger posts and street furniture. Remove excessive signage and seek alternatives to infrastructure associated with urban development and out of scale traffic management schemes.
  • Conserve the pattern of tight knit villages and views of key landmarks.
  • Ensure farm diversification projects do not have a negative impact of local character
  • Ensure new agricultural dwellings, barns and structures enhance the local character, are located to reduce their impact on open views and adopt design measures to reduce their perceived scale. Encourage the restoration of traditional barns and farm buildings and consider the replacement of lower quality structures when planning for expansion.
  • Ensure new housing development is complimentary to settlement scale, form and density and secure appropriate mitigation measures. Promote the use of previously developed land before greenfield sites, where this is well connected to settlement form. Require appropriate materials and architectural detailing, recognising the variable viability issues affecting market and affordable homes. Reduce the impact of associated features, including lighting, parking and access.
  • Ensure that greenspace brought forward in connection with housing development is sensitively designed. It should maintain rural character, provide benefits for biodiversity, contribute to the functionality of green infrastructure and deliver landscape and visual mitigation and enhancement.
  • Monitor and ensure pylons, masts and other vertical elements are carefully sited and the number restricted to avoid visual clutter and further interruption of the characteristic open views. Encourage the under-grounding of small powerlines in open, sensitive locations.
  • Require limitations to and mitigation of noise and light pollution, recognising the impact these issues have on tranquility and undeveloped rural character. Avoid unnecessary and prolonged noise and light pollution. Require good design to limit the impacts and use appropriate planning conditions to secure ongoing control.
  • Limit the impact of equine-related activity on landscape character, visual amenity and public access. Avoid the subdivision of prominent fields, particularly at settlement edges and on hillsides, and locate stables, jumps and other equipment in unobtrusive locations. Avoid the use of uncharacteristic fencing materials, which can be widely perceptible and appear out of place. Reduce conflict between equine management and public access where possible and ensure that public rights of ways are properly managed and maintained.
  • Ensure appropriate siting and design for essential infrastructure, such as water and electricity, integrating any required developments into the rural landscape, securing appropriate mitigation and delivering visual enhancements where possible.
  • Maintain the tradition of combed-wheat reed thatching in villages, by resisting the use of water reed on buildings previously thatched in wheat reed. The Dorset traditional style of thatching (wrap-over ridge) should be pursued.

Management guidelines

  • Enhance management of arable farmland to create a wildlife-rich habitat supporting farmland birds. This will include retaining areas of fallow land, maintaining an unploughed margin around fields and the introduction of conservation headlands. Reduce the intensity of farming practices around important sensitive habitats.
  • Conserve and restore winterbourne/chalk streams and associated habitats and features of cultural interest. Ensure monitoring of low flows takes place.
  • Protect watercourses and associated wildlife from soil erosion and the effects of diffuse pollution.
  • Encourage opportunities for enhanced woodland management on the valley sides, especially coppice management.
  • Where important grasslands and views will not be affected, promote the planting of small oak, ash and hazel broadleaved woodlands on gentle slopes and around settlements and farmsteads to increase landscape diversity. New coniferous planting and shelter belts should not be encouraged.
  • Enhance management of existing chalk grasslands and where important woodland edges will not be affected (along the valley floor and settlements), encourage reversion back to chalk grassland where remaining areas could be linked up.
  • Plant new parkland trees (and retain veteran trees for wildlife purposes) and replant new areas of wet woodland along the river.
  • Conserve and restore remnant water meadow systems that are an important historic landscape feature and provide opportunities for supporting traditional land management practices.
  • Enhance the function of habitats in supporting the wider ecological network.