North Dorset Escarpment

The North Dorset Escarpment with its steep, twisting and incised landform provides a contrasting backdrop to the Blackmore Vale in the north and the series of chalk valley landscapes to the south.

The North Dorset Escarpment with its steep, twisting and incised landform provides a contrasting backdrop to the Blackmore Vale in the north and the series of chalk valley landscapes to the south. It has a bold, dominant character and identity with a variety of colours, textures and land uses. It is a largely unsettled landscape with occasional isolated farms set within broadleaved woodlands and open grasslands. Towards the top of the escarpment, views are extensive with large arable fields and occasional small clipped hedgerows. Along the slopes, rounded spurs and deep coombes, textured soil creep, patches of scrub and unimproved grasslands add to the ecological interest. Towards the lower slopes, the escarpment becomes more intimate with woodland blocks and dense hedgerows. Broken from the main escarpment by the flat Stour Valley Pastures, Hod and Hambledon Hills are prominent, dramatic iron age hilltop forts with impressive sweeping, sinuous forms. Further west, between Woolland and Batcombe, the ridge becomes narrower and steeper with significant coverage of ancient woodlands. The extensive panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, particularly across the Blackmore Vale, are a key characteristic. Overall the area provides a sense of relative isolation, with an unspoilt character that is remote from larger settlements and modern development.

  • A dramatic and exposed steep escarpment with rounded spurs and deep coombes
  • Extensive and uninterrupted panoramic views from higher ground, particularly northward across the Blackmore Vale and from Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill
  • Patchwork of small scale mixed pastoral fields on lower slopes with scattered farmsteads along the spring line
  • Numerous landmarks including prehistoric barrows and prominent hilltop forts, cross dykes and prehistoric field systems, which contribute to the area’s rich historic heritage
  • Areas of open unimproved calcareous turf on steep slopes with patches of scrub
  • Large, straight-sided arable fields of late 18th/early 19th century enclosures on escarpment top
  • Hanging ancient oak, ash, hazel woodlands on lower slopes
  • Thin calcareous soils with underlying geology of chalk and greensand
  • Ancient sunken, winding lanes with an open character towards the top
  • Strong undeveloped rural character, with a sense of seclusion and tranquility. Modern development and intrusive features have limited effect on traditional rural character, although settlement growth to the north of the escarpment has eroded the remote character of some parts of the escarpment. Overall, the area has largely maintained its dark night skies and undeveloped rural character.

Land shape and structure

The landscape character of the North Dorset Escarpment is largely determined by its steep, winding topography rising to over 200m. The lower shallow slopes of greensand give way to the steep chalk escarpment of rounded spurs and deep coombes. Towards the escarpment top, the landform has a largely smooth profile with convex slopes, before it breaks away towards the chalk valleys to the south.

Soils and vegetation

The higher areas of underlying chalk provide thin, light free-draining calcareous soils. These steep slopes of the escarpment and associated forts support occasional broadleaved woodlands, patches of scrub and species rich chalk grasslands. Woodland is most prevalent around Ibberton Hill and towards Woolland and Batcombe, with both dry and wet woodlands found on the north side of the Bulbarrow scarp. Where greensand is prevalent along the lower slopes, soils become damper supporting lush vegetation.

Settlement and land cover

Largely due to the topography, the escarpment is mostly unsettled with occasional isolated farmsteads. There are several modern barns and sheds as well as prominent telecommunication masts on Bulbarrow Hill. Towards the lower slopes, small farmsteads and nucleated villages, at least medieval in origin, lie along the spring line towards the Blackmore Vale. It is largely uncultivated with unenclosed grazing of rough pasture. In places on the top, there are large geometric fields of arable and ley with significant blocks of hazel coppice and geometric conifer plantations. Pastoral and arable fields give a more structured appearance towards the bottom of the escarpment.

Historic character

The wider character is mostly piecemeal enclosure with deciduous woodland and coppice towards the western end. To the east, enclosures are more regular with pasture and large areas of woodland. Notable archaeology includes Rawlsbury Camp, Bulbarrow, Green Hill, Okeford Hill and Bell Hill with various round barrows and cross-dykes. Hambledon Hill with the sweeping, sinuous curves of the double embankments which contour around its summit makes it one of the most impressive examples of an Iron Age hill fort in Britain. Hod Hill is one of the largest Iron Age forts in Dorset, extending to 54 acres.

Visual character and perceptions

The escarpment dominates the surrounding landscape within its northward setting, with a textured appearance of scrub and significant darker areas of woodland. It has a powerful, dramatic appearance due to its open and exposed nature with commanding views of the Blackmore Vale.

Strength of character

This landscape maintains a strong character, primarily due to its dramatic and exposed landform. This is emphasised by the pattern of characteristic spurs and coombes and land cover of unimproved calcareous downland turf. Although some land use change and fragmentation of habitats has taken place with recent enclosure of open land, the escarpment maintains is strong association with traditional land uses.


Extensive patches of unimproved chalk grassland and ancient woodland provide continuity of past land management practices, with generally good ecological condition of these important habitats. The setting of historic monuments is largely in good condition, with high quality vernacular farm buildings at the foot of the escarpment. Post war arable use has affected some below ground archaeology although the recent enclosed nature of the parts of the landscape ensures a good coverage of prehistoric remains.  Some fragmentation of grasslands has taken place through game cover crops and arable extension from the surrounding uplands. This has affected the condition of the landscape in places. Scrub encroachment and invasive species control are a constant threat to the viability of grasslands and requires constant management to maintain the balance of habitats. Communication masts and skyline barns have a negative landscape impact in places, particularly around Bulbarrow Hill. The landscape is judged to be in moderate and stable condition.

The overall aim should be to conserve the historic and undeveloped character of the area, its perceived and physical remoteness and tranquillity and to safeguard views through conserving the open skyline. Management of the distinct mosaic patterning of woodland, scrub and chalk grassland should be undertaken with the aims of restoring and enhancing habitats and historic features.

Planning guidelines

  • Maintain the undeveloped character of the scarp and the contrast with the ridge base farmsteads.
  • New housing development within the setting of the scarp should be small scale and complement the form and character of the historic settlement pattern. Extension toward the scarp should be carefully controlled and should incorporate appropriate native planting to help assimilate it into the landscape. Development that encroaches on the scarp should be strongly resisted.
  • Ensure new agricultural dwellings, barns and structures enhance the local character, are located to reduce their impact on open views and, where necessary, 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.
  • 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.
  • Conserve the rural character of lanes and protect sensitive banks from further erosion.
  • Protect and enhance important views to and from the ridge/escarpment.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Management guidelines

  • Promote the use of visually permeable boundaries such as post and wire fencing on higher ground and enhance the sense of continuity and openness across the escarpment/ridge tops and associated monuments.
  • Monitor continued encroachment of scrub on the steepest slopes. Burn scrub and encourage grazing where appropriate and avoid straight line cutting to minimise visual impact. Retain occasional small patches of scrub for aesthetic and wildlife benefits.
  • Seek opportunities to recreate, link and restore important grassland sites.
  • Enhance the function of habitats in supporting the wider ecological network, where appropriate.
  • Enhanced woodland management a key requirement. Further woodland planting is not a key objective for this area, although some locations on lower slopes may provide opportunities for new planting, particularly where this will augment existing character. However, only native species should be incorporated and rectilinear planting patterns should be avoided.
  • Ensure conservation of low impact grassland management, particularly around prehistoric barrows and hillforts.
  • Promote sustainable management of and recreational access to open access land and significant viewpoints.