South Dorset Escarpment

The South Dorset Escarpment has a broadly consistent character and landform than the more twisted escarpments to the west and north.

The South Dorset Escarpment has a broadly consistent character and landform than the more twisted escarpments to the west and north. Where topography is steep there is a near continuous cover of rough, enclosed grasslands. The steep slopes, with some sparse hedgerows, are covered in patches of scrub and extensive soil creep. Elsewhere there is a notable proportion of land under arable management. The landform becomes rounded at the foot towards regular fields of pastures, which are smaller scale and more intimate around the Bride Valley. The landscape is particularly open and exposed around the higher ground at Abbotsbury with impressive views over the Weymouth lowlands, the Isle of Portland, the Fleet and the open seas beyond. It is a largely unsettled landscape with occasional isolated farmsteads located within breaks in the ridge, set within broadleaved woodlands and open grasslands.

  • A dramatic and exposed escarpment with occasional rounded spurs and deep coombes
  • Extensive and uninterrupted panoramic views from higher ground, providing the opportunity to look across the surrounding collection of landscape and seascape character areas and appreciate their unique sequence and structure.
  • Coastal features are a significant element within views.
  • Patchwork of small-scale pastoral fields on lower slopes with scattered farmsteads at gaps in the escarpment and along the spring line
  • Areas of rough unimproved calcareous downland turf on steep slopes with soil creep
  • Large, straight-sided arable fields of late regualr18th/early century19th enclosures on escarpment top and sides
  • Occasional small scale hanging ancient oak, ash, hazel woodlands, usually on lower slopes
  • Dense gorse scrub on steep ridge sides
  • Thin calcareous soils with underlying geology of chalk.
  • Numerous landmarks including prehistoric barrows and prominent hilltop forts, which contribute to the area’s rich historic heritage. Notable features include Abbotsbury Castle, Chalbury Hill Fort and White Horse Hill.
  • Ancient sunken, winding lanes with an open character towards the top
  • Strong undeveloped rural character within the eastern and western extents, with a secluded and tranquil character. Modern development and intrusive features have limited effect on traditional rural character within these extents has eroded the remote character of the central portion of the escarpment.

Land shape and structure

The landscape character of the South Dorset escarpment is largely determined by its steep, winding topography rising to over 200m. The landform is less sinuous than the other escarpments within the National Landscape, running almost in a straight east-west line, containing the chalk landscapes to north and the coastal landscapes to the south. The shallower slopes at the foot of the escarpment give way to the regular field patterns, marking the transition to the Ridge and Vale landscapes either side of Weymouth.

Soils and vegetation

The underlying chalk provides thin, free draining calcareous soils. The steep slopes of the escarpments and associated forts support occasional broadleaved woodlands, patches of scrub and species rich chalk grasslands. The area is less wooded than the other escarpments due to the coastal influences and thinner soils on the steep slopes.

Settlement and land cover

Largely due to the steep topography, the escarpment is mostly unsettled with occasional isolated farmsteads. Towards the south, the lower slopes give way to small farmsteads and nucleated villages, at least medieval in origin, which lie along the spring line and are related to structured enclosures found along the base of the escarpment.  The slopes are largely uncultivated, enclosed grazing of rough pasture. In places towards the uplands, there are large geometric fields of arable and ley and isolated woodlands. Notable recent development includes large scale modern barns and powerlines that extend from Weymouth. Such features can have a significant impact, due to their widespread visibility and the difficulty in achieving suitable mitigation.

Historic character

The escarpment exhibits a combination of regular enclosures with fragments of heath, downland and piecemeal enclosures. Medieval farmsteads are found at gaps in the escarpment. Notable visible archaeology includes the site of a medieval village at Holworth and the impressive Chalbury hill fort, overlooking Preston and towards the coast. Nestled within a coombe is the Valley of Stones, an ancient quarry with occasional barrows and remaining prehistoric fields systems.

Visual character and perceptions

The ridge dominates the surrounding landscape with an open rugged appearance of rough grasslands. It has an almost wild appearance due to its open and exposed nature, subject to powerful coastal forces.

Strength of character

This landscape maintains a strong character, primarily due to its dramatic and exposed landform. This is emphasised by the extensive pattern of characteristic land cover of rough grasslands. Although some change to arable and recent enclosures has taken place, the escarpment maintains a strong association with past land uses.


Occasional patches of unimproved chalk grassland provide continuity of past land management practices, along with good ecological condition of these important habitats. Although a notable degree of arable management now occurs, this has not greatly affected the condition of the landscape, although the maintenance of historic stone walls has reduced. Scrub encroachment is a constant threat to the condition of grasslands and requires constant management to maintain the balance of habitats. The settings of historic monuments are largely in good condition and there has been an improvement to the management of such features through the recent Landscape Partnership. High quality traditional farm buildings can be found at the foot of the escarpment. Communication masts, modern barns, powerlines and the Weymouth Relief Road have some negative landscape impact, particularly towards Weymouth. 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.