West Dorset Escarpment

As a geological continuation from the North and South Dorset Escarpments, the West Dorset Escarpment forms a dramatic backdrop to the intimate valleys and vales of West Dorset.

As a geological continuation from the North and South Dorset Escarpments, the West Dorset Escarpment forms a dramatic backdrop to the intimate valleys and vales of West Dorset. The character varies from open steep, twisting and incised landforms contrasting to more shallow wooded slopes. The slopes around Beaminster and Askerswell are particularly steep with the former providing a notable extent of broadleaved woodland contrasting to extensive open grasslands south of Eggardon Hill. Along the top of the ridge views are extensive, particularly from the imposing Eggardon Iron Age hill fort. Along the slopes, the rounded spurs and deep coombes, textured soil creep, patches of scrub and unimproved grasslands add to the ecological interest. Toward the lower slopes, the ridge becomes more intimate with organic field patterns leading towards a series of wooded spring line villages and intimate rural lanes.

  • A dramatic and exposed steep and often narrow escarpment with 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
  • Patchwork of small-scale pastoral fields on lower slopes with scattered farmsteads at the ridge bottom spring line.
  • Areas of unimproved neutral and calcareous downland turf on steep slopes, with nationally important sites toward Askerswell and Eggardon
  • Mixed arable and pastoral fields of piecemeal enclosures on escarpment sides
  • Hanging ancient oak, ash, hazel woodlands 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 the Valley of Stones and hill forts at Eggardon and Chilcombe
  • 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 impact. Overall, the area has largely maintained its dark night skies and undeveloped rural character.

Land shape and structure

The landscape character of the West Dorset Escarpment is largely determined by its steep and twisted sides rising to over 200m. The shallow slopes give way to the steep escarpment of rounded spurs and deep coombes. The ridge top has a largely smooth profile with convex slopes, before it breaks away toward the chalk valleys to the east. There is a marked break in slope around Powerstock Common, exaggerating the imposing Eggardon Hill to the south.

Soils and vegetation

The underlying chalk provides thin, light 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, particularly around Eggardon Hill. Towards the base of the escarpment, greensand gives rise to damper soils and associated vegetation. Woodland is most prevalent around Beaminster.

Settlement and land cover

Largely due to the topography, the escarpment is mostly unsettled with occasional isolated farmsteads. There are also modern barns toward the foot of the escarpment and a prominent power line running across the area near to Askerswell. Towards the lower slopes, small farmsteads and clustered villages, at least medieval in origin, lie along the spring line towards the Powerstock Hills and beyond. It is largely uncultivated with unenclosed grazing of rough pasture, with some large geometric fields of arable and grass along to top. Mixed pastoral and arable fields give a more structured appearance towards the bottom of the escarpment.

Historic character

The area is defined by almost exclusively piecemeal enclosures and coppice woodland. Iron Age fortifications, in particular the imposing Eggardon Hill with well-preserved ramparts provide extensive views towards the vales and greensand hills in the west. The escarpment drew the attention of prehistoric man with occasional prehistoric barrows along its length. Other visible features include ‘pillow mounds’, earthworks used to farm rabbits.

Visual character and perceptions

The escarpment dominates the surrounding landscape with a textured appearance of scrub and significant darker areas of woodland. It has a powerful appearance due to its open and exposed nature with commanding views of West Dorset.

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, cover of unimproved grasslands and piecemeal enclosure. The survival of monuments is less than in other similar character areas, such as the Purbeck Ridge. Some change to arable has taken place along with fragmentation of habitats by game cover crops. However, the escarpment still maintains a strong association with traditional land uses.


Extensive patches of unimproved grasslands, remnants of ancient woodland provide continuity of past land management practices, along with good ecological condition of these important habitats. Some arable change has taken place, particularly along the escarpment tops, with some poor management affecting the condition of the landscape. The setting of historic monuments is largely good.  The quality of vernacular farm buildings at the foot of the escarpment is also generally good. Scrub encroachment is a constant threat to the viability of grasslands and requires ongoing management to maintain the balance of habitats. The National Grid powerline is a significant detracting feature, particularly in the Askerswell area, but also within the wider area due to its visible on the open skyline. 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.