The Living Past: the origins and development of the historic landscape of the Blackdown Hills - Phase 1: summary report
The Blackdown Hills lie on the borders of Devon and Somerset in South West England. They have a unique landscape character with a series of bowl shaped valleys separated by windswept uplands that form a discontinuous, flat-topped plateau. The valley sides have a complex landscape with narrow winding lanes, scattered farmsteads and small hamlets, surrounded by small, often irregularly shaped fields, and areas of woodland clinging to the steeper slopes. A series of medieval parish churches remind us that this is ancient countryside, in contrast to the long straight roads and large, regularly laid out fields on the higher plateaus that have an equally distinctively recent feel. The first phase of this project was designed to explore the origins and development of these contrasting countrysides through an analysis of the ‘historic landscape’ – a term that has been developed to emphasise the time depth present in our current patterns of roads, settlements, fields and other aspects of landuse such as woodland, quarries and parkland. The physical fabric of the historic landscape (settlement, roads, field systems, woodland etc) were studied across the whole Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), with documentary research carried out for several smaller, sample, study areas: the latter can be carried out for the whole AONB if funding becomes available. The project has led to a far better understanding of the history of the Blackdown Hills. An upland fringe landscape such as this will have been colonised from the surrounding lowland areas, with settlement gradually expanding up the valley sides and eventually onto the hilltops. This analysis of the historic landscape shows that on the Blackdown Hills this process began long before the 11th century as a series of places are documented in the Domesday survey, often relatively high up on the valley sides. This location suggests that the communities living there were farming the valley sides and grazing livestock in a series of unenclosed commons on the flat-topped plateaus. During the following centuries the number of settlement increased though this was achieved primarily through intensifying the way in which these already settled areas in the valleys were used, rather than colonising new areas of land. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that the final areas of common land – on the flat-topped plateaus – were enclosed.
The project was funded by the Blackdown Hills Rural Partnership through the Sustainability Development Fund, and the University of Exeter.