The Quantock Hills
The Quantock Hills are home to some spectacular scenery, as well as important, unusual habitats, such as maritime heathland. The hills were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956 and were the first area in England to be awarded this status. The Quantock Common area is also designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, due to its important habitats.
The entire area of the Quantock Hills covers approximately twelve miles by four miles and they reach 384 metres in height at the highest point of Will's Neck. They extend from just beyond Taunton as far as the Bristol Channel, with views stretching from Exmoor in the west to the Bridgewater Bay to the east.
The habitats on the hills range from open heathland to woodland and farmland. There are several valleys nestling amongst the lower hills, sheltering many villages that are worth exploring. These include Crowcombe, with its wine cellars and ancient church-house, and Aisholt, boasting beautiful ash woodlands and the Church of All Saints with its stunning setting and views.
The heathland areas of the Quantocks are vital for wildlife, as heathland is a threatened and endangered habitat nationally. The hills provide the necessary conditions for maritime heath to grow, which is comprised of bell and ling heather, western gorse, bilberry and cross-leaved heath. Mosses and lichens and a variety of other species, including bristle-bent grass (agrostis curtisii) and heath bedstraw (gallium saxatile) also grow here. It is not surprising that part of the area has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest when one considers that the hills are unique in Britain for having entire coverage of this heathland habitat, and careful land management is needed to ensure that the heathland remains.
The majority of the land is privately owned by farmers and estate-holders, although footpaths stretch across the whole area of the Quantock Hills and the National Trust, the Forest Enterprise and Somerset County Council also have extensive estates. Farming has existed on the hills at least since the Iron Age settlers in Cockercombe, and there is still evidence of the type of farming necessitated by the Enclosures Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when common land was divided into closed-field systems, creating a patchwork effect in the landscape.
The woodland areas of the Quantocks are beautiful and provide excellent, sheltered walking paths. Great Wood, between Bridgewater and Minehead is a mixed woodland, providing excellent habitat for red deer and other woodland wildlife, such as squirrels and many bird species. There are several walking, cycling and horse-riding trails throughout the wood, providing excellent leisure activities for visitors. Some more active visitors may wish to attempt the Coleridge Way walk, some thirty-six miles through the Quantock Hills, starting at Nether Stowey and proceeding through the Brendon Hills and Exmoor.
The many villages surrounding the hills provide ample venues to seek out fine food and drink. Accommodation is also widely available, from bed and breakfasts to campsites.