An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are recognised as so outstanding that it is protected for the nation. The North Wessex Downs make up the third largest of Britain’s 46 AONBs.
The area lies at the heart of the chalk band that stretches across southern England and was once under a warm sea. The geology is based on tiny creatures that lived in the sea around 65 million years ago and are the source of today’s soft rock.
The rolling chalk hills with thin, well-drained soils, provide the ideal conditions for chalk grassland with chalk-loving flowers, insects and rare butterflies. Plus internationally rare chalk streams that support some of the UK’s most threatened and fragile plants and animals.
But the landscape of the North Wessex Downs is very diverse. As well as the chalk habitats, there is a rich mosaic of woodland, pasture, heath and common land.
It is an ancient landscape etched by the impact of humans for over 5,000 years, including fascinating features such as the World Heritage Site at Avebury, 8 Chalk White Horses, Savernake Forest, Highclere Castle, historic market towns and the Kennet & Avon Canal.
The name Wessex was revived by Thomas Hardy in his novels and based on an earlier region of Saxon Britain. The word ‘downs’ is from Anglo-Saxon ‘dun’ meaning hill.
Conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the North Wessex Downs is the responsibility of nine local authorities in Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. They come together with community, farming, conservation, tourism and heritage representatives to make up a governing Council of Partners, which is supported by a small professional team.