line of barrows at Priddy silhouetted against the sky
Ashen Hill Barrow cemetery, Priddy, Somerset © James O Davies/Historic England
Ashen Hill Barrow cemetery, Priddy, Somerset © James O Davies/Historic England

The Historic Landscape of the Mendip Hills

From 2006 English Heritage, now Historic England, carried out a research project examining the historic landscape of the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in collaboration with the AONB and the local authority.

The aim of the project was to improve our understanding, inform future protection and management, and increase the public’s enjoyment of this protected landscape.

New Historic England book

The results of our fieldwork have been brought together in a Historic England book, The Historic Landscape of the Mendip Hills, published in 2015. Richly illustrated with photographs, maps, detailed plans and reconstruction drawings, this volume traces this region's remarkable past, revealing ways in which it has shaped the landscape we see and value today.

South of Bristol lie the Mendip Hills, an undulating Carboniferous Limestone plateau rising from the northern edge of the Somerset Levels and Moors.

The small irregular fields and compact villages of Mendip’s lower escarpment become a geometric grid of stone-walled enclosures and scattered farmsteads on the plateau above, capped with grass and heather moorland.

There is a long tradition of archaeological enquiry on Mendip, from that of 18th- and 19th-century antiquarians to today’s professionals and local groups. The area is much loved by its inhabitants and visitors, as well as climbers and cavers attracted to its gorges and caves.

In order to show how Mendip’s landscape developed through time, adapting to social, environmental and economic changes, we used the following techniques:

  • Air photographic transcription
  • Architectural survey and investigation
  • Detailed archaeological fieldwork, particularly earthwork survey

The archaeology of the Mendips

Mendip’s archaeology ranges from Early Neolithic long barrows and large numbers of Early Bronze Age round barrows to prehistoric field systems and Iron Age hillforts.

Many of the later prehistoric settlements continued in use into the Romano-British period and others developed at a time when the region experienced an intensification of agricultural and industrial exploitation.

Lead - easily extractable here - was fundamental to the Roman administration which established a fort at Charterhouse-on-Mendip in 1st century AD; an extensive settlement grew up nearby.

The exploitation of natural resources still forms an important component of the Mendip economy, with the pits and rakes of lead extraction superseded by the dramatic stepped quarries of the post-war aggregate industry.

The relative lack of evidence on Mendip for life in the early medieval period contrasts with the wealth of sites and evidence for the time after the Norman Conquest.

Abandoned farmsteads, shrunken settlements and relict field systems - in conjunction with evidence from buildings and documentary sources - have brought the medieval landscape more sharply into view.

Numerous houses on Mendip whose external appearance is relatively modern do in fact have earlier structures at their core. The 16th and 17th centuries were a period of extensive rebuilding, generally in a piecemeal fashion.

The Mendip Hills in the 21st-century is a living place and the people who now occupy the farmhouses, village houses, cottages and former barns add to that story, and in doing so, create their own history.