Stretching eastward from the Bristol Channel, the imposing 300-m ridge of the Mendips rises, like a rampart above the Somerset Levels.
The landscape’s distinctive silver-grey crags, gorges, dry valleys and rock outcrops show unmistakably that this is carboniferous limestone country and in fact, Britain’s most southerly example. Sink holes and depressions pockmark the surface and chemical action on the rock has produced spectacular underground caves.
The Mendips’ most dramatic landscape is in the centre of the AONB, site of the famous Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole Caves. The Mendips rise to a high, bare plateau around Priddy and Charterhouse, criss-crossed by drystone walls and rich in archaeological remains. Other areas of the AONB are well-wooded with a prosperous farmland fringe.
Several important landscape features help to create the AONB’s distinctive character, ranging from dew ponds and drystone walls to the ‘gruffy ground’ of old mine workings. The AONB, with two National Nature Reserves and many Sites of Special Scientific Interest, contains varied and important natural habitats including limestone pastures, ancient woodland and the gorge cliffs themselves with their rare flora. The Mendip plateau is particularly rich in ancient Bronze, Iron Age, Roman and medieval field monuments.
Traditionally this is sheep farming country and the ancient Priddy Sheep Fair still takes place. Dairying is now the major farming activity plus high-investment, mixed farming units and horticulture on the fertile southern fringe. Forestry Commission plantations and limestone quarries are in operation in the AONB. Its main settlements are in the villages at the foot of the plateau, many of them now commuter territory for nearby Wells and Weston Super Mare. Tourism, in village and farmhouse B&B and caravan sites, makes a significant contribution to the area’s economy. A national destination for coach excursions and day trips, the AONB is also a leading caving centre and a popular local riding area.