The Wye Valley AONB is a unique landscape made up of a collection of different landscape zones which can be divided broadly into two halves the Lower Wye Gorge between Chepstow and Symonds Yat with its dramatic limestone cliffs and narrow floodplain, and the gentler Herefordshire Lowlands north of Ross on Wye where the river meanders across the red sandstone.
The landscape can also be divided into the following zones:
This is hilly land, with an intricate mix of woodland, farmland and its own distinct geology.This zone is divided into two more-or-less distinct parts. In the north is Haugh Wood and a high density of smaller woods on the relatively steep contours of the Woolhope Dome. The southern part has fewer woods, a gentler landscape and more intensive agriculture.
The area includes a mosaic of the remains of old orchards, some fine examples of unimproved limestone grasslands and many old hedges and sunken tracks or 'sunkways'
Most fields retain their hedges, although these are heavily trimmed. There are relatively few hedge trees in the south of this area, but there are more to the north, many of them mature oak trees. Several field boundaries are now formed from old hedge trees and overgrown hedges. Some hedges have been removed to form large arable fields. The great majority of fields are used to grow arable crops, with a limited number used for sheep and cattle grazing. This zone contains a number of small villages and hamlets including Woolhope, Mordiford, part of Fownhope and Brockhampton. Several of the villages contain black-and-white timber framed buildings characteristic of Herefordshire.
The floodplain of the River Wye forms a corridor through this intensively farmed zone. The majority of this zone, west of the Wye from Holme Lacy and south to Great Doward, is part of an extensive area of mixed farming in south Herefordshire. F arms are almost entirely arable crops and sown grass. To the south there are some large orchards with screens of birch trees. Many hedges remain, mostly kept heavily trimmed with few hedge trees. Roadside hedges are sinuous and contain a mixture of plant species. They are usually on steep banks, which can occasionally create sunken lanes or 'sunkways'.
There is little woodland, except for long woods on steep slopes above the River Wye such as at Ballingham Hill, south of the village of Fownhope, and nearby Capler Wood. The cluster of woods south of Hoarwithy may be ancient, meaning woods have been on the site since the last ice age or they re-grew here after they had been cleared in prehistoric times. Buildings in this zone are mostly large sandstone farmhouses or small hamlets formed around manor houses (such as Fawley Court) and churches (as in Ballingham).
The Wye Floodplain
On the gentle Herefordshire farmlands, below the city of Hereford, the River Wye forms an incised trench in the broad floodplain. It floods annually, leaving sinuous pools along the lines of former river channels. The river contains a few islands and marshes at its margins.
The floodplain is almost entirely used as farmland, with very small areas of woodland and marsh. Traditionally it was permanent pasture but it is now mostly cultivated or sown with grass in large fields. The main riverbanks are lined irregularly with tall alder and willow trees, but elsewhere trees are rare.
There are very few hamlets or villages within the floodplain itself, but a fringe of settlements at its edge include Fownhope, Hoarwithy, Sellack, Wilton and Ross-on-Wye.
The Wye Gorge
The Wye Gorge is the jewel in the area's crown. A narrow zone running from Goodrich Castle to Chepstow, it is centred on the river, but also includes the steep slopes on either side. Its broadest point is at Welsh Bicknor, south of Goodrich. Here it is approximately 3 kilometres (nearly 2 miles) wide.
The character of this zone is determined by the river, which flows through a narrow floodplain, into which it is deeply trenched. Alluvial deposits are frequently exposed to form small cliffs and mud banks. The rivers Monnow and Trothy flow into the Wye just south of Monmouth. Several small streams flow into the Wye from the Highmeadow woods, the Trellech plateau and the St Briavels plateau. The River Wye floods the floodplain each year, but floods are generally short-lived, though long pools stand afterwards on some of the broader fields behind the river bank.
Woods along the length of the gorge from Symonds Yat to just north of Chepstow are recognised as internationally important.
Villages in the zone include Goodrich, overlooked by its imposing castle, and the riverside settlements of Symonds Yat, Redbrook, Brockweir, Llandogo and Tintern. The area has an interesting industrial heritage associated with the river, and based on industries such as iron forges (Tintern, Symonds Yat and Redbrook), wire and brass works (Tintern) paper mills (Whitebrook) and tinplate and copper works (Redbrook).
Forest of Dean (Highmeadow)
This zone consists of Highmeadow Woods and Knockalls Inclosure woods, extending to the Kymin Hill (east of Monmouth). Mostly ancient semi-natural woodland, these woods were historically managed through coppicing and timber growing. The introduction of commercial conifer plantations during the 20th century means there is now a mosaic of mature deciduous trees and younger conifers, divided by forest roads and rides. The surrounding fields are used mostly for grazing sheep. The only vill age in this zone is Staunton, centred on its 13th century church with its castle-like church tower.
St Briavels Plateau
This zone forms the edge of the Forest of Dean plateau, extending from just north of Newland village to Tidenham Chase in the south. It comprises a gently undulating plateau, with some steep slopes around Stowe and Slade Bottom (west of Clearwell) and along the valley from Hewelsfield to Brockweir. Small streams drain into the River Wye at Brockweir, Bigsweir and Redbrook.
Agriculture in the Newland area is mixed and fairly intensive, although there are several woods and some rough ground.
The area includes the St Briavels and Hewelsfield Commons. These are characterised by a dense network of drystone walls and hedges around tiny fields and along numerous narrow lanes. There are good examples of field boundary trees. The area is dotted throughout with small copses, meadows and dispersed houses. Most fields are used for cattle and sheep grazing.
Tidenham Chase, to the south of the Commons, is a patchwork of more intensively used farmland, plantation woods and an area of recently restored heathland.
At the centre of the attractive village of St Briavels is its red sandstone castle, and most of its other buildings are similarly built from local sandstone. Newland has an impressive church locally known as 'The Cathedral of the Forest '.
The Trellech Plateau
The extensive Trellech Plateau runs from the outskirts of Monmouth to the west of Chepstow. It contains large areas of woodland, especially down the eastern edge adjacent to the Wye Gorge. Elsewhere is a mosaic of densely hedged sheep and cattle pastures and small woods with a good scattering of hedge trees.
Much of Trellech parish appears to have been open common heathland until the 19th century. Most of the old common is now grazing pasture or woodland plantations, but Cleddon Bog and other small areas of heathland including Whitelye Common survive. Several areas of tiny fields, characteristic of old commons, can still be found around the hamlets of Catbrook, The Narth, Penyfan, Tregagle and Penallt. The slopes along the northern and western sides of the area have small, irregular old fields, often divided by drystone walls.
The area is drained mainly by small streams originating in the west, which flow into the River Wye at Penallt (Blackbrook), Whitebrook, Llandogo (Cleddon Shoots), Catbrook and Tintern (Angiddy River).
Agriculture is mainly a mixture of arable crops and sheep and cattle grazing. There are a several villages, hamlets and farmhouses, the most prominent being Trellech village with its Norman church spire.
Esther and Henry Rudge, of Ballingham Court Farm, have been presented with the Wye Valley AONB Farming Award trophy for the third time, at the Monmoouthshire Show.