The Quantocks are a narrow line of hills leading north from Taunton up to the Bristol Channel; to the west lies Exmoor, to the east the Somerset levels. The Quantock Hills are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and are characterised by woodland and heath crossed by narrow lanes that suddenly drop to the villages that surround higher land.
Heathland, with its colourful mix of bell heather, ling and western gorse, blends into woodland of sessile oak. The woodlands were once coppiced and the oak bark used in local tanneries. For the past 100 years or more the coppicing has ceased and oaks have created a twisted woodland that steadily encroaches onto the surrounding heath. A carpet of bilberry lies beneath the trees, the grazing animals of the open ground venture in here and stop the growth of the understorey scrub that would be expected in a more ‘wild wood’.
Out on the open ground sheep and Quantock ponies graze. The numbers are low and the mix of animals, as is the case in many uplands, has changed over the decades. Bracken that used to be cut for animal bedding remains on the hill and the sheep and ponies fail to check its spread. Woodland encroaches slowly on the open ground and the landscape slowly changes. The steady loss of heath through the changes in grazing and burning and the abandonment of coppicing in the woodland will change this landscape as it has changed many times in the past as humans influence has altered. Former hill forts must have had wide open vistas but are now blanketed by oak woodland and the woodland themselves which were busy industrial places are now quiet.
Quantock ponies are not a breed in their own right, they are the result of Exmoor ponies being bred with other breeds over the centuries, resulting in larger and less hardy looking animals than would be found a few miles to the west. They seem to gather around Dead Woman’s Ditch, a location with an obviously sinister past but now a stopping point on one of the roads across the hills. The ponies browse the trees leaving a clear open strip below the canopy.
Small villages cluster around the bottom of the hills, among them Crowcombe, Nether Stowey and Holford. It was in Nether Stowey that Coleridge lived for a while and nearby William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived for a year. The three wandered the hills and were inspired by the landscape here, a different one than is here today and a different one that iron-age inhabitants would have lived in; climate, farming and industry continually change the landscape, habitats and species that are found here.