Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 15:50 UK

Towns still threaten Downs beauty

By Sue Nicholson
BBC News, Tunbridge Wells

Devil's Kneading Trough [pic: Kent Downs AONB Unit]

Forty years after the Kent Downs was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), developers are still threatening the vibrant and diverse countryside for which it is famous.

It covers nearly a quarter of Kent, stretching from the White Cliffs of Dover up to the London/Surrey borders, embracing the chalk landscapes of the county.

But while visitors marvel at the surprising landscapes and stunning villages to be found between the two corridors of the M2 and M20 motorways, others are keen to put their mark on the area.

"There's virtually always some planning application on the go which we're just having to battle away at because of where we are," said Chris Reynolds, chairman of the Kent Downs Area AONB Unit, which is responsible for protecting the area.

"We try to get the best deal that we can for the Downs to affect it to the least extent."

'Hidden valleys'

As well as covering all of the Kent part of the North Downs, the AONB includes areas of the Greensand Ridge around Sevenoaks, the Lympne escarpment near Folkestone, and small areas of the Romney Marsh.

"Everyone who drives through Kent sees the scarp face of the Downs - it's the spine of Kent," Nick Johannsen, director of the Kent Downs AONB Unit, said.

Distinctive features waiting to be discovered include secluded dry valleys, tiny narrow lanes, historic hedgerows and orchards.

It is a haven for nature lovers in search of wild flowers, orchids and ancient woodland, with the Kent Downs being the second most wooded area in England.

Due to the chalk downlands and warm climate, it is possible to find orchids that are common on the continent but rare elsewhere in the UK, such as the Lady orchid and the Late Spider orchid.

The Downs are also easily accessible from many large urban areas.

"A lot of these hidden valleys are wonderful... they're great places to just go and explore and quite unique," Mr Reynolds said.

Frances Clayton, communications manager [left], Chris Reynolds, chairman [centre], Nick Johannsen, director [right]
The Kent Downs AONB Unit has looked after the landscape for 11 years

"Sometimes you can be within 10 miles of really quite a large town, and you've suddenly got this isolation - that's very valuable."

The arable farmer has lived in the area for nearly all of the 40 years that it has been an AONB and remembers the time when there was less traffic and the majority of villages were made up of people who worked the land.

"Nowadays, they're nearly all people that commute in and out of the villages, and some are second homes.

"That's a bit sad, although it has bought money into the community, but it's also brought quite a lot of change."

There are the busy motorways and the Channel Tunnel High Speed Rail Link, and Mr Reynolds recalls how the Hythe to Canterbury road used to be "a little backwater" and "certainly not the speed track that it is now".

"That's really quite common right the way up through the Downs, sadly, because we live in the pressured South East and it's going to get worse - it's not going to get better."

People pressure

The Kent Downs AONB Unit was set up in 1997, and while dealing with the moving times and getting money in to run projects, it also has to try to achieve a balance between the need to develop a rural economy and the threat by developers.

The landscape of the Kent Downs is more than 100 million years old, but its national significance was formally recognised on 23 July 1968, when it was designated as an AONB.

To celebrate this and some of the treasures of the Kent Downs, the unit is running a special 40 Places promotion every day for 40 days up until the anniversary date.

But what about the next 40 years?

Chris Reynolds envisages that the urban areas will grow, bringing with it "huge people pressure".

"It's our job to protect that so it is there for the enjoyment of those people and see that it's not built on.

"Let the building go elsewhere, and just let it develop naturally."

Map showing the Kent Downs AONB




SEE ALSO
In pictures: The Kent Downs
20 Jun 08 |  In Pictures

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