Western Weald FAQs

The Western Weald is the western part of the South Downs National Park approximately between the River Meon and Petworth. It incorporates both the Weald and chalk downland ridge.
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How do you pronounce Western Weald?

westan/wi:ld

What are the origins of the name ‘Weald’?

The name Weald is Old English and signifies “woodland”. It is cognate with the German word Wald which has a similar meaning. In early medieval Britain, the area was known as Andredes weald, meaning “the forest of Andred”.

Where is the Weald?
The Weald is an oval-shaped area of SE England between the parallel chalk escarpments of the North and South Downs and truncated at its eastern end by the Strait of Dover. It crosses the counties of Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent. In the map below the Weald is the area within the black line. The chalk ridge of the North and South Downs is the outer green semi-circle.

Western Weald FAQs map

Is the Weald a uniform area?
No, the Weald has three separate parts: the sandstone “High Weald” in the centre; the clay “Low Weald” periphery; and the Greensand Ridge, which stretches around the north and west of the Weald and includes its highest points. These three distinct areas are marked on the above geological map.
How was the Weald formed?

The Weald is the eroded inner remains of a dome of layered Lower Cretaceous rocks cut through by weathering to expose the layers as sandstone ridges and clay valleys. This dome was uplifted at the start of the Cenozoic era, 65 million years ago. By the end of the Miocene epoch (23-5 million years ago), if not before, the broad Wealden Dome had been destroyed. The chalk vault, having been raised beyond cracking point, broke up and was carried away. This revealed the underlying Jurassic and Cretaceous formations that we now see in the Weald, as illustrated in the diagram below.

Western Weald FAQs geology

What are the distinguishing features of the Weald?
As the origin of its name suggests, the Weald was once covered with forest. Over the centuries the Weald has largely maintained its wooded character, with woodland still covering 23% of the overall area (one of the highest levels in England. One of the reasons for its high level of tree cover is its underlying geology. Clay has little pastoral or arable agricultural value.
Where is the Western Weald?

The Western Weald is a vernacular region that roughly spans an area of undulating countryside in Hampshire and West Sussex, largely within the boundary of the South Downs National Park. The boundaries of this area are not hard and fast. Rural Strides considers the area depicted by the map below to be the Western Weald. The northern limit being Alton and Blackdown, the A285 marking the east, the coast acting as the southern boundary and the River Meon forming the western limit.

Western Weald FAQs map geology

What geology is found in the Western Weald?

With the Western Weald being at the western end of the former Wealden dome, it comprises both a variety of chalk strata around the rim as well as the Greensand and clay that is more typical of the Weald. The diagram below shows the varied geology surrounding the market town of Petersfield where the Weald meets the chalk rim of the former dome. The various green strata above and below Petersfield are all types of chalk. Those to the right of the town are different types of wealden clay and greensand.

Western Weald FAQs map geology

What are the distinguishing natural features of the Western Weald?
The Western Weald comprises Chalk Downland, Lowland Heath along the line of the Greensand Ridge and woodland across the whole area. The Western Weald generally has more trees (high beech forests and yew) and has wider plateaus than other parts of the South Downs. Some people refer to this area as the Downless Downs because of its very different, and varied topography.

At the western end of the Weald, the Greensand gives rise to a cuesta (ridge with dip and scarp slope – hanger) of its own and it was here that pioneering English naturalist, Gilbert White, noted and described features and wildlife typical of this area, including the sunken roads.

What is the Western Weald’s USP?

The Western Weald’s USP is its varied landscape and nature. It combines the very best of both the Weald and Downs. This fact is demonstrated in Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. In 1953, Professor of Geography at London University, S. W Wooldridge, & Frederick Golding wrote that “It is no accident that Gilbert White’s parish lies in the western part of the Weald where the most diverse types of land come close together.”

The variety of nature found in Selborne, and other parts of the Western Weald is clearly due, in large part, to the diverse geology underfoot. In the case of Selborne, on one side of the village lies the open windswept chalk downs with their calcareous soils and lime-loving plants. On the other there are the course sands of the Lower Greensand formation with sterile, acid, hungry soils – too hungry to attract the farmer and so given over to heathland and woodland. Whilst between the two are the Gault vale with its heavy clay soils and the magnificent “foxmould” developed on the Upper Greensand and regarded one of the finest agricultural soils in the whole of Britain. This geologic setting is mirrored across the Western Weald region and accounts for much of its beauty, beauty that in turn helped inspire local poets and writers such as Edward Thomas, Tennyson, Jane Austen and William Cobbett.

Another unique feature of the Western Weald is its large estates, namely Goodwood, Cowdray, Leconsfield and West Dean. These helped protect large areas from development prior to it being included in the South Downs National Park in 2010.

At the time of the formation of the park, there was much controversy over whether the Western Weald should be included or not. This was largely because the area comprised as much Weald as Downland and much of the Weald was cultivated. It was a hard-fought battle, which the Western Weald fortunately won thanks to the support of people like writer and campaigner Bill Bryson. In an article published in Country Life he wrote that a failure to include the Western Weald in the park would be a ‘national tragedy’.