The Midvale Ridge National Character Area (NCA) is a band of low-lying limestone hills stretching east–west from the Vale of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire to Swindon. It is surrounded by the flat lands of the Oxfordshire clay vales, giving extensive views across the surrounding countryside. It is a predominantly agricultural area with a mixed arable/pastoral farming landscape, cereals being the most important arable crop. The main towns are Swindon, at the western end, and Oxford, which lies across the centre of the area, but otherwise the settlement pattern is characterised by small nucleated villages along the top of the ridge and along the springline. The soils types are a mix of heavy rendzinas, stagnogleys and lighter sandy brown earths with small patches of sandy soils.
The area is significant for its geological sites and has been a focus for study since the 19th century. It has yielded fossils of international importance, including the holotypes for several ammonite species and several species of prehistoric sponges known only from the Faringdon area.
The unusual geology gives rise to habitats that are uncommon in the south of England, such as calcareous flushes and fens, calcareous heath and calcareous grassland. These in turn support a variety of rare plants and invertebrates. The narrowleaved marsh orchid, southern damselfly and many scarce wetland flies can be found in the wetlands while the heathland is home to several species of solitary bees. Although the NCA is small, it is also host to other key habitats such as lowland dry acid grassland and acid heath. One of the largest remaining populations of the snakeshead fritillary can be found in the area.
The NCA is notably more wooded in character than the surrounding Upper Thames Clay Vales NCA with about 9 per cent woodland coverage. To the north-east of Oxford lies Shabbington Wood, the largest remnant of the former Royal Forest of Bernwood, which supports an important population of the nationally rare black hairstreak butterfly. Today, about a third of the woodland in the NCA is designated as ancient woodland.
Evidence of previous land use is still clearly visible across the area from iron-age and Romano-British settlements and nationally important examples of ridge and furrow to the remains of quarries. The continued expansion of Swindon and Oxford will present challenges for preserving the landscape character and biodiversity of the ridge but also opportunities for improving the provision of green infrastructure and access. The NCA is dependent for potable water on neighbouring areas such as the Upper Thames Clay Vales NCA and it is expected that, with increasing population, demand will become more acute. Changes in agriculture and continued mineral extraction are also likely to intensify pressure on the area’s soil, water and biodiversity resources.
There are many opportunities for recreation within Oxford itself, the Thames Path National Trail passes through the NCA and two national cycle routes cross the ridge. Some 29 per cent of the NCA is designated as greenbelt around the edge of Oxford.
109 Midvale Ridge (NE417)