The landscape of the AONB is one of striking contrasts. A natural divide separates the predominantly Old Red Sandstone of the gentle Herefordshire countryside from the carboniferous limestone of the southern plateau. Here the river has carved a spectacular gorge, whose sides are covered with one of the largest remaining areas of semi-natural broadleaved woodland in the UK.
The Wye Valley is particularly important for its rich wildlife habitats, and contains many protected sites, which are both nationally and internationally recognised.
The area falls within three different Local Authority areas, each in a different Government region: 36% of the area is in Monmouthshire (Wales), with 46% in Herefordshire (West Midlands) and 18% in Gloucestershire, in the Forest of Dean District. (South West.)
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. Farms 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 '