A Brief Introduction to UK World Heritage Sites

This week is the 30th anniversary of the meeting of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which inscribed the first seven sites in the UK on the World Heritage List.

The additions adhered to the agreement made by member states of UNESCO in 1972, (called the World Heritage Convention) which had an inspiring concept at its heart:

There are some places of outstanding universal value to all humanity, for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate.

Such places can display natural or cultural values or a mixture of the two.

The first seven UK sites are fantastically diverse. The dramatic geology of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland has inspired legendary tales of giants striding over the sea to Scotland and has been a celebrated visitor attraction for over 300 years. Durham Castle and Cathedral combine spectacular architectural innovation with the visual drama of their location on the peninsula. In North Wales the four castles of Beaumaris, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech with fortified towns attached, represent the finest examples of late 13th and early 14th century military architecture in Europe.

Durham Castle and Cathedreal. Image by Daniel Dent, Copyright under license to the University of Durham.

The Ironbridge Gorge is known throughout the world as a symbol of the industrial revolution and the huge impact that technological development and innovation has on our lives. In Wiltshire, Stonehenge and Avebury are among the most famous groups of megaliths in the world and together with their surrounding landscapes bear incomparable testimony to prehistoric times.

Ironbridge town and the Iron Bridge. Image by courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Situated in North Yorkshire, the 18th century designed landscape of Studley Royal and the ruins of Fountains Abbey (featured image- Abbey and Water Garden at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, Ripon. © Andrew Butler), is one harmonious whole of buildings, gardens and landscapes representing over 800 years of human ambition, design and achievement. The island of St Kilda in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has some of the highest cliffs in Europe which have large colonies of puffins and gannets, together with evidence of more than two thousand years of human settlement at the very margins of inhabitable land.

Leeds Liverpool Canal and New Mill Chimney. Credit City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council.

And that’s just the first seven UK World Heritage Sites (WHSs). 30 years on and we have 30 WHSs including four in our overseas territories – most recently the Gorham’s Cave complex in Gibraltar with its exceptional evidence of Neanderthals and early modern humans.

The UK boasts some of the most outstanding cultural and natural places in the world, from the Heart of Neolithic Orkney to the remarkable legacy of the industrial revolution, as seen at the planned mill town of Saltaire in Yorkshire. The full list of WHSs, grouped by country, can be found here complete with excellent summaries of the outstanding universal value of every individual property.

The Man Engine puppet in Tavistock, celebrating the mining legacy within the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site. © Mike Thomas.

The UK is widely respected on the international stage for its long history of heritage protection and management and for the way in which its heritage assets are looked after. Many UK World Heritage Sites are models of best practice, whether through innovative approaches to public participation and engagement, such as in the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape above, or the development of a new and inclusive research framework.

Evolution House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London © Historic England

Urban WHSs throw up particular challenges. London has WHSs at Greenwich, Kew, the Tower of London and Westminster but as major world cities like London undergo massive and continuing change, how best can their world heritage values be protected? The aim should be to sustain outstanding universal value while achieving growth and new development that will become the next chapter of history. This is more easily said than done and Liverpool holds an unwanted position as one of 55 sites on the World Heritage in Danger list, due to the mass and scale of new development.

We have much to celebrate from the 30 years since our first World Heritage Sites were inscribed, but we also have challenges ahead in caring for them and in sustaining and developing our international reputation for good practice.

Written by Henry Owen-John, Head of International Advice at Historic England.

Further ReadingThe Stonehenge Landscape large image 1

1 responses to A Brief Introduction to UK World Heritage Sites

  1. Cara says:

    The protection and designation of world heritage sites in terms of heritage and conservation is os important. We should be very proud that the UK boasts some of the most outstanding cultural and natural places in the world, and therefore really should visit more of the sites on our doorsteps. I’d love to visit the North Yorkshire landscape of Studley Royal and the ruins of Fountains Abbey, where they use a comprehensive range of modern flat roofing systems that eliminate the problems associated with traditional flat roofing materials.

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