In 1986, UNESCO inscribed the first 7 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.UNESCO 1972 World Heritage Convention
Such places can display natural or cultural values or a mixture of the two.
The first World Heritage Sites in the UK
The first 7 UK World Heritage 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. It 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 Europe’s late 13th and early 14th-century military architecture.
The Ironbridge Gorge is known worldwide as a symbol of the industrial revolution and the huge impact technological development and innovation have on our lives.
In Wiltshire, Stonehenge and Avebury are among the world’s most famous groups of megaliths and, together with their surrounding landscapes, bear incomparable testimony to prehistoric times.
Situated in North Yorkshire, the 18th-century-designed landscape of Studley Royal and the ruins of Fountains Abbey 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 with 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.
That’s just the first seven UK World Heritage Sites. 30 years on, we have many more World Heritage Sites, including 4 in British overseas territories.
Most recently, the Gorham’s Cave complex in Gibraltar was added, with its exceptional evidence of Neanderthals and early modern humans.
The UK boasts some of the world’s most outstanding cultural and natural places, 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 World Heritage Sites, grouped by country, can be found here, complete with excellent summaries of the outstanding universal value of every individual property.
The UK is widely respected on the international stage for its long history of heritage protection and management and for how its heritage assets are looked after.
Many UK World Heritage Sites are best practice models, whether through innovative public participation and engagement approaches, such as in the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape or developing a new and inclusive research framework.
Urban World Heritage Sites throw up particular challenges.
London has sites 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. However, in 2021, Liverpool, Maritime Mercantile City, was removed from the World Heritage List due to ‘the irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property’.
We have much to celebrate 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.
This article was updated on 15 November 2022.