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World Heritage Sites

When we think of World Heritage sites we think of the Pyramids, Stonehenge and other major places, in practice today the list is much wider. There are around 900 around the world, and many of these are not a single site, but a collection of sites. So Stonehenge is part of a group that includes a range of sites both around Stonehenge and Avebury as well as other major sites. The group Hadrian's Wall is in, is even wider, encompassing Roman Frontiers, this includes Hadrian's Wall and the Antonia Wall in Britain but also many other sections of wall or Roman Frontiers across Europe and North Africa.

One of the UK World Heritage sites covers the Cornwall and West Devon mining landscape, covering at least 10 valleys and all the remains within them, while several others include more than 5 items.  It is not necessarily places that you can visit, for example the Stonehenge and Avebury   group includes "West Kennet Palisade Enclosures", and there is nothing on the surface relating to these, as well as being on land there is no access to.

They don't all necessarily tie up between history and the area covered, for example the Romans built Hadrian's Wall 73 miles long, but the World Heritage site includes this and then goes on in a ribbon a little over as far again around the coast of Cumbria, 150 miles long in total. Perhaps half of this extension is explainable in that there were mile posts and forts, but no wall for an additional 40 miles. Including the individual forts, places in the extension, as well as associated sites either side of the wall, several hundred places at least could put up the sign saying they are a 'World Heritage' site and this is only one part of this listing.

Other countries are the same, in Ghana, West Africa, for example all the castles and forts are a single group, but nowhere can I find a listing of the places that are included, and if I could they are not all open.

So although we conceptually have around 900 places listed worldwide, the actual number is unknown but many times this, not fully defined and including a mixture of places you can go and places that you cannot, some of which if you went there, there would be nothing to see.

At first this may seem illogical, why have a World Heritage site that in many cases you cannot identify easily and often there is no access to. The answer is that although widely used to promote those places where there is tourism, this is not their primary purpose, the main objective being to define and assist the protection of a selection of Heritage sites. The problem in the UK is that with most of the historically important items already being listed and protected, we have our own system that is far more complete and valid, protecting far more of the really valuable sites, as well as many others.

There is no financial aid to developed countries like the UK, associated with World Heritage listings, although there is limited aid available to poor countries to assist them in protecting the heritage items in their countries.  In Britain there are two benefits, firstly in tourism promotion, but the selection of sites does not seem to reflect this to any noticeable extent, and secondly in channelling of monies from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. So for example if you have an area and feel that moving or developing roads near a site would require funding, or want to develop a new heritage facility where none has up to now existed, then perhaps Lottery funding can be used instead of other revenue, if a site that may be subject to World Heritage status is involved.

Currently the places and collections of places within England, Wales and Scotland that are listed as World Heritage sites are:-

  • Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd

  • Durham Castle and Cathedral

  • Ironbridge Gorge

  • St Kilda

  • Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites

  • Studley Royal Park including the Ruins of Fountains Abbey

  • Blenheim Palace

  • City of Bath

  • Frontiers of the Roman Empire

  • Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church

  • Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church

  • Tower of London

  • Old and New Towns of Edinburgh

  • Maritime Greenwich

  • Heart of Neolithic Orkney

  • Blaenavon Industrial Landscape

  • Derwent Valley Mills

  • Dorset and East Devon Coast

  • New Lanark

  • Saltaire

  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

  • Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City

  • Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape

  • Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal

A better description of what is included in each of these and links to both location guides and other information can be found in our listing World Heritage Sites in the UK.  

The method that is used to get item on the list involves two steps, places or entries being added by a country to a tentative list, and then after at least a year, countries putting forward nominations from this tentative list of places within their area. The current list of places the UK government has on its tentative list is detailed in our listing Proposed World Heritage Sites in the UK.  


Looking at the workings of this in a little more detail

The World Heritage listings are run by UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

This includes natural as well as historic items so the Great Barrier Reef or a wet field could qualify, however the criteria used to define what can and cannot be considered a World Heritage Site is far wider.

The selection criteria is:-

  1. to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

  2. to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

  3. to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;

  4. to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;

  5. to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;

  6. to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);

  7. to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

  8. to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

  9. to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

  10. to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are also important considerations.

Since 1992 significant interactions between people and the natural environment have been recognized as cultural landscapes.

UNESCO's World Heritage mission is to:

  • encourage countries to sign the World Heritage Convention and to ensure the protection of their natural and cultural heritage;

  • encourage States Parties to the Convention to nominate sites within their national territory for inclusion on the World Heritage List;

  • encourage States Parties to establish management plans and set up reporting systems on the state of conservation of their World Heritage sites;

  • help States Parties safeguard World Heritage properties by providing technical assistance and professional training;

  • provide emergency assistance for World Heritage sites in immediate danger;

  • support States Parties' public awareness-building activities for World Heritage conservation;

  • encourage participation of the local population in the preservation of their cultural and natural heritage;

  • encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world's cultural and natural heritage.

It is run by a committee made up of national government representatives, and these change regularly.

There is no limit to the size of the list but limits in the speed that it can grow.

A balancing mechanism to even up the amount from different countries exist.

So in their operational guidelines it says:-

59. To promote the establishment of a representative, balanced and credible World Heritage List, States Parties are requested to consider whether their heritage is already well represented on the List and if so to slow down their rate of submission of further nominations by:

a) spacing voluntarily their nominations according to conditions that they will define, and/or;

b) proposing only properties falling into categories still under-represented, and/or;

c) linking each of their nominations with a nomination presented by a State Party whose heritage is underrepresented;


d) deciding, on a voluntary basis, to suspend the presentation of new nominations.

60. States Parties whose heritage of outstanding universal value is under-represented on the World Heritage List are requested to:

a) give priority to the preparation of their Tentative Lists and nominations;

b) initiate and consolidate partnerships at the regional level based on the exchange of technical expertise;

c) encourage bilateral and multilateral co-operation so as to increase their expertise and the technical capacities of institutions in charge of the protection, safeguarding and management of their heritage; and,

d) participate, as much as possible, in the sessions of the World Heritage Committee.

61. The Committee has decided to apply the following mechanism:

a) examine up to two complete nominations per State Party, provided that at least one of such nominations concerns a natural property, nevertheless, on an experimental basis of 4 years, leaving to the State Party the decision on the nature of the nomination, whether natural or cultural, as per its national priorities, its history and geography and,

b) set at 45 the annual limit on the number of nominations it will review, inclusive of nominations deferred and referred by previous sessions of the Committee, extensions (except minor modifications of limits of the property), transboundary and serial nominations,

c) the following order of priorities will be applied in case the overall annual limit of 45 nominations is exceeded:

i) nominations of properties submitted by States Parties with no properties inscribed on the List;

ii) nominations of properties submitted by States Parties having up to 3 properties inscribed on the List,

iii) nominations of properties that have been previously excluded due to the annual limit of 45 nominations and the application of these priorities,

iv) nominations of properties for natural heritage,

v) nominations of properties for mixed heritage,

vi) nominations of transboundary/transnational properties,

vii) nominations from States Parties in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean,

viii) nominations of properties submitted by States Parties having ratified the World Heritage Convention during the last ten years,

ix) nominations of properties submitted by States Parties that have not submitted nominations for ten years or more,

x) when applying this priority system, date of receipt of full and complete nominations by the World Heritage Centre shall be used as a secondary factor to determine the priority between those nominations that would not be designated by the previous points.

d) the States Parties co-authors of a transboundary or transnational serial nomination can choose, amongst themselves and with a common understanding, the State Party which will be bearing this nomination; and this nomination can be registered exclusively within the ceiling of the bearing State Party.

The impact of this decision will be evaluated at the Committee's 35th session (2011).

Although I have picked just these few paragraphs out of a document 173 pages long, its clear that the objective of the list is neither to list the best or to produce a listing of items above a standard or to list all important heritage in the world. So we have a politically balanced up selection of some types of heritage.

This does not mean that the places listed do not have merit, but they may not be either the most interesting or most important places, and by using groups or areas with a large number of items in, countries are able to get around the limits to a degree and include far more places.

So is it relevant to us, do we really care if places are on this list, and have this status or not. The answer is probably not, however its worth taking a look at those places our government chooses both to list and to add to the tentative list, there are some that we may not have come across that are worth research and a visit, while others we may take a look at and pass by, knowing they only made the list so as to justify moving cash around.

Overall we are disappointed with the way this works, it could have been so much better, more useful and meaningful, but then again its run by governments and governments are run by politicians.

The UK is currently working on a group of new items to add to its tentative list, so it will be interesting perhaps to look at what they choose to add next.

See also

Feature location related articles

World Heritage Sites - Further Information


World Heritage Sites in the UK  

Proposed World Heritage Sites in the UK  


By:  Keith Park  Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: World_heritage_sites Topic: Heritage  Last Updated: 07/2009

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