This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

South West RCZAS National Mapping Programme project

England's coastal zone contains a legacy of historic assets including a complex array of fragile archaeological remains, historic buildings and structures, and landscapes. These remains are vulnerable to a wide range of threats, including man-made pressures as well as the natural processes of coastal change. The survey reviewed accessible aerial photography and lidar data for the project area, producing digital mapping and a database of all visible archaeological features, recorded to our NMP standards.

Colour aerial photograph showing a spit of land sticking out into the sea with a town behind.
Peverill Point, Swanage photographed on 15-APR-2002. The partially submerged timber uprights of the original 19th century Swanage pier are visible lying between the modern pier and the shore (NMR 21620/13). © Historic England

The project

The project area comprised a coastal and riverine strip one to two kilometres wide covering the south coast from the outskirts of Plymouth in the west to Christchurch in the east, including a contextual area around the major estuaries at Plymouth, Totnes, Exeter and Poole harbour.

The project area intersected several nationally important protected landscapes. These included the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the East Devon AONB, the Dorset AONB, the Dorset and East Devon Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the Purbeck Coast (a Nature Improvement Area), including Poole Harbour.

Colour aerial photograph showing the banks of an Iron Age hillfort sited on the edge of a cliff with the sea below
The Iron Age hillfort at Flowers Barrow, East Lulworth photographed on 02-JUN-2006. A third of the monument has been destroyed by coastal erosion of the soft chalk bedrock (NMR 24263/25). © Historic England

The project was split into two parts: the westernmost section covering Devon was undertaken by the AC Archaeology NMP project team and Devon County Council Historic Environment Service. The results of the survey are recorded in the Devon Historic Environment Record database (HER) and Geographic Information System (GIS), with details of the project highlighted on specific web pages. The eastern section covering Dorset was undertaken by Cornwall Council Historic Environment Project NMP team. For this part of the project monument recording was undertaken directly into the Dorset Historic Environment Record (HER) database via a remote link with Dorset County Council.

The work was funded by English Heritage (now Historic England) through the National Heritage Protection Commissions Programme (NHPCP). It commenced in March 2013 and was completed in June 2014.

Vertical aerial photograph showing excavations of a cliff top settlement site with some open trenches visible
Excavations underway at the surviving earthworks at the High Peak Neolithic and post-Roman defended settlement, Otterton photographed for the Coastal Channel Observatory on 17-SEP-2012. Much of the site has been lost to coastal erosion (SY1085_20120917ortho.ecw). Image courtesy of the South West Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme. © Channel Coastal Observatory

Coastal change

Rockfalls and landslips are common on many of the region's coastal cliffs, and coastal erosion had impacts on recent structures such as modern sea fronts. This erosion has also contributed to the loss of nationally important prehistoric earthworks such as the Neolithic and post-Roman defended enclosure at High Peak.

Low level black and white oblique aerial photograph of Sidmouth showing the extensive damage to the sea wall
Extreme weather conditions and damage to coastal defences and infrastructure are not new phenomena. This early photograph of Sidmouth taken in June 1925 shows damage caused to the sea front by gales in the spring of that year. (EPW 013501) © Historic England (Aerofilms Collection)

Less dramatic, but equally significant, coastal change has taken place on Devon's lower lying coast. In the early years of the 20th century a small community was established on the sand spit at Dawlish Warren. All but two buildings and much of the spit were washed away by violent storms between 1944 and 1946. The final traces of the village were lost to the sea by 1962. Dawlish Warren is now a National Nature reserve.

Pair of oblique aerial photographs of Dawlish Warren taken in 1941 (with WWII defences) and 2004 showing how it has changed
Coastal change at Dawlish Warren. Left: An early twentieth century bungalow settlement at Dawlish Warren photographed on 14-AUG-1941. Second World War anti-invasion defences are visible extending from the sand spit across the estuary mouth (MSO 31241/PO 082). Right: The much reduced Dawlish Warren photographed on 02-JUN-2004. The Warren is now a National Nature Reserve (NMR 23474/18). © Historic England RAF Photography/Historic England

Intertidal remains

Few monuments were recorded in the intertidal zone. In contrast, the remains of numerous small structures were identified along the edges of the major estuaries. The most frequent are small to medium-sized boats, probably the remains of wrecked and abandoned fishing and freight vessels. Most were recorded near the high tide mark where they are subject to the processes of erosion and absorption by the estuarine silts.

Other structures were revealed along the river channels as the estuarine silts shift including former fishtraps, revetments, canals, navigation markers and more enigmatic features such as undated linear timber structures across the mouth of Batson Creek, Salcombe.

Black and white aerial photograph showing the remains of various vessles emerging from mud flats on the shore
Numerous wrecks were mapped along the banks of the major estuaries. These vessels were on the banks of the Exe opposite Topsham Quay on 15-AUG-1947. The shifting silts mean remains are rapidly covered (RAF/30092/230). © Historic England RAF Photography.

Military remains

The Devon coast has long been a focus for military activity. The Napoleonic fortifications at Berry Head, slighted by modern quarrying into the 1950s, now survive as protected and distinctive landmarks on the coastal cliffs. Nonetheless, aerial survey revealed details of the fortification's organisation not visible from the ground or the sea.

Close up vertical aerial photograph showing parch marks in the vegetation of a former cliff top battery
Dark trapezoidal cropmarks are visible forming over the probable locations of gun platforms associated with the earliest battery at Barry Head Point, constructed in 1779-80 in this photograph taken for the Channel Coastal Observatory on 18-SEP-2012. Image courtesy of the South West Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme (SX9456_20120918ortho.ecw). © Channel Coastal Observatory

Second World War

The coast and estuaries were also the focus for varied military activities during the Second World War. Embarkation hards at Torquay and Brixham played a vital role in Operation Overlord and are now preserved as reminders of the town's roles in the build- up to D-Day. However, the operation had a much wider impact on the landscape. Extensive military camps, providing accommodation for troops preparing for D-Day, and the logistical and technical requirements of such a vast operation are apparent in the specialist sites that remain visible.

Black and white vertical photograph showing
A WW2 tank firing range at Swalland Farm, Kimmeridge on 27 March 1945. This was part of the Lulworth Ranges which are still active and part of the Armoured Vehicles Gunnery School (RAF/106G/LA200 V 2012). Historic England RAF Photography.

You can read more in the reports:

Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey for South West England - South Coast Dorset

Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey for South West England - South Coast Dorset

Published 24 February 2014

A report on the SWRCZAS NMP Mapping Project - Dorset (6673)

Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey National Mapping Programme for South-West England - South Devon Coast

Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey National Mapping Programme for South-West England - South Devon Coast

Published 19 June 2014

A report on the aerial survey of the South West Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey (RCZAS) for Devon. A National Mapping Programme project (6046)

Rapid Coastal Assessment Zone Assessment Survey For South West England - South Devon Coast: Results of Phase 1 Component 2 Desk Based Assessment

Rapid Coastal Assessment Zone Assessment Survey For South West England - South Devon Coast: Results of Phase 1 Component 2 Desk Based Assessment

Published 31 January 2016

Desk based assessment of South Devon's coast leading to improved records for planning and management of the area's heritage.

Was this page helpful?


Group of people standing on a stony mound
Historic Places Investigation

Research Group

Also of interest...

  • Colour photograph of defunct sea defences and eroding till cliffs at Happisburgh, Norfolk

    Discovering Coastal Heritage

    Read about the threats to our coastal heritage and what Historic England is doing to discover, record and protect that vulnerable heritage

  • Colour aerial photograph showing a pattern of darker green lines on a background of a yellow in a field under crop


    We identify archaeological sites and landscapes using aerial photography, lidar, geophysics, earthwork analysis and excavation.

  • Colour aerial photograph showing a small high-winged aircraft flying over arable fields. To the left is a small plantation

    Airborne Remote Sensing

    Historic England experts use airborne remote sensing methods to identify, record and monitor the condition of heritage assets

  • Colour aerial photograph showing a number of stone structures, largely overgrown with vegetation, set in open moorland

    Cornwall NMP

    Cornwall CC Historic Environment Service interpreted and mapped the archaeology of the county, including the Isles of Scilly, from aerial photographs.

  • Colour aerial photograph showing the edge of a scarp dropping down to a village with pasture and arable fields

    South Dorset Ridgeway NMP

    The South Dorset Ridgeway survey was part of a wider programme of NMP mapping projects within Dorset using all available aerial photos and lidar data

  • Colour aerial photograph showing a large curving concrete structure at the edge of some water

    South East RCZAS NMP

    The aerial survey of the south east coast formed the NMP mapping element of a rapid coastal zone assessment survey

  • Colour aerial photograph showing a landscape view along the spine of hills with pasture fields and scattered woodland

    Wild Purbeck NMP

    This ongoing NMP project is an archaeological survey of part of South Dorset based on a review of aerial photos and Environment Agency lidar data.