Coastal Heritage at Risk
Using historic imagery to support management of threatened coastal heritage.
In January 2016 Historic England commissioned a new study, CHeRISH (Coastal Heritage Risk –Imagery in Support of Heritage Management), which demonstrates how artworks, photographs and postcards from the period 1770–1950 can support the management of vulnerable sites on the coastlines of south-west England.
The great strength of this imagery is its ability to detail and illustrate in detail changes that have affected coastal heritage sites over a greatly extended time period.
A threatened coastal heritage
The character of the coastline of south-west England has been influenced strongly by human activity over the last 10,000 years. A rich legacy of buildings and sites has resulted, including archaeological remains, military and coastal defences, harbour walls, monuments, lighthouses, and piers. Collectively such features form the coastal historical environment.
Particularly where the rocks are soft or the coastline unstable, such sites are becoming increasingly affected by marine erosion, landslides, flooding and the impacts of climate change .
Long stretches of coast, containing a wide variety of sites, are undergoing rapid change. For example, sections of the coastlines of Dorset and south Devon with their soft rocks (for example east of Weymouth, near Lyme Regis, and Sidmouth), are eroding rapidly.
The settlements of Ilfracombe, Combe Martin, Lynmouth and Porlock are also at greater risk from flooding than they have been in the past. Indeed, the increasing ferocity of coastal storms is, over the next century, likely to have a visible impact on such Cornish harbours as Mullion, Charlestown and Mevagissey, as well as on exposed Cornish headlands, often the sites of promontory forts.
Indeed, the increasing ferocity of coastal storms is, over the next century, likely to have a visible impact on such Cornish harbours as Mullion, Charlestown and Mevagissey, as well as on exposed Cornish headlands, often the sites of promontory forts. Iconic heritage sites whose setting and future are at risk include the gun battery on the shoreline below Pendennis Castle, parts of Tintagel Castle on the north Cornwall coast, the causeway leading to St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, and the Garrison on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.
This increased rapidity of change has driven developments in Government policy. It is vital that such policies give the same weight to sustaining the historic environment as they do to protection of people, property and the natural environment.
Historic England and its predecessors have been active participants in this process, whether through publications (Murphy, 2014 and many others), policies regarding historic environment records, or the rapid coastal zone assessment surveys which have been carried out since the late 1990s.
As a result a range of tools is available to support understanding of coastal change and its impacts. However, there are few locations where accurate records of coastal change exist before the middle of the 20th century; indeed, aerial photography for much of the coastline only dates from the early 1940s. Other images can improve our understanding of long-term coastal change and the resulting risks to some heritage assets.
Paintings, watercolours, photographs and old postcards allow recognition of the scale and rate of coastal change over a much longer time frame than is normally considered by coastal scientists, planners and engineers. Such media enable assessments to be made of changes in morphology, land-use and development over the last 250 years, extending back long before the days of photography.
The CHeRISH Project
The project reveals the potential of these images to provide information that can support the protection and management of historic sites around the coastline of south-west England.
This has been achieved by identifying and assessing a large number of sites at risk or potentially at risk, as indicated in shoreline management plans, local and national historic environment records, and rapid coastal zone assessments.
Imagery relating to these sites has been gathered and 23 case studies selected, illustrating how such historical images can support site management. CHeRISH has provided a list of artists who painted England’s south-west coast, ranking their work in terms of its accuracy, so as to maximise the value of each image in support of the management of the historic environment.
The CHeRISH Final Report includes nearly 300 images (artworks and photographs) of heritage sites around the coastlines of Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Such illustrations can inform us of past conditions and, when compared with the site today, highlight changes that have taken place over time. In due course, over 80 images of particular interest, reflecting the broad range of environments and issues in the south-west, will be available on an interactive web-based map hosted by the Maritime Archaeology Trust. A series of illustrated lectures are also being planned at suitable locations in the four counties over the coming months.
The CHeRISH project recommends that full advantage is taken of artworks and other images that depict the historic environment. These resources are underused as a record of change. The project guides readers to such images; it is hoped that the result will be invaluable.
Robin McInnes OBE FICE FGS FRSA is a geologist, coastal scientist, art historian and author. For 10 years he chaired the Coastal Defence Groups of England and Wales and was appointed OBE for Services to Flood and Coastal Defence in 2006. He is Managing Consultant at Isle of Wight-based consultancy Coastal and Geotechnical Services.
Murphy, P 2014 England’s Coastal Heritage. Swindon: English Heritage
Rapid Coastal Assessment Surveys, available from the Archaeology Data Service.
Also of interest...
Read about the threats to our coastal heritage and what Historic England is doing to discover, record and protect that vulnerable heritage
Find out about funding for projects that directly address themes outlined in Historic England’s Research Strategy