Image of colourful fishing boats anchored at Newlyn harbour, Cornwall.

Despite contraction of the fishing industry, there are still busy fishing ports such as Newlyn, Cornwall. In the late 19th-early 20th century it was also home to the Newlyn School of artists, inspired by its light. © Peter Williams/Historic England
Despite contraction of the fishing industry, there are still busy fishing ports such as Newlyn, Cornwall. In the late 19th-early 20th century it was also home to the Newlyn School of artists, inspired by its light. © Peter Williams/Historic England

Coastal, Marine and Maritime Heritage

England’s coastal and marine heritage tells a story of our nation’s history of commerce, conflict and leisure. It contributes strongly to our identity and quality of life today. Our ports and a host of colourful seaside resorts remain vital for our economy, well-being and enjoyment.

Much of this rich heritage is poorly understood yet under considerable pressure from coastal erosion, development and damaging activities.

More is being discovered or recognised all the time: find out more about our programme of coastal research including Rapid Coastal Zone Asessement Surveys.

Ports and harbours

Ports remain central to our island economy: over 95% of our trade passes through them each year. Containerisation from the 1960s forced rapid change.

In the A black and white Victorian photo of London docks. Small boats are crowded together in the foreground. There are old, masted sailing ships in the background.
19th century London’s port was at the heart of the country’s trade. This photograph shows the densely packed ships and barges that filled it every day. © Historic England

Many ports closed or found re-use in leisure roles while ever larger container ships quickly meant the larger ports had to adapt or close.


An oblique aerial colour photo of a London Gateway development, to the right is a large silty river, to the left a large industrial area.
This aerial view of 2014 shows the rapidly growing London Gateway port development, designed to handle the huge container ships at the heart of world trade today. © Damian Grady/Historic England

Historic England’s priority is now to assess the survival, character and importance of England’s port and harbour heritage to support effective ways of ensuring its survival as a positive contributor to its ports’ future distinctiveness.

Seaside resorts

Ranging from the bright lights of Blackpool and Brighton to quiet Cornish coves, England’s seaside is still a magnet for millions of visitors each year. Many seaside resort towns prospered during the Georgian and Victorian periods and contain lavish buildings with distinctive seaside flourishes.

A colour images of the black, wrought iron Clevedon Pier entering the left of the photo and ending in the middle. The pier is over water, the image is taken at sunset.
Piers are often at the heart of the seaside holiday. Clevedon Pier, now restored, serves as a popular promenade and a landing stage for ships sailing around the Bristol Channel. © Peter Williams/Historic England

Marine archaeology

Our seas have provided us with sustenance, travel and transport, defence and leisure for thousands of years. Important survivals from such activity range from prehistoric artefacts on former land now submerged to boats of all periods, wrecked civilian and military shipping and their cargoes and World War II aircraft.

The eroded remains of The Amsterdam shipwreck at St Leonards on Sea sunk into the sandy beach with the sea in the background
The 1749 wreck of the Amsterdam on Bulverhythe beach, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex. © Peter Williams/Historic England

But current knowledge reflects only a fraction of what lies beneath the waves.
Historic England has an important role to play in ensuring new discoveries are fully recorded and assessed so that our rich marine archaeology is managed appropriately.

Characterising our historic seascapes

Past people’s uses of our coasts and seas strongly shape coastal landscapes and how we think about coastal places and the sea. People have strong attachments to seascape in a country which enjoys much of its leisure time by the sea and celebrates our water-sports successes at major sporting events.

A colour image with Dover Castle on top of the White Cliffs of Dover in the background with Dover Ferryport in the foreground
Dover’s White Cliffs are a national icon of enormous historic resonance, here rising above Europe’s busiest ferryport: England’s pre-eminent hub for cross-channel travel and trade. © Derek Kendall/Historic England

Historic England has mapped the typical activities past and present that shape the character of England’s coasts and seas. Called Historic Seascape Characterisation it can enrich people’s appreciation of familiar seascapes and help those proposing changes to the landscape to better understand how coastal and marine landscapes are culturally distinctive.

A colour image of a castle on a hill in the foreground in Dartmouth, SOUTH Devon with a very blue river in the background leading to Dartmouth harbour.
Dartmouth, popular as a tourist destination, yacht mooring and home to the Britannia Naval College, also retains a rich heritage from its past as a prominent 14th to 17th century port. © Peter Anderson/Historic England

Submerged Landscapes

Find out about the discovery of prehistoric landscapes that are now submerged beneath the sea.

Today’s visitors in that long tradition can add to their relaxation by admiring the architecture and savouring the history of these historic towns.
Historic England is carrying out a programme of investigation and outreach to improve understanding of England’s seaside resorts and help to recognise its importance.

A black and white oblique aerial image of Tilbury docks in 1920. In the foreground are many ships and warehouses.
Between the Wars, Aerofilms’ aerial photographs recorded the growing port at Tilbury. The port flourished during the late 20th century as the Port of London declined and closed. © Historic England/AFL

Opportunities and threats for the maritime environment

Natural changes to the maritime environment and changes in human exploitation and understanding of the sea, allow greater opportunities to understand and study maritime heritage than ever before, but by the same token also pose greater threats to its integrity.

Find out more about opportunities and threats impacting the marine historic environment.

Research questions and impact

Research that draws together heritage surveys with information from other sources will create a more complete picture of our marine and maritime historic environment. This will have impact as it helps us put appropriate statutory protection in place, provide essential evidence for management, enriches the National Heritage List for England, and provide a rich source of educational material and inspiration  for both local communities and  tourism. That inspiration can in turn lead to better reporting of discoveries, a resource for further research.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • How can we maximise the use of survey and prospection data collected for renewable energy, aggregates and fishery projects to help us better understand our marine heritage?
  • How can we mobilise volunteers and community groups to help assess the significance of identified historic wrecks, and coastal or submerged archaeological sites?
  • How can we develop reliable models for predicting the presence of unrecorded marine heritage assets in advance of development and change?
  • How can we use the distinctive coastal heritage of England to help create vibrant and economically viable coastal communities?
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