Bristol Channel seascape with Steep Holm Island to the right of the image

Looking across the Bristol Channel from Weston-super-Mare. A historic seascape: a major maritime thoroughfare carrying Britain’s trade from the Roman period to today. DP083549 e] © James O Davies/Historic England
Looking across the Bristol Channel from Weston-super-Mare. A historic seascape: a major maritime thoroughfare carrying Britain’s trade from the Roman period to today. DP083549 e] © James O Davies/Historic England

Characterising Historic Seascape

Historic Seascape Characterisation (HSC) maps and describes those historic cultural influences which shape present seascape perceptions across all of England’s marine areas and coastal land

HSC provides an archaeological understanding of time depth in the present seascape. It draws on a breadth of sources to assess the dominant cultural processes that shape the present. Many sources are map-based with national coverage, others include documentary and artistic references.

The White Cliffs of Dover and South Foreland lighthouse
Perhaps England’s most iconic seascape, the White Cliffs of Dover have enormous historic resonance as a symbol of national identity, resistance to invasion and status as an island nation. DP049669 © Derek Kendall/Historic England

Many sources were not created with a cultural perspective in mind so need reinterpretation or re-emphasise and draw out their cultural implications. This is often true of ‘semi-natural’ environment datasets, where HSC focuses on the ‘semi-cultural half’.

From these sources, HSC assessors take a generalising approach to assess the character of historic cultural influences on our seascape and its variation in type and time depth as one moves from area to area.

1750 Plan of the Garrison, Isles of Scilly
HSC uses a broad array of sources to inform its character assessment, including historic charts and maps, as here of part of the Isles of Scilly from 1750. DP022583 © Mike Hesketh-Roberts/Historic England

They also record previous changes in cultural character where evidence exists. The character assessment and its supporting detail are mapped using a Geographical Information System (GIS) and documented in accompanying texts, using non-specialist language to assist communication. GIS mapping can respond to many differing queries on its content: HSC is truly a database rather than simply a map.

Character Type Texts Title Page: SW England HSC Project
Besides its mapping, HSC provides illustrated texts explaining, in plain language, key aspects of the historic seascape character types it identifies, as here in the report from the HSC project on England’s South West Peninsula © Historic England

All landscape perceptions draw on known associations of place to give meaning to the visible. So too, seascape perceptions draw widely on what we know from across the spectrum from sea surface to sea floor: HSC’s interest in past human activity and its effects extends beyond merely the visible sea surface.

That broader scope is obvious at wreath-laying events over sites of past maritime disasters or when pilots guide shipping across the seemingly innocuous surface of dangerous waters. Accordingly HSC extends to land settled by people after the last Ice Age but now submerged, including that sometimes termed ‘Doggerland’ beneath the North Sea.

Most material remains from past marine and coastal activity lie on or beneath the seafloor as marine archaeology or forming our rich coastal heritage. HSC’s interest also extends to the areas of activities that produced those remains, for example historic naval battles or former maritime trading routes serving places whose port functions have long since ceased. 

The past also reaches to the present, encompassing modern installations, for example, for oil and gas extraction and telecommunications. HSC has relevance to many modern issues too: past fishing activity has had considerable effects on present marine biodiversity.

Inner Dowsing wind farm off the Lincolnshire coast
HSC’s time depth extends to the present, including such recent contributions to seascape character as these wind turbines at the Inner Dowsing Wind Farm off the Lincolnshire coast 28013_016 © Dave MacLeod/Historic England

HSC’s seascape perspective also covers coastal land which possesses a distinctly maritime character. Often this corresponds with a landward perspective but not always. Many churches on coastal headlands served as position-finders for mariners before satellite navigation.

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire
Prominent and distinctive coastal features such as Whitby Abbey helped mariners know where they were along otherwise bland coastlines when viewed from offshore. Such features’ historic seascape character complements their landward roles. DP072182 © Bob Skingle/Historic England

A cultural understanding can enrich everyone’s favourite seascape wherever that may be. HSC’s use of GIS mapping also enables ready engagement with other map-based environmental data, for example from Natural England’s approach to multi-themed seascape assessment.

Further information is available on the roles and applications of HSC.

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