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Coastal Survey NHPP Activity 3A2

This research, carried out 2011-2015 was concerned with surveying the vulnerable heritage of our coasts in order to provide critical information for decision makers.

Photograph showing a section of exposed underlying peats and a land surface, including evidence for prehistoric activity, at Druridge Bay, Northumberland.
Druridge Bay, Northumberland. Dune erosion and recession exposes underlying peats and a land surface, including evidence for Mesolithic activity and a Bronze Age cremation cemetery. © Historic England and Peter Murphy


While coasts are dynamic, historic assets such as archaeological sites, buildings or landscapes are fixed. Significant historic assets will be lost to erosion or flooding, especially as climate change has effects on the form of coasts. In some places, entire historic landscapes, such as grazing marshes, may be lost following the Managed Realignment of coastal defences.

Sites that lie seawards of modern defences, such as assemblages of hulks (vessels abandoned after the end of their working lives), have no physical protection at all and will continue to degrade due to physical processes and the activities of timber-boring organisms.

The principal objective of this activity was a complete survey of the English coast to enhance the local authority Historic Environment Records and to assess significance and vulnerability of assets recorded.

Photograph of a brick built boiling house used in salt making, near Lymington
This 18th century boiling house for salt production at Creek Cottage, near Lymington is on the site of a medieval saltern. It supplied salt for the fisheries in Labrador and locally. © Historic England and Peter Murphy

Expected protection results

Protection has to be underpinned by information. The data obtained from this Activity will help inform decision-makers who manage our vulnerable coastal heritage. This may involve designation (legal protection), physical protection and recording before loss or even, in some cases, relocation.

The projects all provided information to help determine the best approach, especially in relation to the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management strategy, led by Defra and the Environment Agency.

Photograph showing an archaeologist in the process of surveying at fish trap at Dunster beach
Dunster, Somerset. Field survey of a stone-built fish trap. © Historic England and Peter Murphy

Projects in this activity

Rapid coastal zone assessment surveys

The Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey programme (RCZAS) predates the National Heritage Protection Plan (NHPP), but was taken forward to completion as part of it.

The surveys were in two or three stages: an initial desk-based Phase 1 (Desk-Based Survey), which draws data from aerial and lidar (laser terrain recording) sources and from existing archaeological databases. This drives Phase 2 (Field Survey) during which sites are inspected and assessed. Subsequent additional work, including more detailed survey and scientific dating, may follow in Phase 3. Reports from these surveys are available online.

This programme included the following surveys:

Essex grazing marshes

Essex County Council staff, commissioned by Historic England, carried out a desk-based and “ground truthing”, (ie on-site investigation) exercise on Grazing Marshes in that county. This assessed the heritage significance and vulnerability of historic assets. The project recorded archaeological features such as salt-producing sites, sea walls, stock management features and Second World War defences, and features of the built environment (barns, farms) as well as intangible features such as place-names and cultural or historical associations. Find out more from the project report.

Hulk survey

Hulks occur all around the coast, but are poorly understood. The first phase of this survey focused on groups, or assemblages, of hulks: 199 were identified, ranging in size from two to more than 80, dating back to the 18th century. Part two of the survey focused on geographical areas that needed further research to complete the national picture. Find out more about the results of the survey from the project archive.

Wootton Quarr survey

The Isle of Wight County Archaeological Unit carried out a survey of coastline along the southern shore of the eastern Solent, around Wootton Creek. The survey revealed 180 sites and structures from a range of periods, especially Neolithic, Bronze Age, Roman and Medieval evidence. In particular wooden trackways, post alignments and fish-traps were identified.

The survey also produced one of the best sets of dendrochronological (tree-ring) dating for the Neolithic period in southern England. The results were published with Historic England support in 2012 as Coastal Archaeology in a Dynamic Environment, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 568, by D Tomalin, RD Loader, and RG Scaife.

Inter-tidal peat bed at Low Hauxley, Northumberland

We commissioned Archaeological Research Services to carry out rescue recording of the inter-tidal peat bed and associated archaeology, which was being eroded away. Finds included human footprints preserved from the Mesolithic period. The Heritage Lottery Fund is giving funding for more work to manage the site. Find out more from the digital report.

England's Coastal Heritage publication

In addition to the detailed studies noted above, the Activity has resulted in the publication of England's Coastal Heritage: A Review of Progress Since 1997. The book, by former Activity lead Peter Murphy, reviews what the RCZAS and other coastal historic environment surveys have achieved. It introduces the coastal historic environment, considers long-term coastal change, outlines survey and characterisation methodology. It also suggests a set of research and heritage management priorities for the future. You can find out more and buy the book here.

A photograph showing the hull of a sailing barge
Alde Estuary, Suffolk. The hulk of the sailing barge Tuesday, of Rochester. © Historic England and Peter Murphy

Links to other activities

Coastal survey was closely linked with the following Activities

A photograph of Low Lighthouse, a square wooden construction built on stilts
Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset. The Low Lighthouse, a shoreline structure that will become vulnerable during future sea-level rise. © English Heritage and Peter Murphy
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