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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.

Aquatint Engraving of Lyme Regis
Lyme Regis, Dorset by G Hawkins. Aquatint Engraving, c 1830. This view looks eastwards towards Black Ven and Charmouth. Rapid erosion and coastal landsliding is a feature of this frontage. © Private Collection

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. 

Watercolour of Ilfracombe.
Ilfracombe, North Devon by Alfred Robert Quinton. Watercolour, c 1920. © J Salmon Limited, Sevenoaks
Victorian watercolour of Lynmouth and Countisbury Hill.
Lynmouth and Countisbury Hill by Albert Goodwin. Watercolour, 1877. © Chris Beetles Gallery, London

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.

Oil painting of a headland and promontory fort at Treryn Dinas, Cornwall
Treryn Dinas, Cornwall a headland and promontory fort depicted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Brett, painter of highly detailed coastal scenes. Oil , 1880. © Private collection

Managing risks

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.

18th century oil painting of Old High Cliff House, Dorset
Old High Cliff House, Dorset from the East by Charles Stuart. Oil, 1783. The property had to be demolished because of coastal erosion. Nearby Highcliffe Castle was built further back from the coast in the 1830s. © Private Collection

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.

An oil painting of men in a boat off the coast with St Mawes Castle, Cornwall, in the background
Off St Mawes Castle, by Charles Napier Hemy (1841–1917). Oil. Hemy painted castle and coastline alike in precise detail.[ © Elford Fine Art, Tavistock

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.  

Victorian lithograph of Weston-Super-Mare.
Weston-Super-Mare. A fine lithograph of c 1855 showing the facades of grand properties lining the seafront of an elegant resort. © Private Collection
Robin McInnes


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.


Further reading

Murphy, P 2014 England’s Coastal Heritage. Swindon: English Heritage

The results of the CHeRISH project, available from the Maritime Archaeology Trust website.

Rapid Coastal Assessment Surveys, available from the Archaeology Data Service. 

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