Will the Lake District become a World Heritage Site?

Yew Tree Farm, Coniston
Yew Tree Farm, Coniston, which was once owned by Beatrix Potter

For some time now, organisations from around the Lake District have been working together on a bid to make the Lake District a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There have been previous bids to achieve World Heritage status over the years, but suddenly the decision on the latest attempt is just around the corner, with the result expected in July.

What is World Heritage?

So what exactly is a World Heritage Site? On its website, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) says it,

seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

In summary, its mission includes to ensure protection of natural and cultural heritage, and help raise awareness of their conservation. Existing examples of World Heritage sites around the world include the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Barrier Reef, as well as UK sites and properties such as Stonehenge and the Tower of London.

The bid has been delivered by the Lake District National Park Partnership (you can read more at lakesworldheritage.co.uk), and was given to the UK government before being submitted to UNESCO for consideration.

Why the Lake District?

Brantwood overlooking Coniston Water
Brantwood, which was once home to the social reformer John Ruskin

The Lake District is bidding for World Heritage status based on three main themes, which the bid describes as ‘intertwining and interdependent’ – that the Lake District is:

1. A landscape of exceptional beauty, shaped by persistent and distinctive agro-pastoral traditions which give it special character;

It came as a bit of a surprise to me as a child when I saw a film that described how the Lake District had been shaped over many years of agricultural tradition – over 1,000 years, in fact. It turned out that the hills hadn’t always looked like they do now, and sheep farming is largely responsible for this.

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve come across more and more reminders of how humans and their farming and industrial needs have shaped the landscape (e.g. woods were coppiced for bobbin mills, and the remains of mines can be found all over the fells, although agro-pastoral traditions rather than the industrial landscape appear to be the focus here). The Lake District is beautiful, but it’s easy to forget that it is far from natural.

2. A landscape which has inspired artistic and literary movements and generated ideas about landscapes that have had global influence and left their physical mark;


3. A landscape which has been the catalyst for key developments in the national and international protection of landscapes.

The Lake District has inspired a number of literary figures and conservationists over the years, and has played an important part in how we have viewed landscapes. Interest in the area began with the Picturesque movement, when wealthy tourists were no longer about to complete the Grand Tour of Europe which was so fashionable at the time, due to the French Revolution. Claife Viewing Station on the western shore of Windermere is one example of an early viewing station built specifically to ‘frame’ the view for these tourists. Later on, the Lake District became a focus of the huge artistic, literary and intellectual movement, the Romantic Movement.

Claife Viewing Station
Claife Viewing Station, which dates back to the Picturesque Movement

During the 19th century, it became clear that the Lake District would need protecting from commercialisation and becoming permanently spoiled, and some of the famous names involved its preservation include poet and conservationist William Wordsworth, social reformer John Ruskin, and children’s author and farmer Beatrix Potter.

Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Dove Cottage, which was home to William Wordsworth

In my recent post about Allan Bank in Grasmere, I mentioned that its owner Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley was inspired to act on his idea for a sort of trust for the people when Grasmere Island and other national treasures were sold off. This ultimately led him to co-found The National Trust. The Lake District also played an important role in the designation of National Parks (it became one in 1951), and in 1992 played a part as a model for the creation of a World Heritage category for cultural landscapes.

Allan Bank, Grasmere, overlooking Grasmere Island
Allan Bank looking towards Grasmere Island on Grasmere, which inspired Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley to eventually co-found the National Trust

What are the benefits of World Heritage status?

On their website, the partnership behind the bid list the ways in which they believe the World Heritage status would benefit the Lake District:

  • Our vital farming community will enjoy increased recognition of the cultural role of farming and its integral role with the landscape.
  • Our government has pledged to provide resources to protect its World Heritage Sites. Having this status could attract more funding and investment into the Lake District – and we’ll be heard.
  • We’ve worked out that just a one per cent switch to cultural visitors who spend more on accommodation, leisure and food and drink could boost our economy by about £20m per year.
  • The profile of the Lake District will be elevated internationally. Even more than it is right now.
  • We develop as an international brand on the ‘A-list’ of places to visit.
  • The sense of achievement would go sky-high. We’ll be bursting with pride.

Obviously I think that the Lake District is a stunning place worthy of any award – after all, I devote much of my spare time to blogging about it! So are there any drawbacks to World Heritage status?

Are there drawbacks?

Sheep in LangdaleSome of the obvious drawbacks, it could be argued, relate to the benefits themselves. Does raising the profile of the Lake District mean that more people will want to visit (even though that isn’t explicitly an aim of the bid)? Is there room for extra capacity, particularly on already busy roads where there is no room for expansion? Other drawbacks that have been mentioned in relation to World Heritage status generally, include ‘preserving a place in aspic and stifling innovation’ and the concern that it will ‘undermine a country’s right to make decisions about its own heritage’.

The most vocal opponent of Lake District Heritage status has to be the environmentalist and journalist George Monbiot, who has famously described the Lake District as a ‘sheepwrecked‘ landscape. His main complaint stems from the fact that the Lake District isn’t a natural landscape, because, without sheep snacking on the fellsides, the land would return to its natural wild state.

As a rule, a wild state (vegetation and trees) prevents negative impacts such as soil erosion and flooding downstream, and is generally seen as good land management in conservation. I think I am right in saying that, as Monbiot sees it, World Heritage Status would make the current state of affairs permanent, and celebrate a way of land management that may not be as romantic as meets the eye. There’s also the issue of farm subsidies, and the uncertainty that Brexit brings to farm payments.

At the head of the Coledale Valley
At the head of the Coledale Valley next to Force Crag Mine

Flooding has been a major problem in several parts of Cumbria and the Lake District in recent years, so to me it sounds sensible to consider any benefits a rewilding approach would bring to those at risk of flooding downstream – particularly as more frequent and intense rainfall events are expected as a result of climate change. I’ve read a fair amount on rewilding as part of my day job as a freelance researcher looking at sustainability and environmental issues, and whilst I am definitely not an expert, there do appear to be examples in the UK where rewilding has been successful in managing rainfall.

I really dislike the answers to debates being expressed as one of two extremes (i.e. you have to be all for something, or completely against it), and don’t personally see that being awarded World Heritage status would prevent some rewilding from taking place (the bid does discuss briefly the possible need for this). Nor do I see that rewilding would require a ban on all sheep, although I can see the tensions between these models.

The Pontbren Project in Wales (referred to by Monbiot himself) was planned and carried out by the area’s own local farmers, and appears to use belts of trees rather than completely eliminate the sheep, with benefits in managing water run-off. And already, the Ennerdale valley in the west of the Lake District has undergone a long-term rewilding project.

Barn in Troutbeck valley
Townend Barn, opposite Townend in the Troutbeck valley

So what do I think?

As you’d imagine, I’m very much in favour of anything that shows off just how special the Lake District is. As well as raising the profile of the Lake District (on my travels I have met people who have never heard of the Lake District, which saddens me!), World Heritage status would draw attention to the stories behind how the Lake District landscape came to be, and its cultural significance. Sheep farming in particular has come into the spotlight more recently with Ian Lawson’s incredible Herdwick photography exhibition and James Rebanks’s book The Shepherd’s Life, following the popularity of his Twitter account.

For many years though, the Lake District was allowed to evolve with the needs of human beings, and my main hope is that any further protected status (the Lake District is, of course, already a National Park) would not prevent it from continuing to evolve in line with reasonable needs that may be required in rapidly changing times, including in response to climate change.

In the same way, I also hope it would not prevent modern-day developments that are genuinely good for the area (just look at the fabulous Windermere Jetty project which is currently underway). As someone pointed out, the Lake District’s historic buildings were all new once, and many of the fascinating buildings we explore now were definitely not built in the traditional Lakeland style!

For these reasons I don’t feel strongly in favour of or against the bid, but I am fascinated by the complexities behind it. I will always love the Lake District’s landscape, history and culture, as I know many of you do, and will continue to enjoy exploring the Lakes, and reading, learning and blogging about it, regardless.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the bid, you can take a look at the World Heritage bid website, or the full World Heritage bid document. Be warned, as it’s huge, and spread across many different files so can look rather off-putting – but once you find your bearings, it does also contain some fascinating historical and geological information about the Lake District, if you’re really motivated to learn more.

What’s your opinion on the Lake District World Heritage bid? Let me (and other readers) know your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

One Comment

  1. I’ve never been to Ennerdale, which is to the west of the Lake District, but from what I’ve seen on the television and online, it looks beautiful and remote. Take a look at the Wild Ennerdale website for more information: http://www.wildennerdale.co.uk/

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