A Guide to 10 of Britain’s World Heritage Sites
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are the places around the world that the UN has deemed to be of particular significance or value.
A World Heritage Site can be cultural or natural, as small as a building or as large as a rainforest. There are 25 World Heritage Sites on the UK mainland and 3 in overseas territories. The majority of the UK’s World Heritage Sites are cultural, ranging from neolithic sites from thousands of years ago to sites that gained their cultural significance as recently as the 19th century.
ORA students have the opportunity to visit World Heritage Sites; have a look at our exciting programme of activities and coach tours to learn more. With 28 sites in the UK, we didn’t have room to write about them all. Instead, we’ve chosen 10 that are easily accessible from Oxford and that we think are particularly worth a visit.
1. Blenheim Palace
The vast and stunning Blenheim Palace – the only palace in England not belonging to royalty or a bishopric – is a mere four miles from Oxford Royale Summer Schools’s International Study Centre at Yarnton Manor, and is inhabited by a (distant) scion of the same family who originally built the manor. Blenheim Palace was built in gratitude to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, for his military triumphs – most notable the Battle of Blenheim. Political struggles led to the Duke’s temporary exile while the palace was being constructed. He moved into the unfinished palace in 1719, but died three years later. The building of the palace was not completed until 1733.
The palace is also of note as the ancestral home of Winston Churchill, who was born there in 1874 and proposed to his wife in the gardens there in 1908. However, the main draw of Blenheim Palace is not its connections to history, but its opulent architecture, which helped define the English Romantic style, as well as its lavish and beautiful gardens, designed by the landscape architect Capability Brown. Brown has been described ‘England’s greatest gardener’ and his work on more than 170 parks has been hugely influential. Visiting Blenheim Palace is a chance to learn more about the lives of one Britain’s most important families as well as simply to enjoy the wonderful architecture and spectacular gardens.
2. Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church
These three sites are hugely significant for the history of early Christianity in the UK. While Christianity had been a minority faith in Britain since the 1st century AD and gradually gained influence from the 4th century onwards thanks to the missionary activity of Irish Christians, it was St Augustine’s mission in 597, commissioned by Pope Gregory I, that led to widespread conversion.
St Martin’s Church predates St Augustine’s visit to Britain and he enlarged it and used it as the headquarters for his mission. It is the oldest church in the English-speaking world. Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine’s Abbey were both founded by St Augustine upon his arrival in Britain. Canterbury Cathedral has since then been the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion.
Canterbury Cathedral was also the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered there in 1170. Thomas Becket had objected to Henry II being crowned at York instead of Canterbury, and had excommunicated the bishops involved. When the news reached Henry II, he allegedly cried out, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Whether these were his exact words or not is unknown, but those around him certainly seem to have understood that he wanted Becket dead. Violating the right of sanctuary, four knights killed Becket within the cathedral. Becket was subsequently venerated as a saint and Canterbury became a site of pilgrimage – hence Chaucer’s pilgrims travelling there from London in The Canterbury Tales.
3. The City of Bath
Bath, about an hour and a half from Oxford, is an elegant city that has had two major periods of significance. Its hot springs led to baths being developed by the Romans on the site of an earlier shrine to the goddess Sulis, whom the Romans identified as Minerva when they continued to worship there. A wealth of Roman remains have been found, include curse tablets that asked Sulis to ensure the return of stolen goods and curse the thieves responsible.
Bath came into vogue again in the 17th century when visitors were drawn by the health-giving properties of the hot springs there, and it became a fashionable holiday destination. In the Georgian period, it gained a number of beautiful buildings, such as the famous Circus, a circular space surrounded by a row of grand townhouses. Think of Jane Austen heroines dancing in gorgeous ballrooms, and you have a good impression of Georgian Bath. Much of this architecture has survived or been impressively restored, leaving the city today as harmonious and beautiful as it was in the 18th century.
4. Durham Castle and Cathedral
The World Heritage site in Durham might seem unexpectedly familiar to some visitors – this is because the cloisters of Durham Cathedral were used in filming the Harry Potter series, as the quadrangle where Harry watches Hedwig soar in The Philosopher’s Stone. The chapter house doubled as McGonagall’s Transfiguration classroom.
Cinematic connections are not what makes Durham Castle and Cathedral a World Heritage site, though – it’s that these awe-inspiring buildings represent some of the boldest and best Norman architecture in England, dating to the 11th and 12th century and acting as a forerunner to Gothic architecture. Durham Castle is now an undergraduate residence for Durham University, making it in the oldest building in use at any university in the world – its construction began in 1072. The cathedral library is also impressive, containing three copies of the Magna Carta (which includes the only surviving exemplification from 1216 – there are only four earlier copies) and a wealth of early printed books.
Bill Bryson wrote in Notes from a Small Island, “I unhesitatingly gave Durham my vote for best cathedral on planet Earth” – high praise indeed, but perhaps deserved.
5. Maritime Greenwich
The buildings that make up the World Heritage Site at Greenwich, nested on the banks of the Thames in East London, are more than just a remarkable example of Palladian architecture (which seems to be popular with the World Heritage Site team!). They are also the location where some of the world’s most significant work on astronomy took place.
The Royal Observatory, built in 1675, was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. It became crucial for the development of astronomy in Britain, and was used as a basis of measurement for several meridians until the definitive prime meridian was established there in 1851, which has become accepted as the prime meridian across the whole world. GPS longitudes are all calculated on the basis of the distance east or west of Greenwich. A stainless steel strip marks the exact location of the meridian in Greenwich, alongside a green laser that runs along the meridian line.
Similarly, the outstanding astronomy of the observatory of Greenwich also led to the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time as a global time standard; UT, or Universal Time, is based on Greenwich Mean Time. Almost everywhere in the world has a time zone that is standardised based on GMT. Anyone who has been confused by trying to calculate time zones as they are currently will appreciate how useful this is.
6. Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey
Generally known as the Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster is a grand Perpendicular Gothic building constructed in the mid-19th century. Technically, the Houses of Parliament are not places but the people that make up the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and they work in the Palace of Westminster.
Westminster Abbey, which dates to the 13th century, has been since 1066 the site of the coronation of the monarchs of England and Britain; it has also held at least 16 royal weddings, as long ago as Henry I’s marriage to Matilda of Scotland in 1100 and as recently as Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton in 2011. There are also a huge number of notable people buried in Westminster Abbey, including a number of kings, queens and prime ministers.
Of particular interest is Poets’ Corner, where poets and writers are buried, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Other writers and poets are commemorated in Poets’ Corner though not buried there, including Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon, who is the earliest English poet whose name is known.
In general, Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster are fascinating places to visit for anyone who has an interest in British history – especially British political history – or who simply wants to see what it’s like to walk the corridors of power.
7. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Kew Gardens, founded in 1840 on a site dating to 1759, is a 300-acre park that houses the world’s largest collection of living plants: there are more than 30,000 different kinds of living plants at Kew. Not that you need to be fascinated by botany to enjoy a visit to Kew; the grand glass houses, especially the Palm House and Temperate House, are astonishing structures in their own right, and the park is a beautiful place to stroll around in general.
For anyone with an interest in conservation, the history of Kew is particularly notable. In the 1770s, the combined interests of George III and Sir Joseph Banks (the head of the botanic garden at the time) led to Kew becoming the centre of botanic economics for Britain and its colonies of the time. From this, in the mid-Victorian times, Kew became a centre for scientific research across the British Empire. And now, after its decline in the early 20th century was reversed, Kew has become a centre for the conservation of ecosystems around the world as well as the preservation of its own remarkable heritage.
8. Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites
This World Heritage site comprises a series of Neolithic sites in Wiltshire, the most remarkable of which are the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury. Built some time between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, the exact purpose of these incredible stone circles is unknown – as is how the people of the Neolithic were able to raise such huge stones in the first place. They may have been temples, burial grounds or the site of some other kind of religious worship – for which they have also been adopted by modern-day pagans.
Stonehenge is probably the most famous of the UK’s 1,000 or so stone circles. It is one of the most intact (although this is partly because of later reconstruction), one of the most precisely built (all kinds of calculations can be carried out to do with the location of the stones) and one of the most technologically sophisticated – even in terms of the sheer size of the stones, the largest of which weighs more than 40 tonnes.
Avebury is notable as the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world, as it surrounds the village of Avebury, with a circumference of 1.3km. Much of the monument was reconstructed in the 20th century, as stones had been taken over the centuries for building materials. That so much of the circle has survived and so many of the stones have been available for reconstruction is remarkable, especially given that the circular arrangement of the stones is not immediately obvious, given the circle’s size.
These two stone circles, as well as the wide number of other Neolithic remains in the area – mostly burial mounds – are a testament to the remarkable engineering of a civilisation that is otherwise almost entirely lost to time.
9. Studley Royal Park including the Ruins of Fountains Abbey
The most striking part of Studley Royal Park isn’t the vast late Elizabethan Fountains Hall, the Georgian water garden or the medieval deer park, though all these are notable. It’s without a doubt the vast ruins of Fountains Abbey, one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in Britain, dating to 1132.
In the first half of the sixteenth century, for a complex variety of reasons, Henry VIII chose to break from the Catholic Church in Roman and establish himself as the head of a separate Church of England. As part of this process, the monastic houses that formed an integral part of the English religious landscape of the time became state property, their inhabitants cast out and the buildings themselves ransacked for their treasures.
One such monastic foundation was Fountains Abbey, the majesty of which even in its ruined form is sure to impress on every visitor what a huge social and cultural change the dissolution of the monasteries must have been, and how remarkable such a foundation must have been in its glory days.
Studley Royal Park is also notable for the way in which the ruins have been incorporated into the gardens as a whole, including the water garden, which consists of a series of ornamental lakes, cascades, temples and canals to enliven the landscape. The park as a whole combines the dramatic abbey (which inspired the artist JMW Turner to paint it several times) with the architectural and landscape tastes of the 18th century in a way that makes it an enjoyable place to visit as well as being a remarkable evocation of a turbulent period of British history.
10. The Tower of London
Probably the defining event in the history of Britain – the point at which, for generations, schoolchildren have been taught that British history ‘starts’ – is the Norman invasion of 1066. The Norman William the Conqueror defeated his rival claimant for the English throne, the English King Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings, after King Harold had himself defeated and killed the third claimant, the Norwegian Harald Hardrada, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
The Norman invasion changed life in England at every level, from governance to language to architecture. The latter is well represented by the vast symbol of Norman military dominance that is the Tower of London. Existing Anglo-Saxon buildings, which date to before 1066, are few and far between (Oxford’s church of St Michael at the North Gate is a rare example), but Norman buildings make an imposing contrast. The White Tower, the central keep of the Tower of London, was built shortly after the invasion as a castle to establish control of the City of London, and represents the peak of military architecture at the time. It would have inspired awe in the conquered Anglo-Saxons whom the Normans were trying to subdue.
The Tower’s history is not just significant for its links to the Norman invasion. It has been a royal palace, a jail and is still the home of the Crown Jewels. Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, were imprisoned and probably murdered in the Tower in the 1480s. In the 16th century, Henry VIII’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were both executed there, as was Lady Jane Grey, who Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son, had nominated as his successor to the throne.
In the present day, the Tower of London has become one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions, particularly when its moat was filled with ceramic poppies in commemoration of the First World War. It’s rightly become one of Britain’s most iconic structures.
The UK has another 18 such sites and they are equally fascinating and worth visiting, although some – such as Inaccessible Island – are rather harder to get to. Many of these sites are included among the coach tours that Oxford Royale Summer Schools students enjoy, and their UNESCO status gives them a much better chance of being enjoyed by generations to come.