Over the course of the year 2015, I completed the audacious task of visiting all 26 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United Kingdom.
The idea first came about in late 2014 when I chanced upon an article about the country’s UNESCO sites. I was struck firstly by how few I’d actually visited in my life, and secondly, that there was a significant number on the list which I’d never even heard of before!
The idea of ticking of lists is nothing new, whether it be Munro-bagging or visiting all 92 football league grounds, but this seemed like a novel challenge which I guessed no-one had ever done before. Also, with Scotland’s independence being rejected, it was the perfect excuse to celebrate the unity of the United Kingdom. So an empty travel calendar and the curiosity of discovering more of my home country turned into a year of logistics and adventure.
Whilst a year sounds like a long time, the difficulty would come about from fitting the various sites into annual leave from my full-time job plus any free weekends. Living in Manchester provided the perfect base though, since the locations are dotted across all four home nations and cover some extreme points. I quickly established a broad outline of when would be good times to visit each site trying to group them into sets of three or four based on geography.
Spring saw me cover all six of the sites in the south-west of the country including the iconic Stonehenge – probably the most famous of all the UK sites. The Stonehenge inscription onto the UNESCO list also includes various associated Neolithic sites in the area such as the equally impressive Avebury henge and the distinctive Silbury Hill. Being on a strict schedule, I often found myself pressed for time when trying to fit in such extras to fully experience each site.
Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape
I was astounded at the expanse of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape, with numerous industrial sites dotted across the region. The mileage of tunnels and original scale of production is simply staggering, with the Levant Mine near St Just having mineshafts up to 1km deep with a labyrinth of tunnels reaching out over 2km below the Atlantic Ocean.
Completion of the whole challenge was reliant on one key site which turned out to be the highlight of the year and a place which not many people south of Carlisle seem to have heard of, despite its incredible history.
St Kilda, the unique archipelago located 40 miles west from the main islands of the Outer Hebrides, was actually inhabited for millennia until it was evacuated in 1930. Nowadays, the sea stacks surrounding the main island of Hirta are still home to some of the largest colonies of gannets and puffins in the world.
Due to its isolated location, reaching St Kilda was no foregone conclusion and my trip there in July from the Isle of Harris was cancelled on two consecutive days due to poor sailing weather. However, a hasty rejig of my planned itinerary for visiting the Heart of NeolithicOrkney freed up another attempt and I was greeted with the most glorious day for experiencing St Kilda in all its beauty.
With flights and sailings used to negotiate the Scottish islands, I became aware that I was racking up a good number of different modes of transport in the tour. By the end of the year I would actually count ten – foot, bike, car, bus, train, tube, boat, barge, ferry and plane.
The Home Straight
With scheduled tourist trips to St Kilda only taking place during the summer months, it was a huge relief to tick it off the list and not face the prospect of another trip up to the Hebrides with the risk of a last minute cancellation. Suddenly, completion of the full list became a real possibility, but – with other personal endeavours to fulfil – I had only actually visited 10 of the 26 sites by mid-October.
Nevertheless, with most of the extreme points completed, I was confident I could still finish the job, especially with a full week in November planned for London (the highlights there being the Tower of London and Maritime Greenwich).
Whilst each individual has their own interests, my personal tastes of physical geography and engineering were well catered for and it was great to see so many industrial landscapes getting recognition for what they have done for the United Kingdom, with New Lanark being another superb site.
Ironbridge Gorge and The Forth Bridge
And as a bridge engineer by profession, I was naturally proud to see iconic landmarks being honoured, namely the Ironbridge Gorge and The Forth Bridge – the latter of which only got added to the UNESCO list in July 2015, resulting in a quick detour when I was visiting the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh in December.
Completion of the year’s work was then assured for me on Christmas Eve atSaltaire, the Victorian model village near Bradford established by industrialist Sir Titus Salt in 1851.
Seeing all the sites has definitely inspired me about what the UK has to offer, but it has also made me somewhat sceptical about the current UNESCO list.
For instance, as excellent as Blenheim Palace and Durham Castle and Cathedral are, there isn’t quite enough there to deserve such esteemed ‘X factor’ status in my opinion. Indeed, now being aware of the true magnificence of St Kilda sometimes makes me consider if only five or six sites in total fully merit World Heritage status in the UK. The issue is that when more keep getting added to the list, it somewhat degrades the exclusivity and significance of those already listed.
The Jurassic Coast
A second slight bugbear is that the list is very heavily skewed toward cultural sites. Only two sites (Giant’s Causeway and the Jurassic Coast) are natural, whilst St Kilda is designated as a mixed natural and cultural site. The UK is rich with natural landscapes, more of which surely warrant being on the list – Scotland’s Flow Country wetlands and the Lake District are currently on the tentative list of sites aiming for future inscription, but the spectacular limestone scenery of the Yorkshire Dales doesn’t even make that list.
After successfully completing a very fulfilling year of travel around the UK, the next question is what to do next to equal or better it. There are always new places to explore outdoors so ideas for new challenges are easy to develop with a bit of imagination. It doesn’t even have to be particularly audacious – just checking out the UNESCO list is always worthwhile when visiting other countries, as there are undoubtedly hidden gems abroad too.
There’s actually a bonus three UNESCO sites connected with the United Kingdom which are located in overseas territories; including sites in the Pitcairn Islands, Bermuda and the brilliantly named Gough and Inaccessible Islands. Considering the difficulties and ultimate triumph in getting to St Kilda, a part of me wants the challenge of achieving the seemingly impossible and ticking off these too.