The Lake District: A World Heritage Site

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Posted on July 16, 2017

July 2017 might well go down in UK history as something of a threshold moment in time. On the 9th of this month, after a process that has its roots in the 1980s, the Lake District National Park received inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What this means is outlined in the official definition: 

‘a natural or man-made site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance and therefore as deserving special protection. Sites are nominated to and designated by the World Heritage Convention (an organization of UNESCO).’ 


It’s hard not to agree with the fact that the Lake District deserves protection, and in this the inscription is a very positive thing – the outstanding universal values (see below) that have been identified here do require looking after. How this will be done, though, is the big question, and the work starts here. The tasks have not changed just because the National Park is now a World Heritage Site – but we hope that the inscription will provide more opportunities for a positive future. There is a balancing act: this small patch of beautiful, sensitive landscape accommodates tourists, a thriving leisure industry and farming and does need looking after. The global recognition of special status is, we hope, a reason to care more deeply about what the Lake District already has, and its potential to be enriched, in many ways.

We are lovers of the outdoors, drawn to the hills and valleys, and very curious about the work that goes into shaping and caring for the landscape. We are in regular contact with many of the organisations who are part of the Lake District National Park partnership, as well as with individuals whose work includes farming, researching, woodworking, conservation, and many others who just love being outdoors. This affords us the privilege of being able to consider, on a regular basis, the situation from more than one side – and to do so not by reading reports or news stories, but by talking to the people who are engaged, every day, with the land that has been granted this recognition.


We see WHS status as an opportunity to look after a diverse landscape and its mosaic of habitats, and support its evolution in a way that improves the environmental richness of the landscape while continuing to support the continuing work of farmers; work to mitigate the impact of climate change events (specifically flooding) is also part of this. We are familiar with many valleys where rich habitats and the presence of rare species of plants and birds reveal an increasingly sensitive way of working with the land. We are also aware of areas where conditions are declining – so we’re not painting a picture of a landscape that is perfect, rather one where there is potential for continued improvement. We are optimistic, despite doomsayers who predict that farming can do nothing but wreck the countryside (George Monbiot is the loudest of these voices), that with considered consultation and true partnership working, the future looks good. 

We are proud about the status and we are really happy to stand up for it and share our enthusiasm about it. It has been interesting to talk to people about what it means on public walks that we did during The Long View to some of the remarkably ordinary trees that are becoming better known through the book and exhibition. Along with many others, we have been waiting with anticipation and slight nervousness for this announcement. Now that it’s here, the real work begins. That’s not our job – we are not on the partnership and we will not be sitting round the table when policy is discussed – but we will be staying in touch with many of the people who do have an influence, and we will be sharing our views. As creative types, our work offers something that policy documents and news stories do not, and we keep coming back to the benefit of getting outside, and spending slow time in specific locations, and we do what we can to share not only what we learn, but also what we feel. We refer time and time again to Sir David Attenborough’s view that no one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.  


Many of our colour installations last year drew on current and very pressing questions about the environment and the way that we as humans care for it. And our current work – the three treefold sculptures being created across Cumbria, are an invitation to pause and consider the wider picture as well as the small things, to consider the evolution of the land around us, and our part in it, whether we engage with the land as tourists, ecologists, hill farmers, mountain bikers, walkers or armchair tourists. We always like to take a pause for thought …. 

And here’s one: Can the World Heritage Site status be one of the triggers for changes that could make this national park a model for a living, cultural landscape that demonstrates environmental care and sustainability? Careful management of tourism pressure and good public transport as well as sensitivity in farming are all part of the larger context that impacts the health of the environment; we have been thinking about just one small strand – how about banishing plastic bags throughout the World Heritage Site? Anyone up for taking this on as a new project??


Lake District: World Heritage Site District Announcement including statements from some of the partners

Lake District National Park Authority WHS pages 

Friends of the Lake District statement, considering the environment, flooding, tourism, farming

George Monbiot on the inscription as a betrayal of the living world in the Guardian

National Trust View on World Heritage Status


UNESCO on The Lake District as a World Heritage Site


Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The OUV is expressed in four principal themes: rural landscape and farming traditions; development of the Picturesque aesthetic; the cradle of Romanticism; and the landscape conservation movement.  The special significance of the Lake District lies in the interaction between social, economic, cultural and environmental influences.  This significance results from an alliance between the aesthetic appeal of its natural environment and unique character of its farming culture inspiring the writers and artists to show how the landscape could appeal to the higher senses and be open to all.  This led to the development of a conservation movement to protect this cultural landscape.

The fusion of aesthetics and practical land management triggered a cultural and political movement based on two strands – the power of working cultural landscapes to inspire, and the idea that a partnership could be created between those who work the landscape and those who take their leisure in it so that future generations can continue to benefit from this special place.

The unique role played by the Lake District in the development of ideas and beliefs about landscape formed the pattern both for valuing this type of cultural landscape and the political movement for their conservation.  This has had a strong and continuing international influence on approaches to landscape conservation.  While aspects of this process are evidenced elsewhere, no single other place was so influential as the Lake District and nowhere else where the physical lineaments of this process can be so seen more clearly.

Criteria met :

(ii) The design of the Lake District landscape exhibits an important interchange of human values not only because of the impact of a significant agricultural tradition but also because of important influences resulting from the picturesque, aesthetic and the early conservation movement.  The moves to protect this highly-valued cultural landscape have subsequently had a world-wide influence in two ways: the development of landscape stewardship through responsible ownership (the National Trust model) and landscape protection through special measures of public policy (the Protected Landscape model).

(vi) The Lake District is associated with ideas as well as artistic and literary works.  Its special significance was launched by a remarkable alliance between the aesthetic appeal of its environment and unique character of its farming culture with the output of writers and artists, such as William Wordsworth, who showed how it could appeal to the higher senses and be accessible to all.

Additional Information

Unlike some other mountainous landscapes, on the World Heritage List, such as the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the Italian Dolomites or the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, the Lake District is not being proposed for inscription because of its natural grandeur.  Its natural landscape beauty stems from its intimate combination of mountains and water, which are strongly influenced by the impacts of past glaciation.  In this it shares attributes with some Scandinavian World Heritage Sites such as the Vega Archipelago, the Swedish High Coast and Kvarken Archipelago and the Laponian Area.  Unlike them, however, the Lake District is not being proposed as a natural or mixed site but as a cultural site, because it is the interaction of humans with the landscape, through human usage and embellishment, that most strongly characterises the Lake District.  As a mountainous landscape preserving the cultural traditions of distinctive forms of upland farming, the Lake District most strongly resembles the Causses and Cevennes World Heritage Site, but with an agricultural system suited to more northerly and Atlantic climes.  In its cultural association with art and philosophy, and the associated physical embellishments of the landscape, it shares features with the West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhan in China, though the Lake District’s cultural associations are western rather than eastern.  The Lake District shares attributes with a number of existing World Heritage Sites but it does so in a combination that is uniquely its own and in the association of its landscape with the birth of the conservation movement it is entirely distinct.



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