Do all heritage sites deserve to be saved or should some be permitted to fall into natural ruin? According to Caitlin DeSilvey, a cultural geography professor at the University of Exeter, some historic landmarks should be permitted to decay gracefully through a policy of managed “continuous ruination”. In other words, thanks to a perfect storm of falling budgets, climate change, rising sea levels, and, well, loads more storms, is it time to stop viewing heritage loss as a failure but instead as a necessary, even natural process of change?
“Yes, but it’s not about abandoning stuff,” stresses Phil Dyke, coast and marine adviser at the National Trust, which owns 775 miles of coastline and cares for more than 500 coastal interests. “It’s a form of adaptation. There are 90 locations around England, Wales and Northern Ireland where we’ve got significant change that we’re going to have to deal with over time. It’s going to become increasingly difficult to hang on to structures in these locations.”
Like the 19th-century Mullion Harbour in Cornwall, which costs the National Trust around £1,500 a week to maintain, and is now being allowed to decay naturally. “There’s going to be a tipping point when the harbour wall will get taken away after a big winter storm,” Dyke tells me. “We’ll lose the end of it and rather than rebuild it as we have in the past, we’ll consolidate it back. It won’t be a loss overnight and remember that before the harbour was built in 1895 it was just a simple Cornish cove. There is an element of it returning to its former state.”
It’s also about being realistic. The Environment Agency estimates that more than 700 properties in England, for example, could be lost to coastal erosion by around 2030. “It’s easy to assume that the coast is a static line but it’s changing constantly,” Dyke says. “The white cliffs of Dover are white because they’re constantly eroding back. If they weren’t they’d be green and covered in sea orchids.”
Surely, though, some heritage sites deserve, no matter what, to be saved? Dyke cites Mussenden Temple, “a neoclassical structure perched on a clifftop” on Northern Ireland’s north Antrim coast, as a good example. “At some point there will be a structural failure of the cliff, a big chunk will fall away, and we can’t prop it up. But what we can do is relocate the temple: literally take it down and rebuild it inland a short way from the coast. In fact this may already have been done in past centuries.”
English Heritage is currently undertaking the largest conservation programme in its history. “A common thread in conservation planning is the need to understand the different threats [a site] may face, be they natural or man made,” says Jeremy Ashbee, its head property curator. “We remain committed to conserving them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to stay exactly as they are, but neither are we working towards a managed retreat at any of them.”
Continuous ruin – or adaptation as the Trust calls it – is basically nothing new. “On the Suffolk coast there is a tiny village called Dunwich,” Dyke says. “It was once a major trading town but it was swallowed up in its entirety in the medieval period. So this is not something new. It’s been happening and it will continue to happen, particularly with sea level rise. Where we’ve identified places at risk we want to understand the significance of those features before they are lost. And sometimes it’s about celebrating these sites and enjoying them while they’re still here.”