Reprinted from Newsletter 117, dated 2005 November–December

Glastonbury’s potential as a World Heritage Site

Anthony Ward

Background to the project

My personal motivation for beginning independent research into Glastonbury’s potential as a World Heritage Site (WHS) was sparked by a desire to protect the town and its many sites of environmental, historical and spiritual significance from the relentless process of piecemeal development threatening the integrity and health both of landscape and of community.

A logo. An almost-complete circular arc is broken at the bottom, where parallel lines join to the arc and ascend towards the centre, joining a diamond shape which is also broken at its bottom point so as to join the parallel lines. The diamond is centred within the circle and fills most of its space. Around the symbol ar the words “world heritage”, “patrimoine mondial”, and “patrimonio mundial”.

A WHS bid seemed to offer a big opportunity to build community and unity — a wider civic pride among local people in this unique place with so much of its extraordinary natural and cultural heritage still intact but clearly much endangered, not only by ignorance and greed but also by permissive planning and development laws and regulations.

Indeed it is hard to see where opposition to such a bid might come, save from property developers and landowners or those concerned about the practical costs or difficulties of actually obtaining the cherished goal of World Heritage status.

For myself, six months down the line, I would put pride of place in the bid not simply in conserving Glastonbury’s history, archaeology, or landscape or architecture, or indeed in building sustainably, tourism or business opportunities, but rather in focusing on developing wider local, regional and national recognition of Glastonbury’s worldwide reputation as a centre for spiritual pilgrimage.

Glastonbury — or the Isle of Avalon — has been a major pilgrimage site and “sacred land” for centuries, if not for several millennia, thanks to the Tor, the Well, the Abbey and many other sacred sites. And we haven’t even mentioned a single myth or legend yet! Glastonbury has so many sites of great universal appeal and potency to add to its claims as a spiritual or pilgrimage centre of international renown.

And nearby on the Levels are two of the best-preserved and most internationally renowned Iron Age lake villages to bolster Glastonbury’s case.

Glastonbury appears a very potent brand name indeed when set beside some of the other rather less illustrious names on Britain’s current WHS Tentative List — places such as Chatham Naval Dockyard, the Liverpool commercial centre and waterfront, the Wash and the north Norfolk coast, and Manchester and Salford (Ancoats, Castlefield and Worsley).

The Somerset Levels might be more difficult to establish as a brand, but linked with Glastonbury (and the two are surely integral to each other historically and geographically) they are likely to bring wider appeal to the whole package.

What is a World Heritage Site?

Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has accorded this status to 754 sites worldwide, as being of “outstanding universal cultural or natural significance”. (See for the set of criteria.) Of these sites, 23 are in the UK, including Bath, Stonehenge and Avebury, and the Dorset and east Devon coast (Jurassic coast). This year’s successful nominee was the Cornish tin mines.

These sites are nominated by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on behalf of our national government — the maximum is one site per year — and assessed by international specialist bodies and accepted by Unesco’s World Heritage Committee onto a list World Heritage Sites. In the UK, WHS status offers no additional statutory protection or financial aid, but it does highlight the international importance of the site and the need to ensure its survival for future generations.

How is a World Heritage Site managed?

In the UK, WHS status is a “key material consideration” that local authorities must take into account when making planning decisions. All World Heritage Sites are required by Unesco and the UK government (DCMS and English Heritage) to have a detailed management plan for the site, which aims to provide a framework for conserving its cultural and natural-heritage assets. Such a plan must also outline issues relating to the management of change within the site and in any surrounding “buffer zones”. The plan is drawn up and updated by a WHS Steering Group representing a partnership committee of the widest possible range of community “stakeholders”, both locally and nationally.

How can WHS status be obtained?

To be nominated by the UK government, a site first has to be included on the national Tentative List of sites likely to be put forward in future years. This list, first drawn up in 1987, was last reviewed in 1999, when 25 sites were included — 8 of which have duly gained WHS status while 17 remain on the current list.

On September 2 in 2000, I was advised by Caity Marsh of the DCMS International World Heritage and Listing Branch that the government is preparing to review the Tentative List for the first time in seven years in 2006-07 and will carry out “a major and lengthy consultation to consider all claims for inclusion on a future Tentative List”. Such a consultation represents a window of opportunity for potentially new claimants such as Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels.

No clear guidance exists yet as to how this review will be organized, but Caity March and Dr Christopher Young of English Heritage have advised that greater emphasis will now be put on “establishing clearly at the outset that the place in question has outstanding universal value and authenticity through the development of Statements of Significance, Authenticity and Integrity” (Dr Young provided background information on the form and nature of such statements).

Caity Marsh (DCMS) stressed that the ability to demonstrate “widespread community support and ownership” of a WHS bid will be a key factor in determining the success or failure of any bid to go onto the Tentative List and any bid later for full World Heritage Site status.

Where do we go from here?

With a review of the government’s Tentative List due to begin next year, there is clearly an opportunity for interested individuals and groups to come together to consider whether to prepare a bid for Tentative List status — with a view to obtaining full World Heritage Site status within the next decade — say 2012 to 2015.

If there is a positive will to do something, then a steering group involving community and national organizations, perhaps with their chairmn and an administrative coordinator or researcher, will need to be established. The group can act as a reference point for all those interested in a bid for WHS Tentative List status and also seek to awaken and nurture community interest and support for the project.

As part of this process of bidding for List status, the steering group will also be required to address the issue of the availability of resources and an effective strategy to compete for full WHS status from 2008 onwards. The steering group’s job will be to create community ownership and leadership and the practical resources to enable an effective and compelling case for Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels to be submitted to the DCMS Tentative List review by early 2007 at the latest. And then, we hope, we will be in a position to bid for an even bigger prize from 2008 onwards: full World Heritage Site status.

Glastonbury as a potential World Heritage Site

Motion before the Glastonbury Conservation Society annual general meeting on Friday 2 December 2005, proposed by Anthony Ward and seconded by Nathan Pritchard:

This AGM recognizes that Glastonbury Conservation Society, as the main source of education and practical support for conservation in the community in Glastonbury, is best placed to promote awareness of the potential conservation benefits and costs of World Heritage Site status to the wider community.

This AGM acknowledges and supports further research into the potential conservation benefits and costs for Glastonbury and the Somerset Levels to bid to join the Tentative List of potential World Heritage Sites in the UK when the Government (DCMS and English Heritage) review and revise their list of potential sites in 2006-07. This AGM asks Anthony Ward and other interested members, including a representative of the Management Committee, to form a small research group to continue this research on behalf of the Society.

In particular this AGM:

  1. invites Anthony Ward and a member of the Management Committee to arrange a meeting as soon as possible with representatives of the Glastonbury Community Development Trust and Somerset County Council (the county archaeologist, Bob Croft, and the Levels and Moors Project) who have both already registered an interest in World Heritage Site status with DCMS and English Heritage. All those in the Society interested in being part of the new WHS research group to attend if possible. Aim: to share views and information and to consider how serious an interest such bodies have in a potential Glastonbury and Somerset Levels bid (or separate bids).

  2. asks the new WHS research group then to prepare to convene a public information and discussion meeting at the Town Hall in spring 2006 for all community organizations in Glastonbury who may have an interest in a World Heritage Site bid beginning in 2006-07. Observers to be invited from key Somerset Levels organizations, and expert speakers to be invited from existing World Heritage Site steering groups in the South and South West.

  3. If there is evidence of widespread community support for a World Heritage Site bid, a WHS steering group can be set up at the public meeting to begin the formal process of preparing a Glastonbury or Glastonbury and Somerset Levels bid for the World Heritage Site Tentative List in the government’s planned 2006-07 review process.

  4. No financial or other commitments to be made at this stage by the Society or research group beyond such an exploratory public meeting.