Reprinted from Newsletter 121, dated 2006 December

Glastonbury submerges in Levels for World Heritage bid

Anthony Ward

The hall was packed — a terrific turnout of more than 120 for the first public presentation of the proposal to declare Glastonbury and the Levels a World Heritage Site. It clearly surprised the Somerset County Council team, who arrived in Glastonbury on October 13 with enough handouts for only 50. They also arrived without the county heritage officer, Tom Mayberry, and with a computer projection system that refused to display the prepared text and pictures. Bob Croft, the county archaeologist, had to improvise a run-through of the nature of the proposed bid and where it had reached in consultations.

He had to cope with protests from a Levels farmer, Mervyn Sweet, who saw the World Heritage bid as just another attempt to interfere with owners’ managing their land as they wished. Mr Sweet scorned suggestions that farmers might benefit from schemes to promote sustainable farming mentioned by the co-presenter, Richard Brunning, the Levels and Moors archaeologist. Eventually Mr Sweet’s somewhat bloody-minded intervention led to discussion and concern from the audience about the future of farming and land use on the Levels. A special consultation with farmers and landowners over the proposal was suggested.

Mr Croft explained why the wide-ranging Somerset Levels and Moors had been chosen as opposed to just Glastonbury. “Cultural landscape” was a new type of designation increasingly favoured by Unesco and the government, and competition was likely to be less fierce than for a town bid. The SCC team had just visited the Cornish and Devon Tin Mines cultural landscape — the first World Heritage Site of its kind in the UK.

Curiously for a public discussion in Glastonbury itself, that was the only time in the whole evening that the town or its heritage rated even a mention, whereas Mr Croft and Mr Brunning extolled the virtues of areas of the Levels and Moors.

Mr Croft said one of the most contentious issues would be setting the exact boundaries of a WHS bid, and it might take many years. The audience expressed concern about who might be in or out and the consequences for communities of these decisions.

The only serious applause was for Roy Proctor’s firm belief in the shaping of the local landscape by spiritual forces and its continuing importance as a place of pilgrimage.

At the end of an evening of heated, passionate and sometimes sceptical public discussion, Mr Croft’s call for a show of hands on a number of questions was illuminating — the overwhelming majority of attenders were from Glastonbury or within five miles; and only around a fifth were born in Somerset. The vast majority were in favour of pursuing a World Heritage bid, but a handful were clearly opposed, and several wanted to sit on the fence.

For myself, there was not just disappointment in the inevitably archaeological focus of the presenters but concern about the low level of resources and priority being put into research and consultations on the bid. Mr Croft explained that part of this resulted from the SCC’s focus on the Somerset Waterlinks Big Lottery bid — much the same area as the Levels and Moors. SCC is competing for a £50-million “pot of gold” with five other UK areas.

I am astonished that five months after the first consultation with invited local organisations at the Town Hall (on May 26) the National Trust has yet to be approached by the Somerset team about the World Heritage bid. SCC is publicly committed to a bid but seems to be largely going through the motions. When English Heritage and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport fire the gun to start the public review of the Tentative List of World Heritage sites for real, County Hall may have to scramble for the manpower and resources to put together a serious bid.

As for Glastonbury and its rich heritage, the size of the area of the current proposal means that SCC has no obligation to be particularly responsive to any of the towns or villages within it.