The Lake District – a case of World Heritage perseverance

Text and photo by Herdis Hølleland, NIKU

30 years of World Heritage limbo finally gets a happy ending as the Lake District makes the World Heritage List!

First nominated in the 1980s, the nomination was deferred at the World Heritage Committee meeting in 1987 and was only formally re-nominated in 2016 by the UK. It was an unusually long wait. The Lake District’s deferral is, however, interesting as it in many ways is a forgotten part of the World Heritage discourse on natural and cultural landscape.

Negotiating nature and culture

While the World Heritage Convention was the first international convention covering both natural and cultural heritage, the actual bridging of the two has been a continuous process. The first step towards moving towards a recognition that they are not always two separate units came with the actual listing of the first sites in the late 1970s – by 1979 a new category of ‘mixed’ sites, sites listed for both natural and cultural values, was introduced. However, it did not really tackle the problem of the continuum between nature and culture. This became more apparent during the 1980s, and one of the nominations which forced forth debate on the matter was the Lake District.

The UK had put forward the Lake District as a mixed site, and ICOMOS’ evaluation indicated it met some of the cultural criteria. IUCN, however, was uncertain as of whether or not the Lake District could be seen as a truly ‘natural site’ referring to the definition of the article 2 of the World Heritage Convention – i.e. nature as not modified by man. Despite the fact that ICOMOS recommended listing, the Lake District was not listed. With the UK’s withdrawal from UNESCO, the World Heritage nominations stopped in the late 1980s only to return in the late 1990s.

Thus rather than the Lake District, it was Tongariro National Park which became the symbol of the turning point as it was the first site listed under the category of cultural landscape in 1993, whilst the UK was no longer a member of UNESCO. However, rather than ‘not being natural enough’, Tongariro had been problematic as its cultural aspect did not fit with convention; the cultural character of this landscape is associative and oral and not physically modified by man. Neither fit well into the criteria which were used at the time they were nominated. In short both ‘cases’ show the problems of classifying what nature and culture is.

The births of the conservation movements

Another element the two share, if in different ways, are their histories as areas where the conservation movement made an early impact – which has essentially contributed to paving way for conventions such as the World Heritage Convention.

A central feature of the cultural history of the Lake District is its authors who, inspired by their environment, wrote about the protection and value of it. As early as in 1810, decades before the first National Parks were established, William Wordsworth wrote that the Lake District was ‘a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest that has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’.

This was later followed up by John Ruskin in the later parts of the 19th century, and the establishment of initiatives such as the National Trust. While highly disputed, the so-called gifting of the mountain peaks of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe nonetheless led to the establishment of the first National Park in New Zealand – only the forth in the world. Had these areas not been seen as worth preserving they would never have been considered World Heritage material, yet the natureculture of the sites made them fall between the compartmentalised definitions and criteria for nature and culture.

The Lake District World Heritage Site

The new World Heritage Site of the Lake District very much highlights and is based on the close relationship between the landscape and our notions of it – from the birth of early conservation movement, the Romantic views of the landscape as well as the landscape as a source of inspiration for artistic creativity.

Hence it draws attention to the intangible notions of nature as part of our cultural heritage – not completely different for the Tongariro nomination. Yet in contrast to the former, nature has been taken out and the area re-defined as a cultural landscape.

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