Climate change is putting England’s coastal castles at risk

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From Tintagel Castle in Cornwall to Piel Castle in Cumbria, several of England’s most important coastal heritage sites are at risk of being lost forever as a result of accelerating coastal erosion, English Heritage has warned.

The charity is refocusing its conservation programme to tackle this threat and launches a multi-million-pound fundraising appeal.

English Heritage Estates Director Rob Woodside explains: “Erosion along England’s coastline is nothing new but the rate of land loss that we have seen over the past few years is alarming, and some scenarios indicate that sea levels could increase by up to a metre by the end of the century. To give this some context, last century sea levels rose by 14cm along the southern coast of England. Climate change is accelerating the issues faced by our coastal heritage and creating huge challenges for organisations, like English Heritage, seeking to protect it. Rising sea levels and more regular storms pose a real risk to the future of many of our sites.

“The partial collapse of the East Battery at Hurst Castle in February 2021 was a devastating reminder of the power of the sea and the risks our coastal heritage faces, but Hurst is not an isolated case. Hundreds of heritage sites in the UK and around the world are increasingly at risk. If these coastal properties are to survive the coming decades, we will need to strengthen their walls and build sea defences to protect them. It is for this reason that we are launching a public appeal to raise funds for this vital conservation work.”

English Heritage is working together with other leading heritage organisations from around the world to share knowledge and best practice. The charity is a founding partner of the UK Heritage Adaptation Partnership, which aims to share expertise in tackling the impact of climate change on our historical sites and cultural heritage, and is also working with the World Monument Fund Britain on its Coastal Connections programme that brings specialists from across the globe together to share experience and support others facing similar risk.

The charity has also secured Hurst Castle’s place on the 2022 World Monument List – a watch list of the 25 most important heritage sites at risk around the world.

English Heritage has identified six coastal castles in its care most at risk from rising tides, due to their exposed locations and the fragility of the rocks upon which they sit:

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall 

This historic site, inextricably connected with the legend of King Arthur, has a long history of erosion with the 13th-century castle falling into the sea since the 14th-century.

The historic fabric of the castle is subject to wind erosion, with gaps becoming visible in the mortar of the walls, whilst the upper mainland ward sits on a fault.

Archaeology is regularly lost to cliff falls, and recently parts of the cliff directly in front of Tintagel’s visitor centre have been lost to erosion, affecting the viewing area and coastal path.

Piel Castle, Cumbria 

Set on a low-lying island around half a mile from the coast in Morecambe Bay, 14th-century Piel Castle was built to guard Barrow-in-Furness against pirates and Scots raiders.

Today, the castle’s keep and masonry defences are at risk from both erosion due to rising sea levels. Much of the surrounding island has already been lost and some of the castle fell into the sea in the 19th-century. More recently, the sea banks and gabion sea defences have been undermined due to coastal erosion.

Bayard’s Cove Fort, Devon 

For 500 years, this Tudor fort has guarded the narrow entrance to the Dart Estuary as the last line of defence to protect Dartmouth against enemy ships. Occupying a terrace cut from the rocky riverbank, Bayard’s Cove is beautifully located but its exceptional position makes it vulnerable to flooding. Work urgently needs to be carried out to investigate the impact of rising sea levels on its structure.

Garrison Walls, Scilly

Built to strengthen the island’s defences after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Garrison Walls are one of England’s most remarkable coastal defences. The shape of the walls creates pinch points or “armpits”, where the tide focuses. These sections are extremely vulnerable to erosion and will be breached in the coming years if not protected.

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Hurst Castle, Hampshire 

Built by Henry VIII at the seaward end of a coastal spit, Hurst Castle is one of the most advanced artillery fortresses in England. However, its position at the entrance to the Solent also makes it extremely vulnerable. Just days before planned work to stabilise the site, the 18th-century east wing of the castle collapsed after the sea exposed and undercut its foundations.

Whilst English Heritage has completed the stabilisation of the damaged section, the sea walls around the original Tudor fort urgently need repairing and strengthening to protect it from undercutting and collapse.

Calshot Castle, Hampshire 

This picturesque fort, built by Henry VIII to defend the passage to Southampton, sits just down the coast from Hurst Castle and is also built upon a vulnerable short spit in the Solent. As well as erosion, which has caused damage to Calshot Castle’s masonry apron sea defence, the site is low level and, if sea levels continue to rise, is in very real danger of inundation.

Protecting our coastal heritage from the effects of erosion and flooding is one of the greatest challenges English Heritage has ever faced.

Sea levels are rising at their fastest rate for more than 2,700 years and are predicted to surge by up to a metre before the end of the 21st century.

Donations to the English Heritage’s Coastal Conservation Appeal will help the charity continue to protect, conserve and carry out critical maintenance at its most vulnerable coastal sites. To support the appeal, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/support-us/our-appeals/coast

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