Vision may see north Norfolk coast become a Unesco World Heritage Site

PUBLISHED: 07:25 29 February 2016 | UPDATED: 14:39 29 February 2016

The area from West Runton to Happisburgh could become a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The area from West Runton to Happisburgh could become a Unesco World Heritage Site.


An ambitious project, gathering momentum, could see north Norfolk's coastline become the region's first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Waves and sea spray on Happisburgh Beach on a early February afternoon.

Photo by Mark BullimoreWaves and sea spray on Happisburgh Beach on a early February afternoon. Photo by Mark Bullimore

Work has begun on branding a stretch from West Runton to Happisburgh as the Deep History Coast, reflecting its global importance in the story of life on earth.

And, alongside this, North Norfolk District Council chiefs are gathering evidence and expert opinion to back a possible bid for World Heritage Site status.

“I personally would be very keen to apply. When the idea was first suggested I thought: ‘Yes, let’s get the application form in straight away, but it takes a bit more time than that to get all your ducks in a row,” said council leader Tom FitzPatrick.

“We need to speak to a lot of partners, including Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Museums Service. But it’s certainly something we should aspire to. We are starting by shouting out about what we have here, through the branding exercise.

An illustration showing what north Norfolk was like when the West Runton elephant was alive, 650,000 years ago.An illustration showing what north Norfolk was like when the West Runton elephant was alive, 650,000 years ago.

“Because of erosion, more and more finds are coming to the fore. There have been some quite amazing archaeological discoveries.”

Over the past 26 years north Norfolk’s eroding coastline has yielded up scores of prehistoric treasures including the oldest human footprints found outside Africa, and the most complete skeleton of a mammoth anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile there is intense academic interest in learning more about Doggerland, once a land bridge between the east coast and the continent with an earlier course of what is now the River Thames reaching the North Sea at Happisburgh.

In 1931 a 9,000-year-old harpoon head, made of carved red deer antler, was dredged up eight miles off Yarmouth and boats have continued trawling up evidence of Doggerland, termed “Britain’s Atlantis”, which disappeared beneath the waves some 8,000 years ago.

Happisburgh footprintsHappisburgh footprints

If a bid was successful, north Norfolk’s Deep History Coast would become the only World Heritage Site in the eastern region. Nearest sister sites would be in London.

David Gurney, county archaeologist at Norfolk County Council said: “I think it’s a very good question to be asking. One million years of history, starting with the Happisburgh footprints, all combine to make the north Norfolk coast a very special place indeed for its geology, fossil beds, archaeology and history.

“We know how wonderful it is, and World Heritage Site status would be a feather in its cap.”

Discoveries such as the mammoth and footprints had deservedly attracted global attention and World Heritage Site Status would draw more people to the area.

West Runton elephant vertebrae.West Runton elephant vertebrae.

But Mr Gurney cautioned that the status would not bring “huge sums of money” and there was a danger that too many tourists could damage the precious landscape.

Helen Mitchell, an arts and heritage consultant, has been commissioned by North Norfolk District Council to produce a report on the possibilities of Deep Heritage Coast branding and has been consulting community chiefs along the coast.

Among suggestions for promoting the area beneath this banner are:

■ a scale model of the mammoth and displays of some of its bones;

Long process to gain status

The World Heritage Committee, whose members are from all the countries signed up to UNESCO’s aims, meets once a year to decide whether a site should be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

North Norfolk would first have to get its bid included on the UK’s Tentative List of sites which may be put forward for inscription over a five to 10-year period.

To be successful it would have to meet at least one of 10 selection criteria.

The north Norfolk coast would seem to fit one of these in particular. It offers: “outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms....”

There are currently 29 World Heritage Sites in the UK and its overseas territories.

They include the Tower of London, Stonehenge, the “Jurassic Coast” of Dorset, neolithic Orkney, and the historic town of St George, Bermuda.

■ apps for visitors to overlay on surrounding land or seascapes to show how the scene would have looked in prehistoric times;

■ dioramas and exhibitions in Cromer Museum;

■ displays in pubs, cafés and other public places;

■ cycling routes on coastal Quiet Lanes;

An illustration of the West Runton elephant.An illustration of the West Runton elephant.

■ a model mammoth trail, like the dragon and gorilla trails in Norwich;

■ film showings in village halls about finds;

■ interpretation panels and information points along the coast, possibly including old BT phoneboxes;

■ murals and artworks;

■ stickers, postcards, an illustrated guide and locally-produced merchandise.

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