Can Britain’s crumbling strongholds be rescued from the sea?

Standing among the 13th-century ruins of one of England’s most famous castles on a cold, windy winter’s day, you can understand why Tintagel has inspired poets, artists and storytellers for centuries.

Looking at the crumbling, toothy remnants of the walls, it’s easy to imagine a time when people ate in grandeur in the great banquet hall. King Arthur is said to have conceived at this point, aided by Merlin’s magic. Apparently, this was what inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build the castle. But now the future of Tintagel is at stake.

“The cliffs are eroding, and a piece of the big storms this winter has hit the beach,” says Win Scutt, English Heritage property curator, pointing to a spot a few feet above the sandy cove of Tintagel Haven. It is located under the castle. “This is now undermining an old Victorian wall. Now you can see that the bottom of that wall is a bit empty.”

English Heritage is so concerned about the escalating effects of the climate crisis that it launched a fundraiser in the summer of 2022, highlighting the six areas it considers most vulnerable to coastal erosion. Besides Tintagel, Bayard’s Cove Fort at Dartmouth and the Garrison Walls at St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles of Scilly.

Coastal erosion is nothing new. The impressive and recently award-winning new bridge connecting the mainland to the remains of the castle is a fine example of modern architecture that has risen to meet the challenges of many years of erosion.

In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of Tintagel walked from one side of the site to the other using a narrow land bridge that rose up to the top of the cliffs. However, the pass was eroded between the 14th and 17th centuries, leaving the castle divided by a natural cliff that had to be crossed with steep steps. The new bridge was built in 2019.

The rapidly accelerating pace of change now interests experts not only from English Heritage but throughout the country, including the National Trust and the Historic Environment of Scotland and others. The sea level, which was only 14 cm on the south coast of England in the 20th century, is expected to rise to a meter in some places by the end of the century. And as the winter weather prevails once again, this threat becomes even more real.

The stone walls of Bayard's Cove castle in Dartmouth.

The stone walls of Bayard’s Cove castle in Dartmouth. Photo: George Brice/Alamy

On the fort side of the bridge, a more recent victim of air erosion is immediately apparent. Some of the walls surrounding the medieval banquet hall were bent dangerously to one side and were cordoned off to prevent people from standing underneath.

“These surviving remains are scraped by the change in weather,” Scutt says. “There’s some kind of muddy mortar between the stones, and that’s disappearing. These were once covered with stones on the front and back but were stolen over time, which is not good news for the ruins. It’s like losing tooth enamel.”

English Heritage is all too familiar with how quickly coastal erosion can wreak havoc thanks to a recent and devastating event. In Hampshire, 260 miles east of Tintagel, lies the castle of Hurst. In 1541, Henry VIII ordered it built to protect the coast from enemy attack. It survived intact through the civil war, the Napoleonic wars, and the two world wars.

It was a different kind of enemy that caused one of the castle’s walls to fall dramatically into the waves. Over time, the sea washed the tiles on which the castle rested, providing water to the foundations. This led to a gradual structural failure and resulted in the collapse of part of the east wall, especially after severe storms in the winter of 2021.

“Some of my team were in the field and saw what happened,” says Rob Woodside, English Heritage site manager. “Fortunately, they weren’t near the crash site, but they saw it. They said it was gone with a big explosion and a cloud of dust, and they popped out of their skin.

The fort has since been added to the World Monuments Fund watch list, and the work currently being done to prevent future collapse will be used as an example for other countries facing similar challenges from erosion.

Eight hundred miles to the north, on the Scottish Isles of Orkney, another conservation battle is waged over a very different historic structure. There, archaeologists are looking for ways to preserve the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, located near the white sandy beach of Skaill Bay on the west side of the islands.

The site is one of the best preserved neolithic sites in northwest Europe and attracts tourists from all over the world. It consists of a collection of prehistoric, round houses built from stone slabs with stone furniture inside.

“During the 1920s, there were very significant erosion problems in that area,” says Mairi Davies, climate policy manager for Historic Environment Scotland. “At that point, there was a naval defense on the field. This is still there, but there are currently significant problems with erosion that are effectively undermining this structure.

We are not ready to raise the white flag to lose our properties

Rob Woodside, English Heritage

While the wall continues to be strengthened again, Davies and his team are now looking at options that go beyond rigid defenses: “These were thought to be a response to coastal erosion in the past, but now we’re looking at potential nature-based solutions.” These include things like ‘beach replenishment’, where you move large volumes of sand along the coastline from one point to another weak spot. “That way, you’re doing a really good job of protecting the coastline more generally and therefore the cultural heritage,” Davies says. .

A more radical solution is to move an archaeological site to a safer place entirely. This happened on the island of Sanday in the Orkney Islands in 2014, when archaeologists and locals physically moved the site of a bronze-age “burnt mound” – believed to be saunas or sweat huts – further inland after a serious event. storms accelerated the rate of erosion.

Davies acknowledges that physically moving a heritage site won’t be a solution in the vast majority of erosion cases, but says it can work if you have a community that is very involved and feels very strongly about it.

There’s also the possibility of restoring a castle or heritage structure – but this can be difficult to get over with people who are often attached to the romantic idea of ​​ruin.

“Some castles were originally painted and whitewashed,” Scutt says. “If we can convince the public to understand what some castles are like, we can do something about it. Not at Tintagel but I can think of other sites where it would be great to paint and lime wash these castles.”

Like archaeologists and experts around the country, Scutt and his team will continue to discuss and enact various solutions to support the remains of our heritage. But regardless of the experts’ best efforts, do we have to accept that some of the historic structures that define England’s coastline will eventually be lost at sea?

“A long-term perspective tells you that loss is inevitable,” says John Darlington, managing director of the World Monuments Fund Britain, working with English Heritage on Hurst Castle. “What we do as heritage managers is primarily about the careful management of change. And that might be holding the line, supporting and protecting a bit of the beach. It could be to offer soft solutions such as dune reclamation. And managing ‘corrected rot’ could and probably will be more and more.

In other words, allowing some structures to slide safely into the waves may be the only solution. But Rob Woodside of English Heritage is optimistic: “Our sites are about the history of England and how places have changed and also how places continue. We are not ready to raise the white flag for losing our properties. But we recognize the challenges we face and how we need to work with others to plan for their future. We’re open to doing it.”

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