Heritage, levelling-up and the Thames Estuary

Hadleigh Castle, Essex © Caroline Gill

Four key reports are encouraging us to rethink heritage on both sides of the Thames Estuary. The RSA Heritage Index (2020) provides the data arranged by local authority to explore the contribution heritage makes in a locality. In particular, the accompanying report, Pride in Place by Hannah Webster, identifies the authorities along the Thames Estuary as having ‘heritage potential’. In other words, these areas rank highly in terms of heritage assets, but not so well in terms of heritage activities.

The RSA data for heritage in the two counties of Essex and Kent (and with sections on the Thames Estuary) are further explored in two reports by David Gill and Peter Matthews that have been issued by the Centre for Heritage at the University of Kent (2021). These three heritage reports can now be read against the Thames Heritage Levelling-up Data Atlas (2021) that was commissioned by the Thames Estuary Growth Board. This Atlas explores ten indicators in order ‘to help understand social outcomes and inequalities in a consistent way across the Estuary’.

Can the data from these reports form the starting point for interventions that would help to ‘level up’ local populations especially around the theme of health and well-being? This is particularly important as there is a strong correlation between higher levels of neighbourhood deprivation and lower arts, cultural and heritage engagement (Mak, Coulter and Fancourt 2021), and a significant body of research has demonstrated that the arts and culture can potentially impact both mental and physical health (Fancourt and Finn 2019).

In the Atlas section on ‘Health and Wellbeing’, Canterbury and Brentwood have the most active populations: only 17 and 20 per cent of the population take exercise for less than 30 minutes each week. (The average for England is 25 per cent.) Both these authorities perform well in the Heritage Index for England, ranking at 67 and 123. Specifically, Brentwood is ranked at 25 in the theme of Parks and Open Spaces, and at 95 for Landscape and Natural Heritage, while Canterbury is ranked at 223 and 35. While this could suggest that certain types of heritage asset promote good health through the provision of space for exercise, Castle Point is ranked at 52 in the Heritage Index, but 30 per cent of the population take exercise for less than 30 minutes each week.

The Atlas suggests that Canterbury, Dartford, Castle Point, Brentwood and Rochford, have better mental health than the average for England (17%); Canterbury, Rochford and Castle Point are in the top 100 in the Heritage Index for England. In addition, authorities in the Thames Estuary have a good level of Life Satisfaction with several authorities above the average for England (7.66 ex 10), notably Swale (7.78), Rochford (7.91), and Castle Point (7.99). This may reflect access to heritage assets. Rochford was ranked at 4 in the Heritage Index for Landscape and Natural Heritage; and Castle Point and Swale performed well in the rankings for Parks and Open Spaces (16/27) as well as Landscape and Natural Heritage (20/26).

Two Tree Island, Essex © David Gill

The Levelling-up Atlas and the Heritage Index offer an invaluable starting point for understanding the link between heritage, and health and well-being. The data from the reports should be used by policy-makers to inform the levelling up agenda along the Thames Estuary, but it is clear that there needs to be further research into the way that local populations engage with heritage, and what can be done to improve the local assets for the wider benefit of the local population.

Professor David Gill (University of Kent) and Phil Ward (Eastern ARC)

This post was prepared for the Heritage Alliance debate, “Levelling Up: What does it mean for heritage?”, 30 November 2021.

Carlton Marshes

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Carlton Marshes © David Gill

The Suffolk Wildlife Trust has been awarded over £4 million to enhance Carlton Marshes near Lowestoft through the purchase of a further 348 acres of land. This will include the construction of a new visitor centre that is due to open in 2020. This will form part of the Broads National Park.

Thomas Bewick celebrations at NT Cherryburn

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Cherryburn © David Gill

This weekend marks the anniversary of the birth of the wood-engraver Thomas Bewick at Cherryburn in Northumberland on 10 or 12 August 1753 (see ODNB). The property is now owned by the National Trust.

Further information is available from the Thomas Bewick Society and the Natural History Society of Northumbria.

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Cherryburn © David Gill

Branding the beauty – red chair moments from Parks Canada

In a nod to the shift from the experience to transformative economy in site management and interpretation, Parks Canada has been placing red chairs in scenic locations around its National Parks. These are designed to not only provide a passive viewpoint experience of natural heritage and landscape, but also generate a proactive sense of adventure in the visitor (the transformative bit) who is encouraged to seek out the locations where the benches have been placed.

The programme has been running for around three years, having started in Gros Morne National Park and has featured in social media and advertising across the country, with each Park taking its own approach to promotion.  The hashtags #ShareTheChair and #TimeToConnect hook in to the idea of shared outdoor experience and connecting with nature to bring about wider wellbeing.

The chairs themselves have heritage background, built in the Adirondack or Muskoka style, are bright red and carry the Parks Canada organisational logo.  The chairs can also be bought from the Parks Canada website (children and adult sizes available).

It is an interesting approach by the organisation, though has attracted some criticism – but as a site intervention of experiential design which incorporates a call to action, heritage, branding, visual stimulus, and landscape interpretation, it is effective.  I hope to capture my own red chair moments in the next month and will no doubt participate in #ShareTheChair as I encourage a couple of teenagers to disconnect from their phones for a moment.

In the UK, we have seen smaller scale equivalents at individual sites with National Trust branded deckchairs, and very subtly branded picnic benches at English Heritage sites.

Kelsale Medieval Landscape

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Kelsale medieval dam © David Gill

The Suffolk Flora Preservation Trust had an open day on the Fromus Valley at Kelsale in Suffolk. One of the most impressive features is a 200 m long medieval dam across the valley. The Trust has used LIDAR imagery to show the extent of the lake.

The dam and lake appear to form part of the hunting estate by the Bigod family at Kelsale. The earliest reference to the lake appears in the Patent Role of 1281 (details).

Directions to the first Caerlaverock Castle

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Caerlaverock Castle © David Gill

A path takes you through the woodland behind Caerlaverock Castle to the site of the first moated castle. The route is designated by discreet Ministry arrows signs (also found at Dunadd Fort).

The wood is adjacent to the nationally significant nature reserve.

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Caerlaverock Castle © David Gill

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Caerlaverock Castle © David Gill

 

 

Wicken Fen

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Wicken Fen © David Gill

Wicken Fen is a major National Trust property in Cambridgeshire, and a National Nature Reserve. The fen is a reminder of what so much of this part of Cambridgeshire would have looked like at the beginning of the twentieth century – and a reminder of what drainage and modern agriculture has done to these former wetland landscapes. There is a huge bio-diversity in the fen that makes it well worth a visit.

Working Fen Landscapes

Fen cottage at Wicken Fen © David Gill
Fen cottage at Wicken Fen © David Gill

The National Trust Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve is the home to one of the largest numbers of species and sub-species on any nature reserve in England. The extensive reed beds are home to marsh harriers and dragonflies, there is a dedicated butterfly walk, and kingfishers can be seen on Wicken Lode.

But this was also a working landscape. The reeds and sedge grasses were harvested for thatching and making reed mats, and the waterways provided food in the form of eels. The National Trust has preserved a fen cottage to remind us of what life was like on the fen. There is also a fenman’s workshop giving an idea of the range of activities that would have taken place.

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