Bath: Going down in history
PUBLISHED: 12:23 12 September 2017 | UPDATED: 12:35 12 September 2017
Being listed as a World Heritage Site opens the door to a wealth of opportunity, as Peter Naldrett discovers in the historic city of Bath
It’s now 30 years since the recommendation was first made to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) that Bath should be a World Heritage Site. The two-page document presented in 1987 justified the city’s valuable historical importance, describing how Aquae Sulis was built 20 years after the Romans came to these shores and excavations started in earnest in the Victorian era.
The report, submitted by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, recommends the wider city be placed on the list of World Heritage Sites, drawing attention to the significance of Queen Square, Royal Circus, Royal Crescent, Prior Park and Pulteney Bridge. The application to add Bath to the elite list was approved.
Tony Crouch is the City of Bath World Heritage Site manager, and when I chatted to him I was surprised to learn that being placed on the all-important list does not see a funding increase or planning protection enhanced.
“Being a World Heritage Site means everything and nothing,” he told me. “It’s a designation and it depends on what you do with it; there will be no immediate or overnight changes but it can be very important for tourism and boosting the image of the area. The sites in Bath were already protected as listed buildings, but being placed on the World Heritage Site list tells people that we’re up there with the best in the world.”
Although the UNESCO status doesn’t add any legal framework when it comes to planning, Tony was quick to point out that it can be recognised as part of the planning system.
Similarly, even though there is no direct funding from the United Nations for World Heritage Sites, mentioning the status in bids for other sources of money can be influential. Bath has gained £17 million in Heritage Lottery Funding since 2010 and each bid will have mentioned the World Heritage Site status, perhaps giving the bid an edge.
The challenge for decision-makers in Bath is to balance the needs of a city, with 89,000 people, with being an icon for world heritage. Tony Crouch thinks it’s something they do well.
“We have 5,000 listed buildings in the city and only two of them are at risk so we have a good state of conservation in Bath.
“It’s also sustainable because tourists come into the city and actually stay overnight in the places they come to visit. Some of our hotels are listed buildings and tourists put money into them which can then be invested in the state of the building.”
The concept of looking after sites of significant historical importance was first introduced after World War One, but it wasn’t until 1959 when countries were kickstarted into action. In 1965, a White House conference in Washington called for a World Heritage Trust to be established. Proposals were drawn up and in 1972 a convention proposing the protection of cultural and heritage sites was accepted by UNESCO.
Among the sites joining Bath on the list are the Great Barrier Reef, Yellowstone National Park, the Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal. When Bath was put on the list in 1987, the process was easier than it is today; you would now have to invest at least four years and £500,000 to try and get on the World Heritage Site list.
More than one million visitors each year head for the Roman Baths and many museums have examples of Roman stonework or perhaps a mosaic. The artefacts on display in Bath puts them in perspective; it’s one of the best collections outside Italy.
Caroline Kay is the chief executive of Bath Preservation Trust, and told me: “Bath’s World Heritage status is hugely important to both the vitality and economy of the city, in the form of tourism and visitors. It also provides an extra layer of heritage protection and a deeper appreciation of the unique qualities of the city. And it puts us in the same family as Venice and the Taj Mahal in terms of similarly important sites!”
What makes Bath extra special is that it’s the ‘City of Bath’ that has World Heritage Status, acknowledging the remarkable value of the city’s Georgian architecture. The only other site in the world with such a large designation is Venice, where the city and the lagoon as a whole are included.
The 30 terraced houses set out in the sweeping curve of The Royal Crescent are symbolic of Georgian life in Bath. Designed by John Wood, building on this significant site started in 1767 and took seven years to complete. Today, many believe it to be the greatest example of Georgian architecture anywhere in the country.
Being on the World Heritage Site list may not bring direct funding to the city, but it certainly boosts its profile and increases the interest in tourists from home and abroad.
Tony Crouch puts it perfectly: “It’s like having a restaurant and having a Michelin star. It means that people know you’re good; they recognise and value who you are.”
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