The legendary birthplace of King Arthur could be lost to the sea, English Heritage has said, as it warned that accelerating coastal erosion was threatening heritage all along England’s coastlines.
Rising sea levels and increasingly powerful winter storms that are driven by climate change are battering the country’s coastal history.
“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,” said Rob Woodside, the charity’s estates director said.
Mr Woodside told The Telegraph that with limited budgets and hundreds of sites to protect, English Heritage faced difficult decisions ahead, including possibly abandoning some properties.
“What we can't do is try to play King Cnut and hold the water back, we have to learn to live with this changing environment.”
Alongside the warning, English Heritage released a list of six sites most at risk from increasing erosion, among them Tintagel Castle. It has launched an urgent fundraising effort to defend the properties.
Tintagel, on the north Cornish coast, has been associated with King Arthur ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth named it as the place of his conception in his 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain.
The site has long been attacked by the sea, with parts of the 13th-century castle having collapsed into the Celtic Sea for the last seven centuries.
However, accelerating erosion is threatening large parts of the estate, including the visitor centre. Archaeological remains and steps for visitor access have already been swept away from the soft ground between the sites’ two cliffs.
English Heritage said that the site urgently needs £40,000 of work just to repair damage from last winter’s storms.
While the castle itself is not under immediate threat, the cliffs around it are facing growing danger from the sea over the coming decades.
A set of steps down to the beach was swept away in the storms and urgently needs replacing to allow visitors access, the charity said.
Other properties face an even more immediate challenge.
In February 2021, the heritage group was presented with stark evidence of the threat it faced. Just days before it was about to begin stabilisation work on Hurst Castle, an artillery fort on the Solent first built by Henry VIII, a large section of its east wing collapsed
The 18th-century extension to the fort had its foundations undercut by the sea. “Hurst Castle is a real challenge because the natural processes that created the spit are being stopped because of development in Chichester harbour,” said Mr Woodside, “So the spirit is retreating and it's undercutting the foundations of the castle.”
Since the collapse, English Heritage has built new defences around the fort and completed stabilisation work. However, the sea walls protecting the original Tudor section of the fort are in desperate need of reinforcing.
The long-term future of the site, meanwhile, is in doubt. If the Environment Agency were to decide not to protect the wider stretch of coast, said Mr Woodside, “we might be looking at the spirit being cut off and we may not be able to access it, so we may get to a point where we're not able to maintain it anymore.”
Also on the list of at-risk properties are the garrison walls on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly. The 17th and 18th-century walls were designed to take advantage of the tides to create pinch points, but those same tides now threaten to breach the walls and wash them into the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Bayard’s Cove Fort, which has sat at the mouth of the River Dart in Devon for half a millennium, is at risk of regular flooding because of its low-lying position.
And 13 miles east of Hurst Castle, another of Henry VIII’s coastal batteries, Calshot Castle, faces permanent inundation from rising seas.
The final site on the list is Piel Castle, in Morecambe Bay. The island stronghold was built in the early 1300s to protect Barrow-in-Furness from pirates and Scottish raiders. Now, though, it faces its own demise from the waters that it once protected.
The island of the same name that it sits on is disappearing into the frigid Irish Sea while its coastal defences are being “picked off” said Mr Woodside. If that continues, the castle itself will be at risk.
“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,” he said.
List of buildings at risk
- Tintagel Castle, Cornwall
- Garrison walls on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly
- Bayard’s Cove Fort, Devon
- Hurst Castle, Hampshire
- Calshot Castle, Hampshire
- Piel Castle, Morecambe Bay