Should York be listed as world heritage site?
PUBLISHED: 00:15 17 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:54 20 February 2013
Yorkshire's capital city is making a bid to stand alongside Rome, Jerusalem and St Petersburgh in the eyes of the world, as Chris Titley reports
Some years ago Peter Addyman, the man behind Jorvik, was showing a VIP around Yorks Viking Centre. The VIP was Sir Gough Whitlam, former Australian Prime Minister and chairman of the United Nations World Heritage advisory committee. After the tour, he asked to see the Minster, as Peter recalled. On the way across Sir Gough said to me: How long has York been on the World Heritage List? I said its not on the World Heritage List. He said Really? I find that extraordinary.
And it is extraordinary.
With its Roman foundations, preserved Viking settlement, medieval walls and the Minster, York is undoubtedly a world heritage city. Yet it is not on the official World Heritage List, a collection of nearly 900 places the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) considers to have outstanding universal value.
Durham Castle and Cathedral are on the list. So are Edinburghs Old and New Towns, and the City of Bath. The model village of Saltaire, near Bradford, in West Yorkshire is also on the list. In fact there are 28 World Heritage Sites in the UK, but York is not one of them.
This is not an oversight. In the 1990s the city considered applying for a place on the list but decided against. Councillors were concerned about the status imposing extra planning restrictions and the idea was kicked in to touch.
Fast forward to the 21st century. When she became Lord Mayor of York in 2006 Councillor Janet Hopton was determined to look again at the idea. She set up a steering group with members from organisations across the city and got to work.
A feasibility study considered whether or not it would be good for York to be a World Heritage Site, and the verdict was it would be to Yorks advantage.
In fact there are three advantages, according to Peter Addyman, the former director of York Archaeological Trust. Its a statement of the importance of a place. Secondly, there are benefits from maintaining the tourist flow, the use of our cultural assets for the economy. And thirdly it helps with the conservation and preservation of what is important and good about the place.
The centre of York is already a conservation area and an area of archaeological importance. World Heritage status adds no new statutory regulations, said John Oxley, City of York Councils archaeologist. But it would show York as being very important on an international stage. And thats increasingly where York wants to place itself a world class place to do business, to live, to get an education, to visit.
His study found overwhelming support from residents for the idea of York becoming a World Heritage city, joining the likes of Rome, Rhodes and Jerusalem.
People are incredibly proud of York as a place to live.
So the idea is popular, and the city council is officially behind the bid but what happens next? The Government is to draw up what it calls a Tentative List of UK places which would meet UNESCOs World Heritage criteria. York must be on that list applications could be invited any time now and then make a case for being Britains nominated place in 2012.
It wont be easy. Theres a general consensus that York would have walked its way to World Heritage status 20 years ago. But the deciding committee now feels that the list already has plenty of walled European cities with a cathedral, and is demanding more.
Fortunately York has more. What makes the city exceptional? Its a place that has repeatedly attracted important functions, said Peter. Nowhere else combines a Roman legionary fortress, a Roman city, an Anglo Saxon capital city, a Viking capital city, a major medieval regional city and a centre of Christianity in one spot.
More than that, this historical combination is uniquely well-preserved by the waterlogged conditions under Yorks streets and buildings.
Thats why so much of the Viking settlement was still there to be uncovered by Peter and the York Archaeological Trust.
To date more than 15 million people have viewed the results at Jorvik. The trusts latest dig is the biggest in the citys history. It is on the site of a new housing development at Hungate and has uncovered new treasures, including more Viking properties, a copper cockerel probably dating from medieval times, and Victorian childrens games. Led by professional archaeologists, the excavation is also partly carried out by interested lay people who have volunteered to be part of the Community Archaeology project. This is hands-on history.
We can thank Yorks soggy underground for an incredible amount of knowledge about the past, Peter said. As well as maybe finding a few broken pots, here in York you can find the things that normally rot away. Knives still have their wooden handles on, old buttons still have the clothes attached to them, the clothes very often still have the dyes in them so you can tell what colour they are. You can begin to create a whole picture of life in the past that otherwise is not there unless someones drawn a picture of it.
We probably have more Roman shoes than anywhere else in the north of England we can see the changes in styles, all the things that people love to know about modern life you can begin to tell about Roman life. You can even see in these well-preserved, waterlogged shoes the impressions of their bunions.
Another example is what Peter calls the medieval Filofax, now in the Yorkshire Museum. Dating from the 14th century, it is a series of wax tablets with a wooden frame tucked inside a leather case. A legal clerk kept written records on the wax tablets and also jotted down a bawdy song, chorus: She never said yes, but she never said no As Janet said: York is the record of social history over 2,000 years.
Yet theres so much more to find. Only about one per cent of York has been excavated. Somewhere in the remaining 99 per cent resides, in all probability, a Roman amphitheatre and forum, the Anglo Saxon cathedral where many kings were buried and who knows what else.
In this way World Heritage status would recognise not only Yorks built history and unparalleled documentary archives, but the history that has not yet been discovered.
Another member of the steering group is historian Alison Sinclair, chair of the Conservation Areas Advisory Panel. She believes a World Heritage listing would make a lasting impact. It will raise awareness of the importance of the whole history of the environment of this city, and promote its safekeeping.
And John Oxley believes the case for York is compelling: Theres a growing body of opinion among experts that York is the missing part of the UKs World Heritage list. Were lining up to make a bid that has huge support and ought to be successful.