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World Heritage missed list

Will Gompertz | 11:34 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Have you ever been to the former RAF airfield in Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire? It is a dump. Literally, stuff gets dumped there, cars mostly.

But until today it was in the running to be one of the 11 places put forward by the government as worthy of consideration for World Heritage Site (WHS) status. It failed. The Forth bridge, the Lake District and the Jodrell Bank observatory are in, having successfully fulfilled the criteria for attaining potential World Heritage Status by "representing a masterpiece of human creative genius or containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty".

Forth Rail Bridge

There are currently 911 sites on the World Heritage list including the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis in Greece. The UK already has Ironbridge Gorge, the Tower of London, Stonehenge and the City of Bath listed. But the list of criteria published by WHS also allows for sites of great anthropological significance. And I would have thought RAF Upper Heyford ticks that box.

The application makes the point the RAF Upper Heyford represents a near perfect example of a military base with nuclear capability dating back to the Cold War. It was home to F-111 fighters and the United States Air force Strategic Air Command. It was an American run and occupied strategic position, which was used for bombing raids on Libya and the Gulf War. They left in the mid-1990s and it hasn't been used for military purposes since. But the ghosts remain.

The application goes on to say that the site is an historic monument and that, "as yet there are no military sites on the WHS list which represent the period in the history of mankind during which there was both the capacity and the plan to destroy most if not all the people on the planet".

Jodrell Bank

It is an extraordinary place to visit: haunting yet weirdly alluring in a Ballardian sort of way. The fact that the vast majority of the huge acreage of prime Oxfordshire that the site takes up consists of roads, runways and increasingly derelict housing probably went against their application. It's certainly a scar on a beautiful area of the country, but that's the point.

In a way it doesn't really matter now; their application has failed. But it does highlight an often overlooked aspect of the heritage business, and that is those creations that are no longer new, but aren't very old either.

At what point does something become "heritage"? Constructions from the latter half of the 20th Century are now coming into range. Perhaps our next shortlist of tentative applications for World Heritage Status should include poignant examples of 20th Century life such as the M1 motorway or the Excalibur prefab housing estate in South London (if it hasn't already been destroyed).


  • Comment number 1.

    Will Gompertz.

    given that World Heritage Status is awarded for "representing a masterpiece of human creative genius or containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty", I'd like to know the name(s) of the cynical miscreant(s) who made an application for a site which represents "..the period in the history of mankind during which there was both the capacity and the plan to destroy most if not all the people on the planet."

    what a waste of taxpayers' money, what a surreal and utterly tasteless joke.

    btw, none of the links in your post work.

  • Comment number 2.

    Athena went to war with Poseidon and was victorious.

  • Comment number 3.

    Yeah not much interest in this stuff,bulldoze it and move on.Jayfdee

  • Comment number 4.

    The very existence of RAF Upper Heyford is testament either to an 'any excuse rather than invest' mentality or 'get someone else to do it for you, even if it means becoming an ancient monument' approach.

    If the housing could have been restored and used, it should have. If it can't, the whole lot should have been flattened and returned to nature. Unspoiled Oxfordshire countryside would have a very good case. Modern industrial relics? Forget it.

  • Comment number 5.

    As a resident of Upper Heyford village for 10 years, I (and many others) are fed up with the repeated failed proposals for redevelopment of the site - so far, some of the potentially useful buildings were demolished, yet the ugly ones remain; and of course nobody wants to pay for the removal of bunkers designed to withstand attack!

    For sure, something should remain as a historical monument - perhaps the original 1930s RAF building - but the whole thing as a heritage site? For once, sense prevailed: ugly buildings don't deserve preservation.

  • Comment number 6.

    The Excalibur Prefab Estate in Catford London is at this moment in time still standing, the local council along with London & Quadrant housing association are going to destroy the estate this April – May 2011.
    Apparently as is the case with the Excalibur prefab estate, it is not the heritage societies that decide what is heritage ….it is the local Council , English heritage has Via the DCMS listed six prefabs on the Excalibur Estate, and along with English heritage SAVE & the 20c society recommended that the remaining part of the estate should be given conservation area status, because it is of high national historic importance , BUT the local council has ignored this recommendation and are pushing forward to the demolition of the estate, so it would appear that no matter what the historic society state can and is being totally ignored by Lewisham council, who obviously believe that they know best about historic buildings, it’s a shame that the people with the power to prevent this from happening haven’t been blest with the balls to do just that

    Jim Blackender

  • Comment number 7.

    Could have been worse than Upper Heyford - didn't Blackpool council want their town and all it's 'charms' to be considered as a heritage site too?

  • Comment number 8.

    No mention of Blaenavon in your list of UK sites already on the World Hertiage Site list.

  • Comment number 9.

    Upper Heyford is a missed opportunity. And what about Swanscombe in Kent? Totally ignored.


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