I went for a walk at the weekend to a stretch of the South West Coast Path, in west Dorset. The first weekend that I have really felt the warmth of the sun on my face – though there was the odd passing heavy hail shower to dampen things a little. This stretch of coast has been titled the ‘Jurassic Coast’, and received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2001. UNESCO status tends to carry some political baggage, often seen as reflecting a distinctly ‘western’ viewpoint, and a determination to stabilise and preserve the tangible elements of ‘special’ sites. The Jurassic Coast is tagged as “England’s First Natural World Heritage Site” – I have a slight problem with each of the 6 words in this phrase, but this is a problem of ambiguity that leads one to think more openly about the meaning of heritage more broadly. And it is a line of thinking that leads towards the Jurassic Coast being seen as a heritage example that challenges the very notion of what ‘heritage’ is meant to be.
The role that the Jurassic Coast has had in developing an understanding of earth sciences and Darwinian evolution, in particular, would seem to render its supposed ‘Englishness’ meaningless. Furthermore, defined by tide-lines and cliff edges, which change with each winter storm or landslide, the Jurassic Coast cannot really be called a ‘site’, and certainly is never something that can be described as ‘stable’. Indeed, for its scientific value to be realised, the Coast must be allowed to erode. In many ways, this is a World Heritage Site that has an over-riding imperative: to preserve the dynamic processes of destruction and wholesale change.
‘Stability’, such as it is, is a set of processes, which involve the interaction of sea, weather and land. While traditional conceptions of ‘heritage’ sometimes seem to struggle with a notion of heritage-as-process – as dynamic and unbounded – ordinary people have tended just to get on with things. And so it is the people (and animals) that ought to be stirred into this mix of interacting elements, which go together to form the ‘Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site’. People have farmed on, fished off, quarried in, lived along, and generally experienced the dynamic coastline of Dorset and East Devon for many centuries. The Jurassic Coast, therefore, is not a stable and ‘natural-scientific’ certainty, but a participatory and open-ended entity. In many ways it acts as a neat (literal and metaphorical) mirror to the Wadden Sea region of Holland and Northern Germany, declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 2009, where people have been building polders and extending ‘land’ for many centuries. (See the work of anthropologist, Werner Krauss, for an exploration of this region).
For more on the work of the Geography Department at Exeter’s work on the Jurassic Coast, see the Jurassic Research website: http://jurassicresearch.wordpress.com/