UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the North

Jake Gill

World Heritage Sites tell the story of this country’s unique contribution to the world. More than playing its part in that story, the North is home to many natural, cultural, historical and scientific Sites of international interest, and they’re right on your doorstep!

A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area that has been officially recognised by the United Nations, specifically by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as being so important for the shared understanding and future of our planet we should look after them forever. There are more than 1100 Sites globally. Some are natural like the Great Barrier Reef or the Serengeti, and many are man-made like Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal. UNESCO endeavours to support the preservation and development of these irreplaceable sites in order to protect and enrich them, not only for ourselves, but for future generations.

There is little wonder why the North is so celebrated by UNESCO – from stunning areas of environmental beauty including the Lake District and the North Pennines, all the way to vital remnants of our industrial heritage at Saltaire and the Derwent Valley Mills, there are hidden and not-so-hidden gems all over the region. Those on a quest to unravel our Roman past should visit the northern frontier of the Roman Empire – Hadrian’s Wall – for some of the most breath-taking scenery and astonishing history dating back over two millennia. Or turn your gaze upwards towards Macclesfield’s awe-inspiring Jodrell Bank Observatory – home to some of the most ground breaking intergalactic discoveries since the dawn of the Space Age.

To experience the best of Durham, a city steeped in rich history, head to the globally-significant Cathedral and Castle, or if you plan to journey into north-eastern Wales any time soon, don’t miss the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct for a “a masterpiece of creative genius” set in the beautiful Welsh countryside. And if you’re the type that likes to get ahead of the curve, why not visit the Twin Monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow, or discover our prehistoric past at Creswell Crags, while they both await their World Heritage Site inscriptions.

So, pen and paper at the ready as we explore the international treasures in your back yard.

Our top picks

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, Brampton, Cumbria, NE47 7JN - Visit now

Spanning 73 miles from coast to coast, Hadrian’s Wall was once the northern frontier of the mighty Roman Empire. Built to guard against the fierce Scottish tribes of the north, this incredible construction has been used as inspiration for the legendary wall of ice in Game of Thrones. The wall remains standing today, and no other World Heritage Site in Europe provides the public with as much access to so many archaeological ruins. The best preserved among these forts on the wall is Housesteads Roman Fort, a stronghold situated on a striking escarpment which garrisoned a thousand soldiers. A museum is located on the site and provides an exceptional insight into the ruins of the fort and the lives of its Roman inhabitants.

Creative Tourist

The North Pennines (UNESCO Global Geopark)

The North Pennines (UNESCO Global Geopark), 1 Martin St, Stanhope, Bishop Auckland, DL13 2UY - Visit now

The North Pennines is one of the finest and most picturesque Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) found in England. The UNESCO Global Geopark is a place of tranquillity, a natural Eden in the North which was almost 500 million years in the making. Extending through the counties of Cumbria, Northumberland and County Durham, the North Pennines is one of the most remote locations found in England, home to some of the rarest flora and fauna found in the British Isles. The spectacular scenery that fills the landscape ranges from primeval oak woodlands and hay meadows, to rich grasslands and heather moors. Hints of human activity dating back 10,000 years to the Stone Age are also scattered across the land. Highlights include the Neolithic stone circle known as Long Meg and her daughters, the Roman fort of Epiacum, and one of England’s finest medieval strongholds, Raby Castle.

Creative Tourist

Studley Royal Park and the Ruins of Fountains Abbey

Studley Royal Park and the Ruins of Fountains Abbey, Fountains, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 3DY - Visit now

North Yorkshire is home to some of the finest remnants of English heritage in the country. Stately homes and medieval castles litter the landscape, but nothing quite captures the attention like the remarkable Studley Royal Park and Fountains Abbey, the largest monastic ruins in the country and one of the first sites in the UK to be inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Site listings in 1986. Spread over 800 acres within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Beauty, the park encompasses a plethora of historic attractions, from the Gothic revival St. Mary’s Church to the Elizabethan manor house, Fountains Hall. The stunning Georgian water garden is a strikingly elegant example of the ‘English’ garden style that swept across Europe in the eighteenth century, and features beautiful ornamental lakes, winding canals, delightful vistas and charming cascades – an essential setting for a walk on a lovely summer’s day!

Studley Royal

Derwent Valley Mills

Derwent Valley Mills, Derwent Valley Mills, Derwent Valley, Derbyshire, DE4 3AG - Visit now

The Derwent Valley Mills is the birthplace of the modern factory system. The importance of the World Heritage Site is paramount in global history as it led to astounding technological advancements in the manufacturing industry. This 15-mile stretch of the Derwent Valley contains a series of mill complexes and worker settlements, and runs from Masson Mills at the northern entrance of the World Heritage Site, all the way to the southern boundary at the newly-renovated Silk Mill in Derby. As you work your way south through the World Heritage Site, you will come to Belper, home to the North Mill. Here, you can find the Derwent Valley Visitor Centre, where tourists can gain an insight into the local textile traditions. For a calmer backdrop, the beautiful Belper River Gardens offer a peaceful environment to relax by the River Derwent.

Derwent Valley Mills

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, Macclesfield, Cheshire, SK11 9DL - Visit now

Recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is a great day out for all the family. You can explore the wonders of the universe and learn more about the workings of the Lovell Telescope. The iconic Lovell Telescope became the largest the world had ever seen when it was completed in 1957, it’s still the third biggest telescope of its kind today and continues to search the stars, helping humanity pick away at the mysteries of our universe. As well as a site of vital scientific research, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is an increasingly important player in Greater Manchester’s cultural heritage, and plays host to the awesome Bluedot Festival each year. Later in 2022, we’ll see the grand opening of the First Light Pavilion, which will serve to tell the unique story of Jodrell Bank, home to some of the most ground breaking intergalactic discoveries since the dawn of the Space Age.

Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre Copyright Geoff Wynne and licensed for reuse

Things to Do in Cumbria

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017, The Lake District offers up a unique landscape that has been shaped for centuries by people’s activities – farming on the uplands and in the valley bottoms, quarrying and mining, forestry and water management, and tourism too. Tourism actually began here back in the 1700s, when clergyman Thomas West published a Guide to the Lakes. It banished forever the idea that Cumbria was wild and inhospitable. It’s thanks to West that when we think of the Lake District, we think of a chocolate-box landscape. Yet the ideal of the ‘picturesque’ is both a blessing and a curse: good for tourism, yet occasionally overshadowing the contemporary art that is made, performed and shown here year-round. Cumbria is full of artists, from those taking part in the C-Art fest to those exhibiting at Blackwell and Abbot Hall; for them, the landscape’s ability to turn in a moment from benign beauty to lowering skies continues to inspire.

Image courtesy of Visit Britain

Things to do in Saltaire

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001, Saltaire is built in the Italianate style, giving it an enduring beauty and charm. Salts Mill is arguably the defining feature of the town. Within the Grade II listed gigantic Victorian warehouse mill complex you can now visit large galleries featuring work by the locally born artist David Hockney among others as well as shopping for books, kitchenware, furniture and posters. Like many of Saltaire’s notable sites, Salts Mill is a harmonious combination of Victorian spaces being given a new life with modern uses, while still celebrating the building’s origins. As you walk through the levels of beautifully designed furniture, visual art and every kitchen utensil you didn’t realise you needed the vast expanses of space and exposed stone manage to feel welcoming rather than imposing. Equally, the gallery space really allows the artworks to speak. Due to the cavernous nature of the rooms, as you come to each piece you feel more closely connected to it, like floating islands that you visit as you walk past.

Salts Mill
Image courtesy of Salts Mill.

Durham Castle

Durham Castle, Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3RW - Visit now

Durham Castle was constructed initially because of the dangerous conditions following the Norman Invasion. The Anglo-Saxon population of England were not pleased at the idea of being invaded by a small group of French-speaking Vikings and were doing their best to try to drive them out of England. William the Conqueror decided to send a Bishop up to control the North East of England. Bishop Walcher was sent and built the castle, before he too was murdered by the population of Gateshead, on the River Tyne. This caused King William to order the first English genocide – the “Harrowing of the North”, where one quarter of the north’s population was thought to be killed and one tenth of England’s population died. The castle is still accommodation to this day and while a lot of the building is from the 19th century, there is still a fantastic Norman chapel within the Castle that can be seen during a guided tour of the castle.

Durham Castle
Durham University

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral, The College, Durham, DH1 3EH - Visit now

Travelling to Durham by train, one of the first things that you will see is Durham Cathedral majestically overlooking the city. Its foundations date back to the establishment of an Anglo-Saxon cathedral in 995AD by the community of St. Cuthbert, who moved St. Cuthbert’s body from Chester-Le-Street to Durham to protect it from renewed Viking assaults on England. The Normans built their own cathedral on the site of the original Anglo-Saxon church from 1093 to 1133, and since then it has been upgraded and added to, finally coming to the form that you see today. At its core it is still a magnificent 12th century Romanesque cathedral – very much deserving of its UNESCO world heritage status. Durham Cathedral may already be familiar to you through featuring in blockbuster films. From Harry Potter as a part of Hogwarts to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where it was used in both Avengers Endgame and Thor: Ragnarök as a part of Asgard.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Station Rd, Trevor, Llangollen, Denbighshire, LL20 7TY - Visit now

Northeast Wales is home to the towering Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a watercourse which carries the Llangollen Canal across the River Dee. Pontcysyllte literally means ‘the bridge that connects’, and it is the defining feature of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that stretches across 11 miles of stunning nature and heritage from Chirk through to Llantysilio. Today, the canal is crossed by over 15,000 boats a year, gaining the nickname ‘the stream in the sky’. Canoeists are able to paddle along the canal and across the aqueduct to uncover the charming Welsh landscape, and for those who aren’t quite as daring, Public Canal Boat Trips offer an opportunity to witness the remarkable scenery. The wildlife found along the World Heritage site is bountiful – swans, ducks, coots and moorhens are found all along the canal, and keep a weather eye out for herons and kingfishers too!

St. Peter’s Church

St. Peter’s Church, St. Peter's Way, Sunderland, SR6 0DY - Visit now

The twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow was founded in the seventh century AD, with two liturgical foci: St Peter’s at Wearmouth and St Paul’s at Jarrow, around which lay the lands of their extensive monastic estates, now a Tentative World Heritage Site. St. Peter’s Church would have been a focal point for learned men and women from all over the world. Once it was a patch of land that overlooked the River Wear and visible from the North Sea, but the dumping of ballast sand from coal ships moved it further inland. It is a Grade I listed building and is one of the oldest churches in the North East of England. Today, the church can be found in the middle of Sunderland University with a campus that is named after it, which is very appropriate, as it provided education to those who came to it and would have been one of the most important places of learning in Britain and even in Europe, during the dark ages.

St. Peter's Church
St. Peter's Church, Monkwearmouth

Creswell Crags

Creswell Crags, Crags Road, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire, S80 3LH - Visit now

In an age when woolly mammoths roamed the land and cave hyenas prowled for prey, the limestone gorge of Creswell Crags was home to our prehistoric ancestors. Found on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the gorge is a space of unique natural splendour, and it is little changed since the last Ice Age. The cave systems found at Creswell Crags are world famous for their stunning beauty, but also for the fact that they contain the northernmost cave art in Europe, which dates back around 13,000 years. As such, it has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and it was also included on the Tentative list for potential World Heritage Sites in 2012. Adventurous cave explorations are offered at Creswell Crags, providing a true thrill for visitors to step back in time and immerse themselves into the lives of our human ancestors who first settled there 22,000 years ago.

Andy Platt

Where to go in

Elsecar Heritage Centre

Elsecar Heritage Centre is a visitor attraction centre with independent shops, studios, galleries, cafes and an antiques centre in a former Victorian engineering workshop.

The York Dungeon

Prepare for an exciting adventure as you delve into the chilling history of York at the York Dungeon! The York Dungeon offers an immersive exploration of 2,000 years of the city’s most haunting tales.

Murton Park

This open air living museum in York is home, and host, to some of the most well renowned historical re-enactment Societies in the North of England.

Fairfax House

With a reputation as a classical architectural masterpiece of its age, Fairfax House was originally the winter home of Viscount Fairfax.

Bagshaw Museum

‘Eclectic’ is the name of the game at the Bagshaw Museum in Batley. Their collections are varied but not lacking in quality.

Bolling Hall

Tucked away in a quiet, leafy garden, Bolling Hall Museum is full-to-the-brim with the history of its residing families.

North East
Museum of Archaeology

Durham University’s specialist museum showcases an exhibition which ranges from the prehistory to modern times, charting the history of Durham.

North East
Oriental Museum

Durham University displays a devoted exhibition, looking at the art and archaeology of the great cultures of Northern Africa and Asia.

Dent Village Heritage Centre & Museum

Dent Village Heritage Centre & Museum displays important, yet lesser known, histories. The centre itself has been built entirely through local labour, with the displays covering histories from vampires to slavery.

The Puzzling Place

Interactive optical illusion, for each visitor to immerse themselves in. This specialty museum in Keswick will baffle, surprise and amuse.

A World in Miniature Museum

Considered one of the best collections in the world, whether you are already a miniaturist fan, or a fresh face, you won’t leave this Museum without an appreciation.

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