Climate change puts coastal castles at risk

Six UK castles – including one immortalised in the Arthurian legends – are at risk of tumbling into the sea as climate change increases the pace of coastal erosion.

Conservation charity English Heritage has issued a warning regarding the danger that climate change poses to the survival of several castles on the UK coastline, some of which have stood for hundreds of years. 

The charity, which manages over 400 historic sites across England, highlighted six castles threatened by coastal erosion and rising sea levels, and it has launched a multimillion pound fundraiser to repair their walls and improve their defences against storms and more powerful waves.

Although coastal erosion is nothing new, English Heritage has stressed the effect that climate change has had on accelerating its progress. The heritage body described the rate of land lost over the last few years as “alarming”, warning that sea levels are now rising at their fastest rate for nearly three millenia.

“Climate change is accelerating the issues faced by our coastal heritage and creating huge challenges for organisations like English Heritage seeking to protect it,” said Rob Woodside, director of estates at English Heritage. “Some scenarios indicate that sea levels could increase by up to a metre by the end of the century.

“To give this some context, last century sea levels rose by 14cm along the southern coast of England.

The six sites that English Heritage says are most at risk are: Tintagel, Hurst Castle, Piel Castle, Bayard’s Cove Fort, Garrison Walls and Calshot Castle. 

Among these, Tintagel is one of the most famous sites, as it was immortalised in British mythology as the place of King Arthur’s conception. The castle has been inhabited since the late Roman period, but it was not until the 12th century when chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed it was where King Arthur was conceived.

English Heritage said the site has always battled with erosion, with parts of the castle already falling into the sea by the 14th century. But it said recently parts of the cliff directly in front of the visitors centre had been lost, affecting the viewing area and the coastal path.

The organisation is hoping to raise £40,000 to repair this and the damage caused by last winter’s storms.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle / Nigel Wallace-Iles- English Heritage

Image credit: Nigel Wallace-Iles/English Heritage

On the island of St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly, the Garrison Walls are also at risk. The walls, which were built to strengthen the island’s defences after the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada, have “pinch points” which take the full force of the tide and make them vulnerable to erosion.

Hurst Castle in Hampshire, an artillery fortress built by Henry VIII, saw a huge section of the 18th-century east wing collapse in February 2021 after the sea undercut its foundations. English Heritage said the work to stabilise the damaged section has been completed, but warned the sea walls around the original Tudor fort are also in urgent need of repair at an estimated cost of £160,000.

In Cumbria, 14th-century Piel Castle stands on a rapidly eroding low-lying island around half a mile from the coast of Morecambe Bay. Built to guard Barrow-in-Furness against pirates and Scots raiders, swathes of the surrounding island have already been lost, while some of the castle fell into the sea in the 19th century.

In recent years, English Heritage said the sea banks and modern gabion sea defences, loose stones shaped into blocks by wire cages, had been undermined by coastal erosion, costing at least £25,000 to repair. 

There is broad consensus among scientists that even if the greenhouse gas emissions that warm the Earth are dramatically cut, global sea levels will continue to rise for several hundred years. Higher sea levels mean more powerful waves coming closer to the shore, and faster coastal erosion.

“Hundreds of heritage sites in the UK and around the world are increasingly at risk,” Woodside said. “If these coastal properties are to survive the coming decades, we will need to strengthen their walls and build sea defences to protect them. It is for this reason that we are launching a public appeal to raise funds for this vital conservation work.”


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