They range from ancient castles and cathedrals to powerhouses of the industrial revolution – and landscapes to take your breath away. Britain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites stretch from the remote islands of the Outer Hebrides to the mining communities of Cornwall and West Devon. Chosen under a 1972 convention for the protection and conservation of natural and cultural heritage, each has been chosen for its “outstanding universal value”.

The UK’s first seven sites were listed in 1986 and we currently have 25 locations guaranteed to lift the spirits or give a fascinating insight into our history.

London and the South East

If you’re seeking the Crown Jewels of Britain’s historic attractions – literally – head for the Tower of London (www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon). Having been built by William the Conqueror to protect London and assert his power, this iconic castle has remained part of royal history for nearly 1,000 years.

The Tower is one of the country’s most-visited tourist attractions, attracting 2.4 million people last year. This Easter sees the new re-presentation of the Crown Jewels opening in time for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Maritime Greenwich (www.greenwichwhs.org.uk) has lots of historical interest, including Wren’s Old Royal Naval College and Inigo Jones’s elegant Queen’s House and Royal Observatory.

The Victorian clipper Cutty Sark re-opens after a five-year restoration and Greenwich celebrates its new royal borough status with festivals and events in June to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. At the National Maritime Museum, historian David Starkey curates a major new exhibition tracing royal links with the Thames.

In the summer, 20 tall ships will make scenic trips along the river in the Sail Royal Greenwich event. The Olympics figure prominently, with Greenwich Park hosting equestrian competitions and the O2 Arena staging basketball and gymnastics.

Enjoy some flower power at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (www.kew.org), where stressed-out escapees from central London can find an oasis of calm only a few miles west. There are 300 acres of gardens, shady ancient trees and a jungle in the Palm House. Get a treetop view of nature while swaying along the canopy-level walkway.

Westminster Abbey (www.westminster-abbey.org) has staged every coronation since William the Conqueror. Lesser mortals can view the graves and memorials of numerous Great Britons – from Chaucer to Dickens – and the spectacular fan-vaulted Lady Chapel is regarded as the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture.

Another awe-inspiring church can be found in Kent. Canterbury Cathedral (www.canterbury-cathedral.org) has been a place of pilgrimage since the 12th century
and today’s visitors can see the spot where Thomas Becket was brutally murdered, the ancient crypt, vivid stained glass and the tomb of Henry IV.

Central England and the Midlands

The birthplace of Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace (www.blenheimpalace.com) is a perfectly preserved 18th-century stately home set in a 2,100-acre park designed by Capability Brown. This striking example of English baroque extravagance near Oxford offers glorious gardens and artistic treasures to discover.

Smoke and fire first roared from its blast furnaces 300 years ago, turning Ironbridge Gorge (www.ironbridge.org.uk) into the country’s first major iron-making centre and heralding the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Museums reflect the lives of people who worked there from the early 1700s through to Victorian times. You can learn about early iron production, explore the Tar Tunnel – a source of natural bitumen – and factories producing Coalport china and decorative ceramic tiles. At Blists Hill, a Victorian town, you can meet costumed characters in the stores and workshops, see pills prepared in the pharmacy, hear gruesome tales at the dentist’s chair, and enjoy a pint in the pub.

A £13 million redevelopment scheme completed last year has given Blists Hill a new visitor centre, a new Victorian street, an Artisans’ Corner and Clay Mine Railway. An interactive design and technology centre called Enginuity has also opened and special London 2012 celebrations will include a digital art exhibition and Olympic Torch Relay.

Derbyshire’s Derwent Valley Mills (www.derwentvalleymills.org) is home to a series of 18th and 19th century cotton mills and the area is now an industrial landscape of high historical and technological interest.

Stonehenge has stood for 50,000 years VisitBritain/Martin Brent

The South West

With its Roman Baths, medieval Abbey and grand Georgian architecture, the City of Bath (www.visitbath.co.uk) has plenty to fascinate those with an interest in the past.

The Romans discovered a natural hot spring here and built a magnificent Temple and bathing establishment. Today’s visitors can tour remains that are remarkably complete and take tea afterwards in the genteel surroundings of the 18th century Pump Room.

Bath’s beautiful Georgian heritage is evident elsewhere in its sweeping crescents and elegant buildings. Gems include the Royal Crescent, Theatre Royal, and The Assembly Rooms.

Nobody’s certain how they got there, but the stones at Stonehenge (www.english heritage.org.uk) have been around for 50,000 years and form the world’s most famous megalithic monument. The jury is still out on whether Wiltshire’s great edifices were a place of ritual sacrifice, sun worship – or a massive calendar.

The best way to enjoy the dramatic 95 miles of the Dorset and East Devon coastline (www.jurassiccoast.com) is on foot. Better known as the Jurassic Coast, it provides trekkers with spectacular scenery and a geological “walk through time” spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The first-ever location to be inscribed as a “natural” World Heritage Site, the coastline reveals 185 million years of the Earth’s history.

Pick up your hard hats and torches and scramble down the dark and cramped shafts where Victorian miners once toiled. Set on dramatic cliffs 10 miles from St Ives, Geevor Tin Mine is one of 10 locations forming the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape
(www.cornish-mining.org.uk).

At Geevor you can visit the mine and its museum and learn about mineral panning. Elsewhere, visitors can discover other mines, foundries, towns, ports and harbours set in glorious surroundings. Major recent investment has improved the attractions and a new audio trail, with commentaries by ex-miners and historians, is available for smartphones.

Wales

It was hard graft in the coal mines and ironworks of South Wales. Blaenavon Industrial Landscape (www.cadw.wales.gov.uk) offers a range of free attractions, headed by Big Pit: National Coal Museum where you descend 300ft underground to witness the sights,
sounds and smells of life from Victorian times until the mine’s closure in 1980. Blaenavon Ironworks features the world’s best-preserved early blast furnaces.

Find out about the region’s history at Blaenavon’s World Heritage Centre before taking a tour of the town, with its cottages for colliery and ironworkers, and grand Victorian
Workmen’s Hall. The town celebrates the cultural Olympiad in June with music, dance, drama and a carnival.

If you’re seeking well-preserved fortresses on a grand scale, head for Gwynedd. The four Castles of King Edward I (www.cadw.wales.gov.uk) are fine examples of medieval military architecture, built as an “Iron Ring” to pacify the Welsh.

All four are staging cultural Olympiad events this summer. Caernarfon and Harlech are hosting exhibitions and performances, and Beaumaris a Medieval Fantasy of music, dance and food. Harlech is opening a new visitor centre.

It’s an exhilarating experience to take a canal boator simply stroll over the top of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk) in North Wales. Britain’s newest World Heritage Site – it was signed up in 2009 – is the country’s longest and highest aqueduct, towering 126ft above the River Dee. The 200-year-old engineering marvel is considered Thomas Telford’s masterpiece.

Northern England

Lose yourself in the atmospheric dark passageways and winding staircases of Britain’s largest monastic ruins at Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal (www.fountainsabbey.org.uk). Founded in 1132, the abbey thrived until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and it now stands uninhabited save for a colony of bats. Visitors to this enchanting spot can also explore the 18th century water gardens and Jacobean mansion Fountains Hall.

The “model village” of Saltaire (www.saltairevillage.info) in West Yorkshire is a complete and well-preserved industrial centre. Built by Sir Titus Salt in 1876, the village is an important part of the country’s industrial heritage.

UNESCO recognises Liverpool, Maritime Mercantile City (www.liverpoolworldheritage.com) as a supreme example of a British port at the time of this country’s greatest global influence. The area’s big attractions include the towering Liver Building, Albert Dock, the Mersey ferry, World Museum Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery and Maritime Museum.

Durham Castle and Cathedral (www.durhamworldheritagesite.com) date back to Norman times. Considered the largest and finest example of Norman architecture in England, Durham’s cathedral has recently received £3.5 million of Heritage lottery funding to reveal more of its important collections and hidden architectural wonders.

Frontiers of the Roman Empire: Hadrian’s Wall (www.hadrians-wall.org) is the country’s largest and most complex World Heritage Site. Running 150 miles across north and west Cumbria and the North East, it was built by the Emperor Hadrian in AD122.

Big investment in visitor improvements over the past four years resulted in more than one million people touring the wall’s forts, sites and museums in 2011. The most-visited Homesteads Roman Fort re-opens in March after refurbishment, while the Queen’s Jubilee will be celebrated by 60 blazing beacons along the wall. Also running the entire length will be an art installation as part of the cultural Olympiad.

Scotland and Northern Ireland

The striking contrasts of Edinburgh Old and New Towns (www.edinburgh.org) make it a fascinating city to visit. The famous Castle overlooks the medieval cobbled streets and dark alleyways of the Old Town, while the New Town has elegant Georgian crescents,
squares and terraces.

New Lanark (www.newlanark.org), near the spectacular Falls of Clyde Wildlife Reserve, rose to fame in the early 1800s when mill manager Robert Owen transformed life there by abolishing child labour and corporal punishment, and providing decent homes, schooling, free health care and affordable food. Today, you can see the old textile machinery and discover how millworkers lived. There’s a village store and youngsters can dress up in period costume in the 1820s classroom.

Those planning a real escape from the rat race should consider St Kilda (www.kilda.org.uk), a group of islands that form the remotest part of the British Isles in the Outer Hebrides. Its exceptional cliffs and sea stacks form the most important seabird breeding station in north-west Europe.

Also out on a limb is the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (www.historic- scotland.gov.uk/neolithic-orkney), a remote and beautiful island group with prehistoric
monuments pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids. The 5,000-year-old burial mound of Maes Howe is one of the most impressive in Western Europe.

The intriguing Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway) has been shrouded in myth and legend for centuries. Made up of some 40,000 massive black basalt columns sticking out of the sea, the Causeway lies at the foot of the cliffs along Northern Ireland’s rugged Antrim coast.

A striking new visitor centre opening this summer will allow families to learn about the region’s heritage and participate in conservation work.

World Heritage Site Facts


Official Bodies

UNESCO: http://whc.unesco.org

Department for Culture, Media and Sport: www.culture.gov.uk

VisitBritain: www.visitbritain.com

The National Trust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk

English Heritage: www.englishheritage.org.uk

Cadw: www.cadw.wales.gov.uk

National Trust for Scotland: www.nts.org.uk

Accommodation

If the thought of staying overnight at a castle – or even an arsenic mine – appeals, Landmark Trust (www.landmarktrust.org.uk) has an interesting range of historic rental properties handy for World Heritage Sites.

More conventional accommodation can be booked through agencies such as Expedia (www.expedia.co.uk) and Superbreak (www.superbreak.com), which have a choice of hotels at many of the locations.

Alternatively, you can get a new perspective on your slice of history from a canal boat. Waterways Holidays (www.waterwaysholidays.com) offers waterborne access to the cities of Edinburgh and Bath and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal.

Save money

Visitors can reduce the cost of enjoying historic or scenic splendour by joining the National Trust or English Heritage, which are responsible for several of the sites. A year’s membership for 2012 respectively costs from £37.88 (joint £62.63, family £66.38) and £46 (joint £80, up to six children under 19 free). The Scottish capital provides the Edinburgh Pass, offering free entry to 30 attractions, special offers and free Airlink airport transfers from £29 (child £18) for one day.


All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit britain's world heritage sites.