But the scarred countryside of west Cornwall could soon join the three internationally renowned wonders as a UN-recognised World Heritage Site. The definitive list of 32 places the British government wants upgraded to World Heritage status is published next month - and the nation's industrial heritage is the dominant theme.
Apart from the Lake District, Charles Darwin's home in Kent and Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, whose merits are both aesthetic and cultural, there are several applications whose qualities are less immediately obvious. The Cornish mining industry is one, the London-Bristol railway another. Also pressing for inclusion are the Blaenavon industrial landscape in South Wales; the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire; the Forth rail bridge, the first major steel bridge; the Ancoats, Castlefield and Worsley areas of Manchester, and Liverpool's commercial centre, for its pre-eminence in 19th century transatlantic trade.
The reason for the newly-placed emphasis is simple. Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, has made it clear that it is fed up with being asked to give the prestigious status to cathedrals and historic city centres in western nations, which it believes has created an "imbalance" of heritage sites in the US, Canada and Europe, leading to an over-emphasis on western cultural values.
As a result, the British shortlist contains just four cultural and landscape sites compared to 16 sites reflecting the UK's industrialisation and global influence.
"It's fair to say that you might have to make a bit of a jump before you realise where the Government is coming from," said a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees the selection process. "But Unesco has made it clear that an endless procession of cathedrals won't get very far. They want specimens of different types of heritage."
The consultation period for the tentative list finishes at the end of October and the final list will be drawn up on 12 November at a meeting chaired by English Heritage. By July next year, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, must decide which site will be recommended to Unesco. Although it takes Unesco 18 months to make a decision, proposals are almost always accepted. However, the full list of 32 sites will remain with Unesco for up to 10 years, during which time, the Government is able to select one other site from the list each year.
There is no prize money in World Heritage status, just prestige, extra planning protection against developers and the chance the site will be mentioned in guidebooks across the globe. Saltaire in West Yorkshire, left off the original list but hoping for late inclusion, estimated World Heritage status was worth pounds 2m a year.
The Bristol Temple Meads rail terminus, Swindon railway works, Maidenhead river bridge and the Paddington terminus and hotel form the basis of the application for the Paddington-Bristol line, built by I K Brunel in the 1840s and included as "the most complete early railway in the world". The Government believes it meets the Unesco cultural criteria of representing "a masterpiece of human creative genius".
Railtrack is "very surprised" by the nomination. "Given the problems the line has had we can understand why passengers might thing it was a strange suggestion, but we didn't put it forward," said a spokeswoman. The company also expressed concern that World Heritage status would make it harder to carry out essential repairs.
The Ancoats, Castlefield and Worsley areas of Manchester and Salford are included for their role in the history of transport in Britain, including the opening of the Bridgwater Canal in 1765, which inspired nine decades of canal building, and the opening in 1830 of the first mainline railway in England, the Liverpool to Manchester railway. It meets three out of the six cultural criteria laid down by Unesco, including that of being a "unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation".
The vital role played by the textile mills of the Derwent Valley in the industrial revolution is cited as "an outstanding example of an area illustrating a significant stage in human history", according to the Government. "Unesco accepts a wide spectrum of proposals, including gritty and industrial sites," said a spokeswoman for English Heritage. "The sites were chosen to show Britain's worldwide influence."
The Cornish mining industry, with its villages and chapels, is put forward for its contribution to England's cultural history while the remains of coal mines and iron works that comprise the Blaenavon industrial landscape in the Gwent uplands of South Wales are included for their "virtuosity in civil engineering". The area had the largest ironworks in the world in the early 19th Century and the Government will argue the landscape played a "major part in creating the modern world".Reuse content