The historical and cultural diversity of the 15 protected sites across the country makes for many fascinationg days out. Cathy Packe marvels at the nation's gems

WHAT IS A WORLD HERITAGE SITE?

WHAT IS A WORLD HERITAGE SITE?

The World Heritage Convention is an agreement set up by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1972 to protect the world's natural and cultural heritage. Nearly 200 countries have signed the agreement and nominated sites in their own territory for protection: these include the Kasbah of Algiers, the Great Wall of China, and the historic centre of Prague. It is the responsibility of each country to maintain its sites, and they are assessed regularly by UNESCO. Out of a total of 754 sites worldwide, 15 are in England.

WHAT SORT OF PLACES HAVE THEY CHOSEN?

The first four English world heritage sites were selected in 1986, eight years after the list of sites was first established. Stonehenge, and the nearby site of Avebury, were two of them. They were chosen because of the importance of their megaliths in prehistoric times. The Stonehenge site (01980 624 715; www.english-heritage.org.uk) is open 9.30am-6pm daily, 9am-7pm from June to August. Entrance costs £5 and is free to members of English Heritage and the National Trust. The Avebury site (01672 539 250; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is open throughout the year.

The other two sites were Durham Cathedral and Castle. They were nominated not for their architectural merits, but to reflect the importance of the early Benedictine monastic community that they represented. The Cathedral (0191 386 4266; www.durhamcathedral.co.uk) is open to the public 9.30am-6.15pm Monday-Saturday, 12.30pm-5pm on Sunday and for private worship 7.30am-9.30am Monday to Saturday and 7.45am-12.30pm on Sunday.

The Castle (0191 334 3800; www.durhamcastle.com) was built as the residence of the prince-bishops of Durham; it now belongs to University College, the oldest part of Durham University. Opening hours for visitors are limited when the students are in residence: during term time there are guided tours on Monday, Wednesday and weekends 2pm-4pm. During the vacations the Castle opens 10am-12.30pm and 2pm-4.30pm daily. Admission is £3.50.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER GREAT ENGLISH CATHEDRALS?

Canterbury Cathedral (01227 762 862; www.canterbury-cathedral.org) was added to the list to mark the introduction of Christianity into the country: the Cathedral was built on the site where St Augustine's first church was established. The Cathedral opens 9am-5pm Monday-Saturday, until 6.30pm in summer, and 12.30pm-2.30pm and 4.30pm-5.30pm on Sundays. Admission is £4. The nearby ruins of the Saxon abbey on Longport (01227 767 345) is also included in the heritage site, as is the church of St Martin, the oldest in England.

These are not the only churches on the list: Westminster Abbey (020-7222 5152; www.westminster-abbey.org) is included as part of a site that includes the Palace of Westminster and St Margaret's Church. The Palace was selected because it is the seat of government, and the Abbey as the burial place of most of England's kings and queens. It opens 9.30am-3.45pm Monday to Saturday, until 7pm on Wednesday, and is closed on Sunday except for services. Admission costs £7.50, family ticket £15.

It is possible to visit much of the Palace of Westminster. During the summer, tours take place every day except Sunday. Tickets should be booked in advance (0870 906 3773; www.firstcalltickets.com) and cost £7, family ticket £22. Tours run from 24 July until 4 September, starting every few minutes from 9.15am-4.30pm and last 75 minutes.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER HERITAGE SITES IN THE CAPITAL?

The Tower of London, along with Tower Bridge, has also been given world heritage status. You can take a boat from Tower Pier to Greenwich, where the area known as Maritime Greenwich has also become a world heritage site. It includes the Queen's House, now part of the National Maritime Museum (020-8858 4422; www.nmm.ac.uk), Sir Christopher Wren's Royal Naval College, and Greenwich Park, containing the Old Royal Observatory. The Museum, Queen's House and Observatory open 10am-5pm daily; admission is free.

SO WHAT MAKES A SITE SUITABLE?

The aim is to protect natural heritage (which includes geological sites and wildlife habitats) and cultural heritage (anything deemed to be of historical, archaeological or anthropological value).

The best example of natural heritage on the English list is the Dorset and East Devon Coast, otherwise known as the Jurassic Coast ( www.swgfl.org.uk/jurassic), a 95-mile stretch from Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay, just south of Poole in Dorset. This coast is famous for its rock formations and fossils, which together document 185 million years of the earth's history. Included along the coast are the fossil forest at Lulworth Cove, Chesil Beach, and the rocky arch-formation of Durdle Door. The Heritage Coast Centre (01297 560 772) on the beach in Charmouth is one of a number of centres that offers interactive displays and information on fossils and marine life. The centre also runs regular guided fossil-hunting walks. It is open 10.30am-4.30pm daily from Easter, and at weekends during the winter. For more information, call 0870 442 0880 or visit www.visitsouthwest.co.uk.

AND HOW ABOUT CULTURAL SITES?

Three sites represent England's industrial heritage: Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution; Derwent Valley Mills in Derbyshire, which saw England's first factories and the growth of industrial production; and Saltaire, a model industrial village a couple of miles north of Bradford from the second half of the 19th century.

The main attraction at Ironbridge (01952 884 391; www.ironbridge.org.uk) is the bridge across the River Severn, the first of its kind in the world. Others include Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, an industrial settlement, still almost completely intact, that was once the first modern ironworks. A ticket covering all the attractions costs £13.25, although separate tickets are on sale for each museum. The museums open 10am-5pm daily. For more information, call 01905 761100 or visit www.visitheartofengland.com.

The Derwent Valley stretches from Matlock Bath to Derby, and it was along this valley that Sir Richard Arkwright established England's first cotton mills and a purpose-built industrial community at Cromford. The Mill buildings (01629 823 256) on Mill Lane are open to the public (9am-5pm daily), as are Masson Mills (01629 581 001), on the banks of the river in Matlock Bath (10am-4pm Monday to Friday, 11am-5pm Saturday, 11am-4pm Sunday, entrance £2.50). Find out more from Derbyshire Tourism (0845 605 8058; www.derbyshire-thepeakdistrict.co.uk).

Saltaire (01274 774 993; www.visitsaltaire.com) provided purpose-built accommodation for workers from West Yorkshire's woollen mills, and it eventually became a prototype for the garden city movement. Salts Mill has now been converted into the 1853 Gallery (01274 531163; www.saltsmill.org.uk), which houses an extensive collection of the works of David Hockney. It opens 10am-5.30pm Monday to Friday, and until 6pm at weekends, admission free. More information from the Yorkshire Tourist Board (01904 707070; www.yorkshirevisitor.com).

WHAT DID THE ROMANS EVER DO TO GET LISTED?

They built Hadrian's Wall, the 73-mile barrier linking Wallsend in Northumbria with Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria. It was chosen as an example of the organisation of a military zone. A new national walking trail, the Hadrian's Wall Path (01434 322 002; www.hadrians-wall.org), opened last year. Although much of the wall has disappeared, there are many landmarks along the frontier - which extends down the west Cumbrian coast - including the Roman forts of Chesters, Housesteads and Vindolanda, and the bath house at Ravenglass. Contact Visit Northumbria (0191 375 3010; www.visitnorthumbria.com) and Cumbria Tourist Board (01539 444444; www.golakes.co.uk/enjoyengland).

DOES IT HELP TO BE A RUIN?

The ruins of Fountains Abbey near Ripon in North Yorkshire are included, largely because of the landscaped gardens of Studley Royal Park. The estate (01765 608 888; www.fountainsabbey.org.uk) comprises the ruins of the 12th-century Cistercian abbey and watermill; an Elizabethan mansion, part of which is open to visitors; a medieval deer park; and a magnificent Georgian water garden. It is open daily 10am-6pm, until 4pm in winter. Admission is £5.50, but is free to National Trust and English Heritage members.

Two other sites on the list are definitely not ruins. The City of Bath was chosen for its blend of Roman baths and 18th-century Palladian architecture. The Roman remains in Bath (0906 711 2000; www.visitbath.co.uk) include the baths (Stall Street; 01225 477 785; www.romanbaths.co.uk), open daily 9am-5pm, until 9pm in July and August, £9 entry.

Blenheim Palace in Woodstock (08700 602 080; www.blenheimpalace.com), the Oxfordshire home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, is an example of an upmarket 18th-century home. It is visited as much for its wonderful gardens, designed by Capability Brown, as for its contents, which include the State Rooms, Long Library and numerous works of art. Blenheim Palace opens 10.30am-4.45pm daily, gardens from 9am; entrance to the palace and grounds costs £11.

AND THE LAST SITE ON THE LIST?

Last year, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (020-8332 5655; www.rbgkew.org.uk) was approved for inclusion on the list, in acknowledgement of Kew's contribution to botany: the gardens and glasshouses contain the largest collection of living plants in the world. The gardens open 9.30am-6.30pm Monday to Friday, until 7.30pm at weekends. Entrance costs £8.50, children under 16 free. For more information call 020-7932 2000 or see www.visitlondon.com.

WHERE NEXT?

Last year, it was decided that the next English nomination for World Heritage status would be Liverpool, because of its role as a commercial port in the 19th century. The area within the proposed site includes the original docks and warehouses, among them the restored Albert Dock with its restaurants, shops and attractions such as Tate Liverpool (0151 702 7400, www.tate.org.uk/liverpool; open 10am-5.50pm Tuesday to Sunday). Also part of the site is the Dock Wall; the Pier Head where the Liver Building is located; and the Cultural Quarter, close to the City centre.

The UNESCO committee will have to assure itself that Liverpool - Maritime Mercantile City, as the heritage district would be known - can be maintained; if the city is successful, it will join the World Heritage List in July. For more information, call 0906 680 6886 (calls are charged at 25p per minute) or see www.visitliverpool.com and www.visitenglandsnorthwest.com.

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