Hugh Bayley: York's buried treasures make city vital to global heritage

EVERY MP is proud of his or her constituency, and I am specially privileged to represent the city of York. As the new film, The King's Speech, puts King George VI very much in the public eye, let me remind readers that on a visit to the city, he said that the history of York was also a history of England.

When I tell people that York is applying for world heritage status from UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – they often express surprise that York has not already achieved such a status. To see why, one just has to look at York's city walls, York Minster, which is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and contains some 60 per cent of our country's mediaeval stained glass, and the Roman Multangular tower that still stands 10 metres above the ground.

When I speak to people from abroad and tell them that I come from York, everyone, without exception, has heard of the city, and many have visited it in the way in which they have visited Florence, Athens or Jerusalem. York has an enormous international reputation, but I am afraid that that has made us complacent.

Until a few years ago, we did not seriously think of applying to UNESCO for designation as a world heritage site, because we knew that we lived in one of the most precious gems in the western world and thought that nothing more needed to be said or done.

I pay enormous tribute to Janet Hopton, who has led the campaign locally to seek world heritage designation for the city of York. I stress that it is a citizens' campaign; it is a campaign that has come not from politicians but from the people of York. None the less, the campaign has all-party support.

Over the past three years, I have worked with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to discuss how we in the UK can possibly get the door open again so that UNESCO will consider bids from cities such as York.

If York had applied for this status a decade ago, I am pretty certain that our application would have been accepted. Now, however, UNESCO understandably and rightly wants to see a balance in its world heritage list.

There are already many great walled cathedral cities in this country and other countries on the list, and UNESCO has new ambitions. It may not accept an application for the built heritage of a city such as York.

That has made us think more clearly about what is absolutely unique and irreplaceable about York, and we came to the conclusion that it is not what is immediately apparent – the Roman, the Viking or mediaeval built heritage. It is not what is above ground, but what is still hidden underground.

York has been inhabited continuously as a city for 2,000 years. It is built at the confluence of two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, which makes the ground waterlogged. Such unique anoxic conditions – conditions where the water prevents oxygen getting to objects buried in the ground – preserve centuries-old objects, which, in any other place, would have disintegrated. The water preserves organic material, such as wood, leather and textiles, that otherwise would simply rot away.

We have a Viking shoe and Viking cloth from the Jorvik dig. Wooden buildings from Jorvik can now be seen plank by plank, beam by beam, in the same way in which they would have been seen 1,000 years ago had they not been buried. Even the leftovers from meals are available for analysis. They tell us what people ate 1,000 years ago. There is nowhere else in western Europe with similar anoxic conditions.

If successful, York's bid would provide the only UNESCO world heritage site inscribed solely on the basis of its underground deposits.

York's unique subterranean heritage is complemented by world-class archaeology teaching, research, conservation and entrepreneurship. The University of York's department of archaeology is a centre of excellence in computing for archaeology and bio-archaeology through its environmental archaeology unit.

The Council for British Archaeology, which promotes public engagement with archaeology, is a national body but is based in the city of York. The York Archaeological Trust is respected as one of the most successful archaeological trusts. It dug Coppergate 30 years ago and not only produced an incredible record of what life was like in Viking Jorvik but turned archaeology into a commercial success.

Some 17m visitors have visited the Jorvik Viking centre since it opened in 1984, including the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I encourage the present Prime Minister and his family to also visit.

This bid looks to York's future as well as its past. We receive seven million visitors a year, who spend almost half-a-billion pounds in York, which sustains 20,000 people in employment. We have a visitor economy; for centuries, people have come to the great cathedral city of the north of England.

World heritage status would protect and enhance the city's global reputation.

Hugh Bayley is Labour MP for the City of York. This is an edited extract of a speech that he delivered in Parliament this week.