Keeping Heritage Alive

Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 12. Click on image for larger view.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 12. Click on image for larger view.

The fact that we know so much about Oswestry’s past is evidence of the commitment of hundreds of local heritage volunteers. These people help curate and study the past in a variety of ways. Research, monitoring, campaigning, preservation, conservation, re-enactment – all these help ensure that the history and archaeology of Oswestry and its environs is neither forgotten nor destroyed. Projects like Qube’s Men on the Gates, or the Oswestry Castle Research Project, the work of the Oswestry Family and Local History Group, the Oswestry and Borders History and Archaeology Group, Cambrian Heritage Railways and many other local groups make up a network of enthusiasts and experts, amateurs and professionals, who contribute their time and skills to help ensure that Oswestry’s past survives into its future.

If reading the Oswestry Heritage Comics has sparked an interest in the town’s history or archaeology, then perhaps your next step should be to get in touch with one of these groups and get involved. Regardless of time, skills or experience, there’s always something that everyone can do to help protect and preserve their local heritage.

For a start, you can help me by saying what you thought of the Oswestry Heritage Comics in this very quick online survey! It’ll only take you a few minutes, and it will really help decide what happens next.

And if you’d like to learn more about the use of comics in talking about archaeology, history and heritage, I’m going to be giving a “Learning at Lunchtime” talk on the Oswestry Heritage Comics project at Oswestry Library on Thursday, October 6th, between 12-1pm.

The Future of the Past


Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 11. Click for larger image.

The past is only given meaning by the present. Throughout history, history itself has been used, misused and reused according to the needs of the time. But history is resilient – as every archaeologist knows, it’s very difficult to bury the past. But more often than not, history is more likely to be misrepresented than destroyed; we are more likely to be told that our heritage is unimportant or irrelevant. The truth is that the more irrelevant history seems, the more important it is likely to be. Our heritage is who we are – it is about how we lived then, how we live now, and how we want to live in the future. It is no coincidence that destruction of heritage – ancient and historical sites, monuments and buildings – is a key technique of terror.

Of course, the toll cottage on Salop Road is not Palmyra, but every piece of lost heritage is lost forever. When we lose a piece of our heritage, we lose a piece of ourselves; for a small market town, every fragment of lost heritage is a whittling away of civic independence and unique community identity. We imagine that the heritage which makes a place like Oswestry unique is indestructible, that it’s only the small, insignificant things that get lost. After all, a toll cottage is just a toll cottage, right? But remember what happened to Offa’s Dyke – even being big and significant is no guarantor of immunity or protection. This is what the campaign to protect Old Oswestry hillfort is all about.

We will be remembered in the future for how we treat the past. The heritage of our shared past has to be transmitted through the present. And if we allow it to be misrepresented, ignored, whittled away and destroyed, we diminish not just ourselves, but our children and grandchildren – we make their world, their Oswestry a smaller, lesser place, and we condemn them to living with a smaller, lesser sense of who they are and who they can be.

Green Heritage

Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 10. Click for larger image.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 10. Click for larger image.

There’s more to heritage than archaeology and history. Places like Oswestry have all sorts of other heritage that aren’t simply about buildings and monuments. There’s cultural heritage, social heritage, artistic and creative heritage – and there’s also green heritage. Oswestry’s historical buildings and monuments are as much natural places as built places – or, at least, they are now. Places like the Llanymynech limekilns and quarries were – while they were running as industries – environmental disaster zones. Now, of course, they are wild places – home to rare insects and plants, providing habitat which has disappeared elsewhere. In the nineteenth century, places like railway lines, quarries and limeworks were inimical to wildlife. Songbirds, insects and rare plants were sheltered in farm and pastureland. Now, the situation is reversed, and places like the limekilns or the Cambrian Railway lines provide rural landscapes with vital, biodiverse havens and corridors.

The realisation that historic and archaeological places can play a role in conservation seems to have come slowly. But having taken hold, the idea has (if you’ll pardon the pun) grown. Many historic properties and archaeological sites take active steps to create habitat and preserve plants, insects and wildlife which have found, in these places, a new home. The Cambrian Railway Trust is one local heritage organisation that takes its conservation role very seriously indeed – and their approach provides a great model. Old Oswestry hillfort, too, has now been recognised as an important habitat for rare and threatened species, and care of the monument now also involves care of its environment and ecology. I have to admit, this is all a bit new to me – but it’s something that’s happening globally. In South America, management programmes at some Precolumbian sites involve local farmers working part of the archaeological zone with traditional methods. Here, it seems, archaeological heritage, green heritage and cultural heritage were all partners. The Oswestry Community Orchard project is an echo of this, bringing together transport heritage, green heritage and cultural heritage.

In a world where all aspects of heritage are equally under threat, such partnership approaches offer “heritage” in its widest sense a truly sustainable model for the future.

Heritage Open Days

Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 9. Click for larger image.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 9. Click for larger image.

This week’s Oswestry Heritage Comic is all about Heritage Open Days. In fact, Heritage Open Days are the reason the Oswestry Heritage Comic exists at all. I’ve always enjoyed HOD, but beyond being a visitor, I’ve never really contributed to the weekend. I wasn’t sure how an archaeological illustrator could usefully contribute to such an event. Well, this year I figured out how. I launched the Oswestry Heritage Comics project as my contribution towards this year’s Heritage Open Days. The whole point of the comic is to help raise awareness about the richness and diversity of local heritage – which is also the point of Heritage Open Days. I’ve tried to feature as many major heritage places, venues and events in the strips as possible, and in this weeks’ comic I’ve got four that are specific to the HOD weekend: the Oswestry Castle excavations will be taking place, now in their third year; the reconstructed World War I trenches at Park Hall are open free of charge; there’s a Heritage Market in the Bailey marketplace in the middle of Oswestry – right next to the Town Museum and just up the road from the Cambrian Railways museum and around the corner from exhibitions in Oswestry Library and “The Bigger Picture” screenings at Kinokulture cinema; and there’s even a Heritage Bake-off taking place this year! There are walks, exhibitions, presentations, activities, talks and film showings at places like Old Oswestry Hillfort, Oswestry Station, Llanforda Hall, the Quinta, Rednal canal warehouse, Sleeping Beauty’s tower in Selattyn, the Pentre in Bronygarth, the Tanat Valley light railway and St. Peter’s church in Melverley. Events start this Thursday at some venues and run through until Sunday. It’s a fantastic opportunity to find out more about the history, archaeology and heritage of Oswestry – there are full listings of events taking place over the weekend at the Heritage Open Days website.

There are four special Oswestry Heritage Comics-related things going on this coming weekend, too. The first is a “Make Your Own Heritage Comic” activity at Underhill Farm in Llanymynech on Saturday between 10am and 2pm. This will be a drop-in event, and if it’s sunny, we’ll be outside in the grounds of the farm – if it’s raining, we’ll be inside. There’s also an exhibition of all the Oswestry Heritage Comics at the farm. There’s a another exhibition of the comics in town – “Behind The Scenes of the Oswestry Heritage Comics” is at the Willow Gallery on Willow Street all this month. Thirdly, I’m giving a talk on “Getting The Picture – Using comics in archaeological public outreach” to the Chirk History Society on Monday, Sept. 12 at the Parish Hall in Chirk, starting at 7pm. It’ll be an informal talk, but it will look at the work I’ve done in Oswestry and beyond in using comics to talk about archaeology, history and heritage. The comics themselves are also going to be visible through the weekend – on big outdoor banners in and around Oswestry. Look for them as you go around town – see if you can spot them all!

Last but not least, of course, don’t forget to pick up your copy of The Advertizer to read this week’s comic!


History’s Mysteries

Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 8. Click for larger image.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 8. Click for larger image.

As Indiana Jones once memorably said: archeology is the search for facts, not truth. We quickly forget the everyday details of yesterday in favour of concentrating on what’s going on today. This is no less true for the 1960s or 1970s than it is for the distant, historical past. As, collectively, we forget the facts of our history, the past becomes a blank slate on which people write all kinds of “truths” – many of which are unsubstantiated.

Archaeological and historical research is all about recovering those lost facts, and through them, reconstructing those lost details of the past. This is why our local history archives and our local museums are so important – this is where information about the past ends up: census records, newspaper archives, court records, photographs as well as all the seemingly insignificant bits of stone, bone, ceramic and metal from local archaeological digs. Individually, each one of these things is a fact about the past. Through research, surveys, excavation we can gather more facts about the past – and build up a real picture of the events and circumstances that shaped our present.

Oswestry has had its fair share of people claiming to have found the truth behind local historical “mysteries” over the years. History is not full of “mysteries” – it is simply full of things that we have forgotten. If there are ever historical puzzles to solve, and mysteries to unravel, they usually serve to show us what facts are missing from our understanding of the past. Using archaeological science and good historical research, we can re-discover facts about the past and build up a better sense of what made our town, our county and our region the way it is today. Every new investigation of the past adds new facts to our understanding – and changes what we know. That’s why – for Oswestry as much as anywhere else – it’s so important to keep looking. So we must all make sure our local archives continue to be maintained, new archaeological and historical research is supported, and new people continue to become interested and involved in protecting and investigating local heritage.

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It’s the end of September, we’ve only a few weeks to go until Heritage Open Days, and the Oswestry Advertiser has now published half of the twelve-week run of Oswestry Heritage Comics – and so I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on some aspects of the project.

When I first proposed the idea of “a comic about Oswestry heritage”, my aim was to try and create something which would help introduce the subject to an audience which maybe didn’t know a great deal about it. What I perhaps hadn’t anticipated, however, was just how broad that subject was.

I’ve always been interested in the history and heritage of Oswestry and its outlying regions – after all, it’s on my doorstep – but I’d never really delved into it to any great degree. I knew, of course, that local history of any kind is fractal in nature – the more you investigate it, the more detail reveals itself to you, and the more you discover there is to learn. I originally assumed that I could accommodate this infinite level of detail by confining the comics to a brief overview of any given aspect of heritage. That, I feel, I’ve been able to do fairly successfully. Each of the comic strips has a very definite “theme” – military heritage, transport heritage, business heritage, etc. – which has provided me with ample material to fill each comic. What I had not anticipated, though, was the extent to which each of these “themes” would be connected.

I now understand much better that it’s the restricted nature of the overall subject – the history, archaeology and heritage of a small market town – that makes these connections so much more important. It simply isn’t possible to talk about the Cambrian Railway without mentioning its role in WWI, connections between transport and agriculture, the role of Oswestry’s markets, and Oswestry’s position and character as a settlement on the border between England and Wales. As such, even a brief visitation of a topic such as “Business and Heritage” becomes an act of picking a single thread from a very, very tangled web of historical and heritage interactions. At times, I’ve felt like the process of simplification – so much a part of writing a short, four-panel comic – has tipped over into “over-simplification”: there just isn’t enough time or space to explore all the connections between themes that give the individual historical facts and figures their real interest.

But, herein also lies the great strength of the comics medium – and of the use of a local newspaper as a means of publication. Each comic is not an independent informational entity – each comic is simply an element in a twelve-part informational entity. The fact that the comic has a regular weekly slot has made it possible – over the course of multiple episodes – to continually reference multiple elements of the “Oswestry story”. By re-visiting those elements, it has been possible to build up a sense of connection. The “whole” story emerges “interactively” out of all the shorter stories I have simplified for the individual strips.

However, given the multiplicity of topics, elements and themes, some have, inevitably, received greater focus than others. For example, there’s nothing specifically on the heritage of churches and chapels – although St. Oswald’s parish church does feature, as does the man himself and his well. There’s plenty more on transport that hasn’t had much of a mention – not just the Cambrian Railway, but all the early industrial horse and tramways in the area. And there’s a lot of industrial heritage that hasn’t been covered in any detail, either – although the Llanymynech limekilns do feature a bit. Something else that I haven’t been able to cover is the surprising number of re-enactment and “living history” groups which operate in and around Oswestry: the House of the Blackstar at Whittington Castle, and the World War I trenches at Park Hall farm, for example, make appearances in individual panels, but it would be great to cover them in a bit more depth.

So much heritage – so few panels! I think the title of the first strip, “Small Town – Big Heritage” says it all. What I think I’ve enjoyed most about this project is being able to make a start at getting at least some of the extraordinary depth and breadth of Oswestry’s history down in comic format. What would be nice now is to get the chance to continue. There’s so much history, archaeology, built and natural heritage in and around the town, it seems a shame not to try and do it justice.

Business and Heritage

Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 7

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 7. Click for larger image.

As a market town, Oswestry is primarily a place of business – full of shops, stores and workshops. It’s a busy place, full of people making, trading, buying and selling. This has been going on in Oswestry ever since the Normans instituted the town’s first markets almost a thousand years ago. Every generation of traders and business people have adapted the town to their own buying and selling needs – from fairs to markets, from markets to stalls, from stalls to shops. This long history is written into the very fabric of the town itself: every building and every street tells part of the story of Oswestry’s mercantile and business heritage.

There are hundreds – thousands! – of great stories about Oswestry’s businesses and buildings. Did you know Oswestry used to have a roller-skating rink? And do you know why Radio Cafe is called that? And do you know which national frozen food business began in Oswestry? And where? As you walk down the Bailey, have a look up – up above the shop fronts – at the different styles of architecture. Each building has its own unique story to tell – the old Woolworth’s building, Llwyd Mansion – even that building up on the Albion Hill corner, the one that used to be a florists and is now being turned into a cafe. That was – back in the 1890s – the first home of the Oswestry Advertizer. And, of course, Oswestry’s identity as a centre for trade and exchange began with the markets – Smithfield Cattle Market, the Horse Market, the Bailey Head. These market spaces have changed and adapted over the years, moving inside, moving out of town, becoming used for other things, like car-parking. But even as they have moved or vanished, their names still survive: the Horsemarket car park, the Smithfield site, etc. Some of Oswestry’s oldest shops and longest-surviving businesses – like the saddler’s on Leg St. – owe their origins to these markets, and the connections they fostered with the region’s outlying agricultural communities.

Oswestry’s long history is written into the bricks and mortar of its buildings – and its businesses. From mediaeval markets to modern chain stores, Oswestry’s heritage has been shaped – and will continue to be shaped – by its role as a border meeting-place and a place of trade.

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