Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 49It was a great pleasure to meet John Pryce-Jones earlier this year – Oswestry’s foremost local historian. He’s the author of a number of books on the history of the town, all of which I’ve used extensively in my research for this series. His clear and precise way of writing, and the way he organises dense historical facts and figures into related themes has influenced the way in which I have written the Oswestry Heritage Comics.

John’s been writing about Oswestry for a long time, and draws both on depth and breadth of experience when it comes to writing about local history. Here he is talking about that process in his own words:

How did you start writing about Oswestry’s history?

I had graduated from Exeter University (where I had studied History) and found myself back in Oswestry at that time without a job.  This was in 1977.  I spent some of my spare time in the library and discovered the wonderful local studies collection, starting with standard works such as Watkin’s Oswestry and Cathrall’s History, and working through the collection of Kelly’s Directories with their lists of shops, tradespeople and pubs, and the miscellany to be found in Bye-Gones.  I drafted a longish piece on Oswestry’s pubs and offered it to the Advertizer and was pleasantly surprised when the editor Dai Lewis published it – and then asked if I had anything else.

Your research has been pretty extensive – has anything surprised you? Anything about Oswestry’s history that really made you say: Wow – I didn’t expect that!

Coming across images of the parish church, and Oswestry Castle, from Tudor times, at the National Library of Wales. 

When I first learned of the prisoners of war who were lodged in Oswestry during the Napoleonic Wars – men from France, but also from the Netherlands, Spain and Poland.  Also finding a large collection of models carved from animal bones by prisoners in Oswestry, on display in a museum in Peterborough. 

And the vivid eye witness accounts of life in Oswestry in Tudor and Stuart times to be found in the records of Star Chamber, including fierce disagreements over the make-up of the local council, between the vicar Nathaniel Tattersall and his parish, and between Edward Lloyd of Llwynymaen and almost everyone he came into contact with.

Is there an aspect of Oswestry’s history that seems neglected or under-appreciated to you? If there is, why do you think it’s been passed over?

I have believed so a long time that Oswestry’s place on the edge of things – on the fringe of Shropshire, over the border from modern Wales – has meant that it is often neglected in works on Shropshire, or on Wales.  Here in Oswestry we know the part we have played in Anglo-Welsh conflicts, in the wool trade and the railways, for instance, and the recent excavations on the Castle Bank are making people appreciate the importance of our castle.  It is puzzling how little is made of our 18th century history, and of the two hundred years between the Civil War and the coming of the railways – plenty of records exist for these years, there are many attractive buildings from this time, and a lot went on in the town at this time – perhaps the reason it’s largely neglected is because there wasn’t a single game changing event or development, instead it was incremental change. 

Any advice for people interested in local history? Any advice for someone keen to do research?

Spend time at Oswestry Library and get to know the resources available in its local collection. 

These days there is much that is available via the internet, including details of records for Oswestry that are held by the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and the British Library, as well as our own Town Council Archives, and local library collections.  That said, the records themselves must still be consulted by the traditional method – by visiting libraries and archives, and spending time working through a surprisingly large number of documents – some dating right back to the 13th century.  Don’t limit yourself to what you can find online by a Google search – and question what you find there – there is much that is helpful, but there is much that is not.

Don’t limit yourself to the well-trodden paths – though there are often new angles to explore with the better-known themes.  Take a theme from history generally – one that interests you – and see what can be found out about it at a local level.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 48You don’t have to be an expert or a heritage professional to help take care of local heritage. Often it’s common-sense “do-s and don’t-s” that have the biggest impact. While everyone wants to be able to enjoy heritage places, it’s easy to forget that these sites and monuments can often be fragile, vulnerable environments – particularly if you consider the heritage to include not just the archaeology or the historical significance, but the wildlife and the setting as well.

This has been an issue up on Old Oswestry Hillfort, for example. While everyone is delighted that the hillfort features so prominently in many people’s daily routine – going for a walk, taking the dogs out, heading up there with friends and visitors – the impact of a few thoughtless people on such a place can be significant. Don’t Litter and Pick Up Your Dog Mess are common-sense courtesies everywhere – but it’s surprising how many people seem to think that somehow places that are green and open are exempt. They’re not. The dog waste on the hillfort stops kids from exploring and playing on the mound, leaches into the ponds and alters the soil chemistry, threatening the native plants and newts; litter makes the place look distinctly uninviting. Not so many years ago, when the hillfort was less-loved than it is now, I remember seeing bags of rubbish fly-tipped by the entrance.

Erosion is another issue. Walking, running, taking the dog out, playing on the ramparts – none of this does much damage to the ancient earthwork. But bike-riding in particular loosens the topsoil, kills off the plant-covering, and precipitates extremely damaging erosion to both the paths and the monument itself.

Oswestry and the Borderlands are lucky to have a number of really important earthwork monuments: Old Oswestry Hillfort, Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke. They are great places to enjoy – whether as a visitor or a local; a walker or a bird-spotter; a picnicker or an artist. The privilege to enjoy the natural and historic beauty of these sites comes with responsibilities: to be aware of ones impact on the site and mitigate it where possible. Clearing up dog mess, taking away litter and not using bikes on the mound are all common-sense courtesies that will help safeguard the monument for another thousand years.

Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 47

Living the Middle Ages – Week 47 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

There are many re-enactment groups up and down the Borderlands, with enthusiasts participating in living history from a range of different periods. Cwmwd Iâl bring to life an important period of our history: the years between 850 to 1199: the “Anglo-Saxon” period – the time of the Kingdom of Mercia.

During this early part of the middle ages, the frontier between England and Wales was a dangerous place. There were constant skirmishes between the English Kingdom of Mercia and the Welsh Kingdom of Powys. Cattle were an important part of trade between the two kingdoms, and so cattle-raiding became a profitable criminal enterprise. To control the trade – and to control the cattle-raiding – the Kings of Mercia decided to strengthen the frontier between the two Kingdoms. The earthwork known as “Offa’s Dyke” was built in the late 700s by the Mercian King Offa to mark out that frontier, and help control both trade and raiding. But the frontier did more than create a border – it created a “Borderlands”: a place where the two sides could meet, not just on the battlefield.

So the 350 years covered by the Cwmwd Iâl group represents a really interesting and complicated period of history: a time when Mercia and Powys were both fighting and trading, each side trying to grow stronger through both war and commerce. For the ordinary people caught up in this Borderlands rivalry, this 350-year period was a time of both danger – and opportunity. Plenty of small towns and settlements in the Borderlands – like Oswestry – both prospered and suffered during that time. Fortune, power and prestige could be made through both war and trade – and lost in the same way.

Cwmwd Iâl brings this period to life through a great mix of historical research, experimental archaeology and re-enactment. Through their research, they uncover details about the life of ordinary men, women and children in that period; through experimental archaeology they test theories about how these mediaeval inhabitants of the Borderlands lived and worked; and through re-enactment they bring that all to life for the rest of us.

Last year was a busy year for the group, so during 2018 they’re taking it a bit easy. However, they’ll be taking part in events throughout Wales during the summer – and you can check out their schedule on their Facebook page. And they’ll be coming together as a group for their annual re-enactment of the Battle of Crogen (which took place in the Ceiriog Valley, just near the railway viaduct and the canal aqueduct at Chirk) at Chirk Castle on the 1st and 2nd of September. Put that date in your diary: it’s always a great event, and a great way to see what life in the time of King Offa would have been like.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A Comics Exhibition

A Comics Exhibition – Week 44 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost ten months since the Oswestry Heritage Comics project started. To celebrate, Qube: Owestry Community Arts is hosting a month-long exhibition about the comics and the project in their main gallery space. There will be a selection of our favourite comics on display, as well as panels talking about what the comics project hoped to achieve, and a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the making of the comics. There will also be some of the historical and archaeological objects featured in the comics, kindly lent by the people who helped tell their stories: Huw Davies is lending us some of his Napoleonic re-enactment kit; the Shrewsbury Museum is lending us the Neolithic axe that’s usually on show in Oswestry Library, as well as the Rhynchosaur fossils from Grinshill; Rachel Scotland is lending us the mysterious piece of Victorian carved stone she and Mark dug up in her garden; and Roger Cooper is lending us a lead Civil War cannonball and several musket balls from the excavations he’s directing up at Oswestry Castle. Plus I’ll be giving a gallery talk and doing workshops for both kids and adults on making your own comics!

If you’re interested in comics, then Qube is the place to head to this month. I look forward to seeing you all there!

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Our Ancient Roots

Our Ancient Roots – Week 2 of the Grenada Heritage Comics

Places like Grenada have a difficult time when it comes to heritage. The modern history of the Caribbean means that such islands have an extremely mixed population, with a variety of backgrounds – and not all of them came to the island willingly (to put it mildly). So their collective and individual links with the past can be highly divergent, and sometimes its difficult to find much of the past in common. This makes it hard for some people to feel connected to an ancient and archaeological past that doesn’t appear to be part of their ethnic heritage.

But regardless of our differences – whether we’re white or black, residents or visitors, African, European, Asian or South American in origin, the great-grandchildren of slaves, the great-grandchildren of slave owners or the great-grandchildren of dispossessed indigenous people, there is one thing that we have in common: the island. The physical and material remains of the past – ancient or historical, ecological or geological, dim-and-distant or within living memory – are shared by us all. We see these remains at work and play, near our schools and hotels. They are a reminder that, no matter how different our journeys and the journeys of our ancestors may have been, we all ended up in the same place. Our future depends on coming to terms with the differences in our past: if Grenada is to forge a meaningful and shared future, we need to build it on a shared and valued heritage drawn from all our pasts.

The Grenada Heritage Comics are a ten-week series of comic strips about the history, archaeology and heritage of the Caribbean island of Grenada, produced in association with the Heritage Research Group Caribbean, published weekly on the Grenada Heritage Comics page on Facebook, and by NOWGrenada.

Friends Of Oswestry Lake – Week 43 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

April Fool!

Well, I just couldn’t let the date pass without doing something! Hopefully next week’s Advertizer isn’t going to be full of irate letters from worried residents of Oswestry wondering if they should move to higher ground. The clue’s in the name, of course: Friends Of Oswestry Lake. The comic was good fun to draw – particularly the Lion Fish-like Plesiosaur and the Kingfisher-coloured Rhamphorhynchus– both inspired by the work of C.M. Koseman, and his innovative dinosaur reconstructions from his book All Yesterdays.

So don’t worry – no one’s going to flood Oswestry. Although it would be a pretty cool tourist attraction…!

Grenada Heritage Comics

Grenada Heritage Comics – Week 1

A new series of my heritage comics begins today – The Grenada Heritage Comics. It’s a ten-part series about the history, archaeology and heritage of the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, published by the Heritage Research Group Caribbean (HRGC) as part of Heritage Month on Grenada. The comics are being published on Facebook and in island newspapers every week for ten weeks. It’s been a great series to write and draw, and the hope is that it will encourage people to find out more about Grenada’s rich and distinctive heritage, as well as look for ways to get involved. Heritage on Grenada is both deeply loved and under threat. Some aspects of its traditional culture have been successfully revived and renewed – while other aspects have been overlooked and are in danger of disappearing. Environmental change, development and economic pressures have taken their toll on Grenada’s heritage – but positive community working and engagement has done much good, too. One only has to visit places like Belmont Estate to see how understanding the past can mean real and meaningful change in the present. And youth community groups like MYCEDO are carrying that message forward – forging links between environmental action, heritage stewardship, local education and tourism.

The comics take the view that “heritage” is what the past has left us in the present – which covers everything from geology to ecology, oral history to archaeology. It also includes both the good and the bad. Grenada has had its share of dark times – from slavery to civil conflict – but making the true and full story of its past visible is an important part of educating future generations so that they can make informed choices about what sort of future their island is going to have. Grenada faces a host of climate, economic and population challenges in the decades ahead – and every one of these issues relates back to the island’s history. All of us who know Grenada – whether we live there, work there or just visit there – need to be aware of what has gone before so that we can contribute positively to the island’s present and future. Heritage isn’t just about what’s been and gone – it’s about what lies in front of us.

So visit the Facebook page, read the comics, and find out more about one of the most fascinating islands in the Caribbean. It’s been a real privilege to get to know Grenada and Carriacou over the past decade, and these comics are my way of inviting you to do the same!

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