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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

The Stone in the Garden – Week 24 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Heritage is a living thing. Our knowledge of the past – and what it means to us – is constantly evolving. Archaeological excavations, historical research – and even chance discoveries – can bring a new aspect of the past to light, and change the way we relate to it.

Rachel and Mark first got in touch with me via the Hidden Oswestry site, asking whether I could help them identify a piece of carved stone that had turned up in Rachel’s garden on Castle Bank. The photograph they sent showed a fragment of what appeared to be some kind of arch, with a floral motif on one side. As it was a little bit difficult to see some of the details in the photograph, I asked them if they’d mind bringing the fragment to Heritage Open Days so I could have a closer look.

So they did – and everyone got very excited about it when they turned up. Will – at Hidden Oswestry – and I had already talked a bit about a possible date for the stone and where it might have come from – but at our Heritage Open Days stall, we got loads of people curious about the stone and making their own ideas about how old it was and where it might be from originally.

The evidence on the stone itself seems to suggest that the fragment of stone comes from a 19th century ecclesiastical building of some kind – a church of chapel, now demolished. Interestingly, on Beatrice Street – at the bottom of Castle Street – there’s a candidate in the old Wesleyan Chapel: built in the late 1800s and torn down in 1967. Looking at photographs taken during the early 1900s and the 1960s (up on the Oswestry Family and Local History Group site), I can see a couple of possible places where Rachel and Mark’s stone might have come from. It’s possible that the fragment came from the chapel and was used to level the back of Castle Bank during the rebuilding of the Powis Hall Market and laying-out of the Horsemarket carpark.

How do we tell for certain where this stone might have come from? There are a couple of lines of research that we can follow. I’ve asked the Victorian Society for help in identifying the stone; I’ve also asked an online church architecture group if they can suggest any local churches with similar carving – that would help us establish a date for the fragment. Hunting around on the internet, I’ve found what appears to be a similar arrangement of arches and floral carvings on the porch of the Seventh Day Adventist church on London Road in Leicester. A photograph might help us figure out where on a church or chapel Rachel and Mark’s fragment might have originally fit. Don’t suppose anyone out there living in Leicester fancies popping down to London Road and taking a photo of the porch?

I’m planning to revisit this story later in the series. Mark’s already said that, come the spring, he wants to clear more of the rubble at the back of the garden. I’ll be giving him a hand – and there will be another comic to let you all know what we find!

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The Men on the Gates – Week 22 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The gates of Cae Glas park in Oswestry are more than just a notable architectural feature: as the town’s War Memorial they are the centrepiece of Oswestry’s Remembrance Day observances, and a focus for our collective memory of conflict. But the names inscribed on the gates are more than just a roll-call of the dead: they are an opportunity to bear witness to the extraordinary deeds of ordinary men and women caught up in the chaos and violence of history.

The Men on the Gates project is another community heritage project being run this year by Qube. Lead researcher, John Davies, has worked with a team of volunteers to create a biographical database of all those named on Cae Glas memorial: the men – and women – on the gates. His team has researched their individual stories and put them together as an online resource, which will eventually link to other databases around the country – and the world. The objective is to make this local history project part of something bigger: an integrated archive of those who served and died in war that connects the experiences of those from Oswestry with those from similar small towns and villages across Britain, across Europe and – eventually – across the globe. This is not an “ancestry” project, it is about remembrance: a bringing together of historical research and collective social memory. Rather than the database being the end result, John and his team are hoping that it will, instead, be a beginning: a starting-point for remembering and learning that goes beyond family biography or local heritage.

The Men on the Gates archive will be accessible through the Qube website in the weeks following Remembrance Sunday.


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

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Shropshire’s Prehistoric Reptile – Week 21 of the Oswestry Heritage Comic

Did you know Shropshire had its very own prehistoric reptile?* Rhynchosaurs lived in the hot, dry deserts of the world during the Triassic period (about 220 million years ago). They were herbivores, with strong beaks for chewing through ferns and horsetails. Although earlier species were fairly small, in the later Triassic, Rhynchosaurs grew up to two metres long. These larger species had heavy rear claws for digging out roots and tubers, and much wider heads with very powerful jaws. Their primary food source was the fern Dicrodium – which looked similar to modern ferns, but was tougher and thicker. These ferns died towards the end of the Triassic period, and perhaps this contributed to the eventual extinction of the Rhynchosaur. This dying-out of the ferns may have, in turn, been due to a big climate shift, with huge continent-wide monsoon rains changing the environment of the deserts. By the end of the Triassic period and the start of the Jurassic, the dinosaurs were well and truly established – and Oswestry would have no longer been in the middle of a desolate desert, but at the bottom of a shallow, tropical sea.

Our geological heritage is visible in the rocks all around us – from limestone and coal that date from the Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago), to the sandstones of the Triassic period, to the rivers and hills formed during the Ice Age (between 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago). These rocks shaped our human history and heritage: the limestone and coal helped power the industrial revolution during the 1700s and 1800s, the gravels and sands left by the glaciers of the ice age are used in our roads and bricks, and sandstone from the Triassic period was used to build some of Shropshire’s finest buildings. Quarries were opened up at places like Grinshill in the late 1700s, and in addition to providing stone for construction, also gave us some very good examples of fossils of plants and animals from the Triassic period – including fossils of our very own species of Rhynchosaur: Rhynchosaur articeps. The fossils were collected by Dr. Thomas Ogier Ward – a member of the Shrewsbury Natural History Society – who kept a look-out for such finds in the midst of quarrying operations at Grinshill. In 1842, the well-known palaeontologist Richard Owen described and identified the fossils in the Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (you can read his original article online). The fossils are now in the collections of the Shrewsbury Museum.

But you don’t have to go to Grinshill quarry to find fossils from the Triassic – next time you see a grand Victorian building with some pieces of carved stone in it, have a look and see whether you can spot any traces of animals and plants from 220 million years ago!

* Eagle-eyed readers of the ‘Tizer will note that I did use the term “dinosaur” in the newspaper. I did so because I discovered in a spot-survey of ‘Tizer readers that the more taxonomically correct “prehistoric reptile” wasn’t a term most people understood. As the word “dinosaur” is generally (if inaccurately) used as a non-taxonomic term to cover all sorts of prehistoric animals, I used that.

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

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Learning From the Past – Week Twenty of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

What can the study of the past teach us? What about the distant past – the British iron age, for example?

Rachel Pope is someone who knows a thing or two about the British iron age. She’s a prehistorian at Liverpool University, author of a whole shelf’s-worth of articles about the period, director of the excavations at Penycloddiau hillfort in Denbighshire, and a big supporter of the HOOOH campaign to protect Old Oswestry hillfort. She is unequivocal about the value of research into the iron age. She argues that many aspects of our present way of living have their origins not in the Victorian period or the middle ages, but further back: in the iron age. Contemporary ideas about settled living, about relationships between our lived-in and rural space; our attitudes towards social status, religion and rulership – all these things can be traced right back to the iron age. What’s more, the problems which faced society in the British iron age – new technology, shifting geopolitics, changing climate – have their present-day parallels. Looking at Britain of the iron age, Rachel argues, is like looking at a mirror-image of Britain today.

Drawing parallels between “now” and any number of “thens” is a common exercise in the study of history – parallels between twentieth-century Britain and the United States and classical Greece and Rome; parallels between Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May; parallels between the military policy of the PRC and the Sassanid Empire.

But Rachel’s suggestion seems to go beyond the simple drawing of parallels. Is there a point in history where basic cultural concepts are established – “set in stone”, as it were (or should that be, ‘set in iron’)? And if that’s the case, what might one be able to learn by studying how and why that happened? It’s an intriguing suggestion – and an interesting idea to chuck into the mix of local heritage. What other “more than parallels” might one look for in Oswestry’s history?


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

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Oswestry’s Apple – Week Eighteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Shropshire used to be a county full of little orchards. During the nineteenth century, just about every farm would have had it’s own stand of apple trees – and some landowners cultivated their own, specific varieties of apple. Some were for eating, some were for cooking, and some were for making into splendid Shropshire cider!

The Reverend John Netherton Parker, owner of Sweeney Hall, was just such a landowner. In 1807 his estate produced the “Sweeney Nonpareil”. In A Guide to the Orchard and Fruit Garden: Or, An Account of the Most Valuable Fruits Cultivated in Great Britain: with Kalendars of the Work Required in the Orchard and Kitchen Garden During Every Month in the YearA Guide to the Orchard and Fruit Garden, published in 1831, the authors praise the apple’s balance of acid and sugar, and note that:

This very fine apple was raised by J.N. Parker Esq. in 1807, at Sweeney, in Shropshire. The tree is an abundant bearer, and the fruit sometimes grows to a large size; the largest it ever produced was in 1818, measuring eleven inches and a quarter in circumference, and weighing nine ounces and a quarter. Twenty of its fruit, exhibited at the Horticultural Society in 1820, weighed seven pounds thirteen ounces avoirdupoise.

It seems that J.N.Parker was keen to advertise and promote his apple, although it’s unclear how widely the variety was grown.

The Sweeney Nonpareil is only one of dozens of local Shropshire and Borderlands varieties that have been discovered by the Marcher Apple Network. The group is now actively growing some of these varieties, hoping to revitalise the growing of apples in small urban and rural plots, utilising marginal land. They have pioneered some really great Community Orchard projects, and Tom Adams – Oswestry’s own local apple man – has been instrumental in getting Oswestry’s own Community Orchard Project (CROP) going on land alongside the Cambrian Railway.

Historic apple varieties, botanical research, preservation railways and community projects – this is what local heritage should be all about!

So come along to Oswestry Apple Day at the Bailey this morning and help celebrate our heritage apple varieties and the people who are helping bring them back into our gardens and onto our tables. There will be lots to see and find out, lots of activities and things to do. I think there might even be apple crumble and pies – and maybe even cider made with the Sweeney Nonpareil!


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

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Barbara Pym – Week Seventeen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The works of Barbara Pym are from another era. They are deeply rooted in a pre-war ethic that is, almost literally, a world away from the twenty-first century. Yet this Oswestry author still has relevance for contemporary readers, and her books are worth discovering – as I have been doing.

I’ve been reading some of Barbara Pym’s works, and it has to be said, she is not really my sort of author, and her books are not really my sort of books. Yet, in a curious way, I have found a lot to like in her mannered, everyday writing – and discovered that they are, by turns, well-observed, sharp, sometimes extremely funny, and occasionally surprisingly radical. She has been rightly compared to Jane Austen – she shares Austen’s talent for minute observation of the lives of ordinary women. Her talent as an observer was almost certainly honed during her time at the International African Institute, surrounded by anthropologists and ethnographers. But her focus on the quotidian battlefronts of ordinary life (Rhoda’s battle with the electricity board, for example) must have owed a great deal to her early life in Oswestry, and immersion in the tiny dramas of market town life. Whatever Barbara Pym’s writing became (by turn, brittle and sophisticated, outmoded and anachronistic, reborn and rediscovered) it kept its unmistakably small-town flavour; Oswestry is never far away in Pym’s novels.

Pym’s private life was similarly full of surprises. Although she never married, she had numerous affairs, and at least at some points in her life appears to have been scandalously promiscuous and free, given the social conventions of the time. This rather wilder side to her personality perhaps encouraged her to write about “outsider” characters and their complicated sexual lives. The affairs of unmarried and adulterous women, the culture of gay men – both open and closeted, the social awkwardness of oddly inappropriate attachments, the distress caused by uncomfortable romances – such themes of sexual ambiguity, confusion and collision run through all of Pym’s novels, and remind us (particularly today) that such issues are not new. There’s a note of both sadness and seriousness that gets introduced through these characters and their lives, and stops her work being mere brittle social drama, like Wodehouse, or other pre-war authors.

I’m in the middle of reading Less Than Angels at the moment – my favourite so far (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the chaotic cast of anthropologists). I haven’t been reading the novels strictly in order, just roughly chronologically. I’m looking forward to getting to Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died – the two novels she wrote in the 1970s, following her “rediscovery” as a classic British author. I’m really curious to see how Pym dealt with the profoundly different Britain of the seventies – and where her everyday focus and her slightly outsider characters took her.

I’ve found a lot to like in what I’ve read of Pym’s novels so far: I like their focus on the everyday, and the curious but honest characters; I like the “behind the scenes” glimpse they afford into a lost world; I like the sociological  closeness of them, and the highlight that shines on the mundanity and ordinariness of lived experience. I’d highly recommend them – and it would be interesting to see contemporary Oswestry writers take a leaf out of Pym’s books. Something to think about for Oswestry Lit Fest next year?


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

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Ice Age Oswestry – Week Sixteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The Ice Age was, perhaps, not the most exciting period in Oswestry’s history. Like most of North Shropshire, the town was buried underneath 300 metres of glacier – compacted snow and ice that had accumulated slowly over centuries. Just to give you some idea of how thick that ice was, 300 metres is the height of the Eiffel Tower – or twice the height of the Great Pyramid. The surface of the ice was a bleak place. Even the great herds of wooly mammoth we think of when we think of the ice age wouldn’t have spent much time on the top of the ice – there would have been nothing to eat. They would have stayed further south, down in central Europe, where the ice hadn’t built up, and where there was still tundra grass for them to feed on.

But there would have been a few spots in Shropshire where the hills would have poked up higher than the glaciers – a few frozen “islands” in the ice. One of these would have been the Stiperstones, the dramatic ridge of rocks just south of Shrewsbury. And although the glaciers and all that ice has long since vanished from Shropshire – it all melted away about 10,000 years ago – you can still see evidence of the Ice Age right across the county:

  • deep ridges and valleys along the Stiperstones cut by the glaciers
  • sand and gravel deposited by the water from the melting ice
  • big boulders that had been caught up in the ice and dumped when it melted
  • lakes like the Mere at Ellesmere, formed by the melting ice

The Ice Age may be invisible in many ways, but it has left a lasting impression on our history. The hills that form Old Oswestry Hillfort and the Coppie are both made out of sand and gravel left behind by the glaciers. And the warming climate and melting glaciers left behind lush grasslands quickly populated by mammoths and other animals – and our early hunting ancestors – moving north from southern Europe.

And so the Ice Age sets the scene for the whole of the human history of Oswestry – something to think about as you look at the hills and valleys of Shropshire!


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

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