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Week Seven: Bringing Heritage to Life

I really enjoyed my visit to the re-enactment day at Whittington Castle put on by the 5th/60th Regiment and other Napoleonic War era groups. Huw invited me along to meet his group and have a look at the research that had gone into their uniforms and equipment. I don’t know a great deal about the Napoleonic Wars. So it was a great opportunity to really get immersed in all the history, and see the connection between the facts and the dates of who fought what battle when, where and how – and what that all meant for the men and women caught up in the actual, day-to-day experience of the war.

Historians and archaeologists often study these violent and world-changing periods through somewhat abstract evidence: musket balls, earthworks, maps, regimental records, etc. It’s all too easy to forget that all of these things had a real and lasting impact on the lives of real people, essentially not much different to ourselves. Each musket ball we see in a museum could be a life lived blinded and disabled, or even a life cut short; every campaign map speaks of days of marching and hardship for troops in all sorts of conditions. Every cooking pot, every button-shining kit, every writing desk or pair of shoes contains stories of the people who used them. Sometimes we concentrate on the object and forget about the people behind them.

We shouldn’t overlook these human stories – and re-enactment groups do a fantastic job of reminding us that’s what history and heritage is really all about. Getting a close look at the way ordinary people lived and survived in extraordinary circumstances can be a unique window into our past.

We’re lucky around Oswestry to have so many visit Whittington Castle. So next time Huw and the 5th/60th are at Whittington Castle, I definitely recommend you visit!

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Week Six: Oswestry’s Missing Hospital

Many of the jobs we do today were being done hundreds of years ago, but in different ways and in different places. Hospitals in the middle ages were usually connected to churches or abbeys, run by monks, nuns or priests. It was often considered very prestigious to have a hospital in a mediaeval town. Historical records that us Oswestry’s hospital was founded by the Archbishop of St. Asaph, and generously endowed. There was a priest in charge of the daily running of the hospital, including conducting services and providing accommodation for visiting priests from Haughmond Abbey, near Shrewsbury. William FitzAlan (who featured in a previous comic), gave the hospital permission to use a field near Cynynion (along the racecourse road towards Rhydycroesau), and instructed that the burgesses of Oswestry give “a handful of corn, flour, and salt from every horseload sold in the market, a gallon of ale from every brewing, and a loaf from every baking” to the hospital. Just like today, communities would help support their local hospital.

After Archbishop Renier’s death, the supervision of the hospital passed to the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller or Hospitallers. This was an order of knights founded during the crusades to help sick, injured and poor pilgrims in Jerusalem. They maintained a famous hospital in Jerusalem itself, and often ran hospitals elsewhere in Europe. They were an important knightly order until the late 1600s – they even founded colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Because of the association with the Hospitallers – whose patron saint was St. John the Baptist – the hospital is often referred to as St. John’s Hospital.

But where is Oswestry’s hospital now? Historians have debated the actual location, but most agree that it was somewhere just south of Oswestry’s old mediaeval town wall (which used to be about where Gilhams and Booka are), either near the Church, or a bit further out towards Roft Street and Black Gate. Finding it archaeologically might be a bit difficult, since most open areas around there are paved. But some geophys in back gardens might be a way to start. Anyone fancy doing an Oswestry “Time Team”?

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Week Four: What’s in a Name?

Not much of Norman Oswestry survives as bricks and mortar – but you can still find traces of it in unexpected places around the town. The FitzAlans were Oswestry’s “First Family” – generations of ambitious, clever survivors, determined at first to make the most of their post-Conquest manorial holdings; determined as the decades passed to hang on to that power. Even choosing the wrong side during the Anarchy of the twelfth century, and backing the Empress Matilda over her rival Stephen, didn’t dent their ambition.

Like all powerful families, however, their power did eventually fade – lack of male rivals ended the Fitzalan line in favour of the Howard, and more profitable estates elsewhere removed the family from Oswestry to Shrawardine, Holt, Clun and (eventually) Arundel – much to the benefit of the town. As local Oswestry historian, John Pryce-Jones puts it: “… reduced levels of manorial supervision provided the leading citizens of Oswestry to extend their own influence over the running of the town, and to develop the independent spirit which has characterised local civic affairs down the centuries…”. In other words, although they built the original Oswestry Castle, and gave it it’s original charters, perhaps the best things the FitzAlans ever did for Oswestry was leave it alone!

However, the FitzAlan name survives in the name of FitzAlan Road – a tiny reminder of the determined, canny (and quite possibly, ruthless) family that gave Oswestry its head start. There are lots of roads in Oswestry with historical stories behind them – you could do a whole series of heritage comics just on road names!

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The Silver Studded Blue, resident of Prees Heath Common (photo: butterfly-conservation.org)

I was invited over to Prees Heath Common, near Whitchurch in North Shropshire, by Meres and Mosses/Shropshire Wildlife Trust to run a heritage comics workshop with some of their community archaeology volunteers. Prees Heath Common was an airfield during World War II, and a military muster site before that. Now it’s – in part – a butterfly reserve, managed by Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The site has a team of volunteers who look after both the ecology and the archaeology. A few weeks ago they dug a series of test-pits across a small corner of the site, at the edge of  one of the WWII airfield turning circles. Last week I got together with the group to run a workshop about making comics – hopefully showing them how comics could bring the story of their small local heritage site to a wider audience.

We held the workshop in the fantastic Raven Cafe – an old-skool biker and transport greasy spoon (that served proper strong tea – thank you, Lynne). There, at one side of the main dining room, next to a collection of old bikes, and overseen – appropriately enough – by a poster featuring the cartoon biker Ogri, the group and I spent from ten until one talking comics, WWII archaeology, common law, butterflies – and more! So much more.

I was astonished not only with how much history and heritage there was associated with the site – but the range and diversity of it. Yes, there was tons of military history and archaeology – from the middle ages through the Civil War to both World Wars; yes, there was transport history – Roman roads, mediaeval tracks, railways, Australian flying corps, bombers; yes, there was ecological heritage – the silver studded blue butterfly, peacocks, brimstones and cinnabar moths; regrown heathland with ling and bell heather; lizards, frogs and lapwings. We talked about all this heritage – and I showed the group how these stories could become educational and informational comics for schools, site interpretation boards and visitors centres.

These were the heritage stories I was expecting to hear – but I also heard other stores: stories about the social history of the common, about the injustices it has seen, about how it came to be transformed into arable fields, about how it affected and changed the lives of the local inhabitants down the generations – and about how those changed lives have in turn changed the future history of the common. These individual, family and social stories are the other side of the coin to the historical, archaeological, geological or ecological information that make up “heritage”. They give the bare bones of heritage facts and figures a human, grounded dimension – reminding us that the past is personal, not abstract; that our shared past both shapes and is shaped by, the people who live it.

From tales of mass trespasses and gypsy weddings, to biker memorabilia (and comics!) in roadside transport cafes – the past is made meaningful and human. When I talk with community groups about telling stories about the past, I am increasingly convinced that these are the stories that count – because these are the stories people want to hear.

I had a fantastic time with the Prees Heath group, and really hope that they take some of their surprising stories and great ideas and make some excellent comics!

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Week Three: Hillforts, Herbs and Heritage

Timing didn’t quite work out to have this comic in the ‘Tizer two weeks ago (blame the election for disrupting the launch of the Oswestry Heritage Comics!). A fortnight ago Saturday, Natalie Morris lead a herb walk around the Hillfort, organised by the Oswestry Heritage Gateway group, pointing out all the native species up there and talking about their traditional uses as foods and medicines. Last summer, I was quite surprised to discover how much strong interest there way locally about the connection between “green heritage” and built heritage: the idea that sites, monuments and historic places can also provide much-needed ecological niches for endangered, rare or threatened species. The late Andrew Tullo, of the Cambrian Heritage Railway, was a keen advocate of this, and did a lot to ensure that the Cambrian Railway regeneration programme included provision for native species along the track right-of-way. He was also involved in projects like the Oswestry Community Orchard – again, demonstrating the close links that can exist between green and built heritage.

Natalie’s herb walk shows how that connection has historical and archaeological echoes, through the use of native plants as food and medical resources. Some wild flowers such as plantain, were known to the Romans, who wrote about their use in healing wounds. Medicine in the middle ages made extensive use of native herbs and wild plants – among other things! Some of these uses lasted into the Victorian period, particularly in remedies for coughs, aches and pains. Understanding these traditional uses for native plants gives us a glimpse into folk ways and traditions that rarely make it into the history books, but which were well-known to most people. Some of these traditions appear to have a very long pedigree across Europe and the Mediterranean: yarrow, which Natalie pointed out as a healing herb, has long been identified as the healing herb used by Achilles in the story of the Trojan War – a long way away from Old Oswestry hillfort!

Please don’t pick the wild plants on the Hillfort.

And please don’t eat or use wild plants unless you know what you’re doing.

Contact Natalie for more information about using native and wild plants for food or medicine.

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Week Two: What is Heritage?

That’s a good question – and the subject of this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comics. When I first started this project last summer, I thought about titling it “Oswestry History” or “The Story of Oswestry” or something like that. But “history” – just like “archaeology” – is only one aspect of way in which we study and understand the past. I wanted the comics to have a wider scope than just looking at things which fit into the categories of “history” or “archaeology” – what about re-enactors? Are they “history” or “archaeology”. Not really. What about traditional arts and crafts, like signpainting on narrow boats? What about native plants, here since the end of the last ice age? What about geology or topography? What about footpaths and walks? What about art, music and drama? None of these things are “history” or “archaeology”, yet they all can fit into both the study and understanding of the past – and perhaps more importantly, are significant parts of appreciating the past.

The term “heritage” has come to mean many things in different contexts, ranging from a vague reference to “olden days” to specific ideas about traditional culture and ways of living. I find the term useful because it covers a wide range of ways in which people find meaning in the past. The Center for Heritage and Society at the University of Massachusetts has an interesting (if slightly wordy) definition of heritage on their “What is Heritage?” page:

Heritage is the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture.  Most important, it is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from them.

Heritage includes, but is much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.  It is both tangible and intangible, in the sense that ideas and memories–of songs, recipes, language, dances, and many other elements of who we are and how we identify ourselves–are as important as historical buildings and archaeological sites.

Heritage is, or should be, the subject of active public reflection, debate, and discussion.  What is worth saving?  What can we, or should we, forget?  What memories can we enjoy, regret, or learn from?  Who owns “The Past” and who is entitled to speak for past generations?  Active public discussion about material and intangible heritage–of individuals, groups, communities, and nations–is a valuable facet of public life in our multicultural world.

Heritage is a contemporary activity with far-reaching effects.  It can be an element of far-sighted urban and regional planning.  It can be the platform for political recognition, a medium for intercultural dialogue, a means of ethical reflection, and the potential basis for local economic development.  It is simultaneously local and particular, global and shared.

Heritage is an essential part of the present we live in–and of the future we will build.

My definition, in this week’s comic, is a bit shorter –

If history is about what happened in the past, then heritage is what we have of the past in the present. Heritage is more than just “the past” – it’s about how the past makes us who we are.

– but it conveys the same idea. I’ve tried to find a good way to describe the scope of this year’s Oswestry Heritage Comics – history, archaeology, narrow boat signpainting, native plants, old tracks and footpaths, geology, traditional arts and crafts: all of these things contribute towards making us who we are, and all of these things are our heritage.

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Week One: 340 Million Years of Heritage

The first of the new, year-long Oswestry Heritage Comics is in this week’s Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer. I think it takes the prize for the longest time-interval I’ve ever covered in a single comic. This one does, indeed, cover 340 million years – from the Carboniferous period, when the limestone and coal around Oswestry were laid down – the present day, where we are surrounded by evidence of how that distant time impacted Oswestry’s archaeology, history and heritage. This part of the country has been shaped by its geology, and it’s that I wanted to try and capture in this comic. There’s more to this story, of course: the local geology affected the fertility of the soils, the patterns of water-drainage, even the shape and form of the hills which became the border between England and Wales. If you want to see more ways the geology affected Oswestry’s history, check out the Oswestry Town Museum, which has some interesting information on local geology and geography, and definitely pay a visit to the Hoffman Kiln and Llanymynech Rocks quarry in Llanymynech.

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