Archive for the ‘Heritage’ Category

Heritage Open Days – Week Thirteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Every year, the whole of England gets a chance to celebrate our shared history, archaeology and heritage in this weekend-long festival. This year, dozens of venues all around Oswestry are holding special events for visitors. There’s tons to see and do – if you’re interested in history or archaeology, like museums or excavations, are curious about re-enactment or living history, then this weekend is for you! All around the region, from Whitchurch to Chirk, historic houses and heritage sites are throwing open their doors and doing something special – showing off what makes heritage important and interesting. Places like Park Hall, Whittington Castle and Chirk Castle are hosting re-enactment events, there are steam trains running at the Cambrian Railway, and special exhibitions at the Oswestry Town Museum. It’s a weekend full of things to do for the whole family.

And around Oswestry, there are some particularly exciting special and one-off events taking place this year: a chance to get behind the scenes of some of Oswestry’s most iconic and important heritage places.

You can:

And much, much more. The Oswestry Heritage Roadshow will also be up and running, on the Bailey all weekend, right next to a display all about the Oswestry Heritage Comics – so drop in and say hello! For a complete listing of all Heritage Open Day events taking place around Oswestry – and beyond! – check out their website.


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Oswestry Heritage Roadshow – Week Twelve of the Oswestry Heritage Comics.

We are all connected to our local heritage through our personal and family histories. All of us have some kind of connection to the events which have shaped our world. And we all have something in our possession which remind us of those connections: a photo, some letters, a recording, a badge, a crumpled concert ticket. It’s surprising, though, how many of us fail to realise how interesting those kinds of connections and that sort of history is.

Well, here’s a chance to share them! During the Heritage Open Days weekend (Sept. 9th and 10th), on the Bailey in Oswestry, we’re going to be launching the Oswestry Heritage Roadshow. This is your chance to tell us about the things in your family history that are important or interesting. Bring along an item – a photo, some letters, a medal; something, anything – and tell us the story behind it. Tell us how this small object fits into local, county, national or even international history. We’ll have audio recorders there if you want to put your story down on tape – or you can just write it on one of our forms. We’ll be collecting together these stories over the next nine months, and we’d like to exhibit some of them at Qube at some point.

And I’ll be looking out for a couple of those stories to turn into Oswestry Heritage Comics – which will appear in the Advertizer!

So, stop by the Roadshow stall at the Bailey during Heritage Open Days weekend – or look out for us later in the year. There will be more information about the Roadshow, including special events and exhibitions, posted regularly on the Oswestry Heritage Comics Facebook page. If you can’t come to the Roadshow itself, but would still like to tell your heritage story, just fill in the form below:

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The Great Escape! – Week Ten of the Oswestry Heritage Comics.

Before the Napoleonic Wars, military prisoners – particularly officers – were held only temporarily, and often ransomed for significant amounts of money and allowed to return back home, where they would often re-enter their old regiments. But this changed during the wars against Napoleon. Between 1803 and 1815, over 100,000 French prisoners of war were held in Britain. And, as historian Gavin Daley points out, they were held not temporarily, but for the entire remaining duration of the war. This was a significant change in the way military prisoners were treated, and was a direct result of anxieties in Europe’s constitutional monarchies (Britain included) about the nature of their revolutionary, imperial enemy. This change in approach to military imprisonment meant a change in the nature of military incarceration. Prison hulks – decommissioned ships used as floating gaols – were first used for similarly revolutionary prisoners during the American War of Independence.

Parliament authorised their use during the Napoleonic Wars “for the more severe and effectual punishment of atrocious and daring offenders”. Conditions inside the hulks were appalling, and the prospect of imprisonment in them much feared by the French. Before the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was said to have raised the spectre of these prison ships before his troops, saying: “Soldiers, let those among you who have been prisoners of the English describe to you the hulks, and detail the most frightful miseries which they endured!” But, as the historian Carolyn Hughes has observed, both the French and the British imposed military imprisonment for the duration of the war. In doing so, the policy created – on both sides of the English Channel – what Hughes describes as “a new kind of prisoner of war—the prisoner of war as renegade captive, desperate to be free.”

All this sets the scene for this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comic. It tells the story of General Armand Philippon, former Napoleonic governor of Badajoz, in Spain – captured by British troops after the city fell in April, 1812 (an event written about by both historians and novelists). Philippon was sent first to Lisbon, and then paroled with other French officers to Oswestry – far away from the battlefields of Europe. Most officers sent to Britain honoured their parole, and remained prisoners until the final defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815. But Philippon had other ideas. Philippon had risen through the ranks, from private in 1778 when he first joined up – to Major General (General de Division), Baron and Governor of Badajoz by 1811. He was a professional soldier, and a professional Napoleonist: he would not be content to sit out the remainder of the war in remote, sleepy little Oswestry!

And so, in July of 1812, he and a fellow officer (named Garnier – possibly a Colonel), bribed a local miller (quite probably part of a smuggling ring) and made their way to the Channel and crossed on a blockade runner back to France. Philippon rejoined Napoleon’s Grand Armee in August. A year later he was commanding troops in Germany, fighting with distinction at the Battle of Kulm. He was eventually captured again at Dresden, and imprisoned (successfully, this time) for the remainder of the war. He was made a Knight of Saint Louis, and honoured as a hero of the French nation – his name inscribed on the western pillar of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

While it’s strange enough to imagine Oswestry filled with Napoleonic prisoners of war, it’s possibly even stranger to imagine one of them successfully escaping back to France. If, on a summer’s afternoon in 1812, you or I were walking through the Bailey market, we might one have seen a dark-haired frenchman with the noticeable scar over his left eyebrow, sitting by himself outside one of the pubs, lost in his own thoughts. Would we have guessed that this distinguished French officer wasn’t just idly daydreaming, but was, in fact, secretly plotting his return to Napoleon’s army? War has a habit of connecting home and hearth with far-off places, and making episodes of world history part of local heritage. And it’s through the war stories of individuals – like Armand Philippon – that the stories of places like Badajoz, Paris, Dresden and Oswestry are all linked together.

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Prees Heath Common – Week Nine of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Over the past month, I have been fortunate enough to get to know the site of Prees Heath Common, just on the outskirts of Whitchurch. It’s a piece of common land whose history and archaeology goes back through its use as a World War II airfield, a World War I internment camp, a Civil War and mediaeval muster ground, all the way back to the Bronze Age. It’s also now a butterfly reserve, and provides some of the last remaining habitat for the Silver Studded Blue butterfly in Shropshire. But, even more importantly, it’s valued by the commoners and the local community as an important part of their local heritage.

But lots of people don’t know the story of Prees Heath Common – a lot of people outside of Whitchurch have never heard of the place. So I was asked to come along and demonstrate in a workshop how comics could be used to help raise awareness of the archaeology, history and ecology of the common. So I came along to see the archaeological test-pits being dug on a new portion of the site by the Prees Heath volunteers, and then a week or so later, ran the workshop.

What was really interesting about the workshop was that, yes, people wanted to talk about the archaeology, history and ecology of the site – but they also wanted to talk about things that weren’t part of the “official” narrative of the site: the social history of the common, the archaeology and the butterfly reserve, as told through individual recollections and biographies. I had not anticipated these oral histories to be quite so rich, quite so detailed, nor quite so diverse.

I did also not anticipate these histories to be quite so “alternative” to the official, mainstream narrative of the common, the reserve or the archaeology. It seemed as if there was a slightly different local perspective on almost every important or significant element of the common’s story – not contradictory, but complementary; not conflicting, but certainly competing. These oral histories definitely brought an extra layer to the site’s narrative, making it more detailed, richer, more diverse – and, as far as the Prees Heath volunteers were concerned – more meaningful.

The volunteers are now using the experience of the workshop to design their own comics about the common – comics which tell the story of their interactions with the land and those who have used and occupied it over the years; comics which tell the story of families, individuals and communities who have called the common “home” for over sixty years; comics which link their present with the archaeology, history and ecology of the site and make them part and parcel of their community heritage. We’ll also be using comics to raise awareness of the site in a more general sense, and these comics will be featured during this year’s Shropshire Wildlife Trust/Meres & Mosses Merefest celebrations this September.

It would be nice to see this model of comics-focused community engagement repeated with other groups during the course of the Oswestry Heritage Comics project – I’ve already done similar workshops with the Corwen and Dee Valley Archaeology Group (CADVAS). I feel like these workshops open the door to a what could be really interesting ways of connecting different kinds of place-based heritage narratives.

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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 Five: Oswestry and the Roman Army

Oswestry’s spectacular Roman marching camp is yet another piece of local heritage we don’t celebrate enough. The excavations in 1977 unearthed the remains of a spectacularly well-preserved Roman military site, with evidence that the camp was used and reused throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. Features such as the ovens built into the early phases of one ditch, and the large wooden gateway – one side of which was blocked off – make the Rhyn Park marching camp both notable and worth making something of. There is some material from the excavation in the Oswestry Town Museum, and the excavation report is available online – but the original excitement of those 1977 excavations has long passed, and Rhyn Park’s archaeological past seems in danger of being forgotten.

There’s no pressing need to do more excavation at the site, so more archaeology perhaps isn’t the answer. But what about more heritage? What about a timber gateway (rather like the one at The Lunt Roman Fort) down at Park Hall? A Rhyn Park reconstruction there would make the connection between Oswestry’s ancient military heritage and its historical military heritage. It could become the focus for a whole range of educational and economic opportunities that would connect Oswestry with the rest of Roman Britain, tapping into the visitors that at the moment bypass Oswestry in favour of Wroxeter or Chester. A Rhyn Park replica could even become the home of a re-enactment Legio Oswestria!

Roman Britain is an important part of our history and archaeology, and it’s a shame that Oswestry doesn’t benefit more from its links with this period. There are few market towns in the country with such a wealth and diversity of heritage monuments and science; it’s one of the things that makes Oswestry unique. Their contribution to the educational, economic and cultural life of the town could be immense – but it’s local interest and enthusiasm that is the catalyst.

What would it take to bring Rhyn Park back into the limelight?

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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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