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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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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.

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