Posts Tagged ‘local heritage’

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.

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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:

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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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?

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 Heritage Comics - week 8. Click for larger image.

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 8. Click for larger image.

As Indiana Jones once memorably said: archeology is the search for facts, not truth. We quickly forget the everyday details of yesterday in favour of concentrating on what’s going on today. This is no less true for the 1960s or 1970s than it is for the distant, historical past. As, collectively, we forget the facts of our history, the past becomes a blank slate on which people write all kinds of “truths” – many of which are unsubstantiated.

Archaeological and historical research is all about recovering those lost facts, and through them, reconstructing those lost details of the past. This is why our local history archives and our local museums are so important – this is where information about the past ends up: census records, newspaper archives, court records, photographs as well as all the seemingly insignificant bits of stone, bone, ceramic and metal from local archaeological digs. Individually, each one of these things is a fact about the past. Through research, surveys, excavation we can gather more facts about the past – and build up a real picture of the events and circumstances that shaped our present.

Oswestry has had its fair share of people claiming to have found the truth behind local historical “mysteries” over the years. History is not full of “mysteries” – it is simply full of things that we have forgotten. If there are ever historical puzzles to solve, and mysteries to unravel, they usually serve to show us what facts are missing from our understanding of the past. Using archaeological science and good historical research, we can re-discover facts about the past and build up a better sense of what made our town, our county and our region the way it is today. Every new investigation of the past adds new facts to our understanding – and changes what we know. That’s why – for Oswestry as much as anywhere else – it’s so important to keep looking. So we must all make sure our local archives continue to be maintained, new archaeological and historical research is supported, and new people continue to become interested and involved in protecting and investigating local heritage.

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It’s the end of September, we’ve only a few weeks to go until Heritage Open Days, and the Oswestry Advertiser has now published half of the twelve-week run of Oswestry Heritage Comics – and so I thought it would be a good time to pause and reflect on some aspects of the project.

When I first proposed the idea of “a comic about Oswestry heritage”, my aim was to try and create something which would help introduce the subject to an audience which maybe didn’t know a great deal about it. What I perhaps hadn’t anticipated, however, was just how broad that subject was.

I’ve always been interested in the history and heritage of Oswestry and its outlying regions – after all, it’s on my doorstep – but I’d never really delved into it to any great degree. I knew, of course, that local history of any kind is fractal in nature – the more you investigate it, the more detail reveals itself to you, and the more you discover there is to learn. I originally assumed that I could accommodate this infinite level of detail by confining the comics to a brief overview of any given aspect of heritage. That, I feel, I’ve been able to do fairly successfully. Each of the comic strips has a very definite “theme” – military heritage, transport heritage, business heritage, etc. – which has provided me with ample material to fill each comic. What I had not anticipated, though, was the extent to which each of these “themes” would be connected.

I now understand much better that it’s the restricted nature of the overall subject – the history, archaeology and heritage of a small market town – that makes these connections so much more important. It simply isn’t possible to talk about the Cambrian Railway without mentioning its role in WWI, connections between transport and agriculture, the role of Oswestry’s markets, and Oswestry’s position and character as a settlement on the border between England and Wales. As such, even a brief visitation of a topic such as “Business and Heritage” becomes an act of picking a single thread from a very, very tangled web of historical and heritage interactions. At times, I’ve felt like the process of simplification – so much a part of writing a short, four-panel comic – has tipped over into “over-simplification”: there just isn’t enough time or space to explore all the connections between themes that give the individual historical facts and figures their real interest.

But, herein also lies the great strength of the comics medium – and of the use of a local newspaper as a means of publication. Each comic is not an independent informational entity – each comic is simply an element in a twelve-part informational entity. The fact that the comic has a regular weekly slot has made it possible – over the course of multiple episodes – to continually reference multiple elements of the “Oswestry story”. By re-visiting those elements, it has been possible to build up a sense of connection. The “whole” story emerges “interactively” out of all the shorter stories I have simplified for the individual strips.

However, given the multiplicity of topics, elements and themes, some have, inevitably, received greater focus than others. For example, there’s nothing specifically on the heritage of churches and chapels – although St. Oswald’s parish church does feature, as does the man himself and his well. There’s plenty more on transport that hasn’t had much of a mention – not just the Cambrian Railway, but all the early industrial horse and tramways in the area. And there’s a lot of industrial heritage that hasn’t been covered in any detail, either – although the Llanymynech limekilns do feature a bit. Something else that I haven’t been able to cover is the surprising number of re-enactment and “living history” groups which operate in and around Oswestry: the House of the Blackstar at Whittington Castle, and the World War I trenches at Park Hall farm, for example, make appearances in individual panels, but it would be great to cover them in a bit more depth.

So much heritage – so few panels! I think the title of the first strip, “Small Town – Big Heritage” says it all. What I think I’ve enjoyed most about this project is being able to make a start at getting at least some of the extraordinary depth and breadth of Oswestry’s history down in comic format. What would be nice now is to get the chance to continue. There’s so much history, archaeology, built and natural heritage in and around the town, it seems a shame not to try and do it justice.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 6

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 6. Click image for larger view.

Local heritage is never entirely local. The history and archaeology of even the smallest market town is inextricably part of a much bigger picture. We’re very used to thinking of “our” hillfort, “our” railway, “our” industrial archaeology – but “our” heritage is also the county’s heritage, the region’s heritage, the country’s heritage – the world’s heritage.

The iron age hillfort at Old Oswestry, for example, is important not just to the prehistory of northwest Shropshire – but to the prehistory of Wales, of Britain, and of Europe. The Hoffman kiln at Llanymynech, the Cambrian Railway, and the canals that run from Llangollen past Oswestry into the Midlands tell a crucial part of the global story of the industrial revolution. These connections link Oswestry to the rest of the country, to Europe and to the rest of the world.

And these past connections pay Oswestry a dividend in the present: heritage tourism continues to be an important part of Oswestry’s economy, contributing millions in revenue and investment. It’s the history and culture of this part of the country – it’s heritage – that makes it unique, and gives visitors a reason to come here. We might think of Old Oswestry hillfort as “just” a hillfort – but it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and that’s reason enough for 11.6 million visitors to consider putting it on their itineraries. And if you’re still looking for ways to make money out of heritage, there are other kinds of connections to exploit.

But more importantly, though, these connections continue to link Oswestry to the county, the region, the country – and the rest of the world.  “Our” heritage – unique and singular to Oswestry it may be – is also part of the rich and complex tapestry of global heritage. And through those heritage connections, we become part of that tapestry, too.

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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 5

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 5. Click for larger image.

Oswestry’s medical heritage goes hand-in-hand with its military heritage. The orthopaedic hospital in Gobowen began life as a small cottage hospital in Baschurch, but quickly grew as it treated soldiers returning from the First World War. Some of the pioneering surgical and post-operative care treatments devised at the hospital by Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt were adopted by the army, and are still used today. It is only one example of the way in which two aspects of local heritage can become intertwined. Health is woven in many aspects of Oswestry’s history and heritage. The new health centre opposite Morrisons was once the main works for the Cambrian Railway. It demonstrates how as the needs of the town change, so people and places adapt – leaving behind evidence that becomes part of our history and heritage. Although the need for a railway works in Oswestry has been and gone, the building itself survives to house a new enterprise. Sometimes the physical evidence of history vanishes, however. There is no trace of the mediaeval hospital on English Walls, for instance. Place names and mentions in accounts are really all the evidence we have. Perhaps the hospital’s foundation in Oswestry owed some of its origins to another place of healing in the town: Oswald’s well, said to have sprung up from where a Raven (or an Eagle) dropped Oswald’s severed arm following his death at the battle of Maserfield. The spring was once noted as a place of healing and pilgrimage, and one can still see the occasional visitor there, looking for the water. It’s a shame that the well isn’t better known around town – because this is what happens to these places: people forget what once made the important, and they “fall off the radar”. But local interest and enthusiasm go a long way to preserving and maintaining these overlooked places – places that show how layered, complex and connected local heritage really is.

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