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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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Oswestry Heritage Comics - week 3

Oswestry Heritage Comics – week 3. Click on image for larger view.

Oswestry’s position on the border between England and Wales has always been an important factor in its history. For a thousand years, the border has shifted around the town – sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. Oswestry has been both in Wales and in England – and is sometimes referred to as “the Welsh town in England“. Oswestry’s town walls, Oswestry’s Norman castle, Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke – even Old Oswestry hillfort – are all evidence of the uncertainty that living along a border can bring. But there are advantages too. Living in the middle of anything can bring opportunities as well as uncertainties – and Oswestry the town in large part owes its origins to the markets which it hosted and fostered; markets which took full advantage of its position between upland communities in Wales and lowland communities in England. These markets drove Oswestry’s peacetime prosperity and secured its reputation as a place “between” England and Wales.

We can still see evidence of that today. We have Powis Hall Market and the Bailey market, of course – itself located in the area protected by the extended wooden wall that surrounded the original Norman castle. The livestock markets, too, are reminders that Oswestry has always functioned as a meeting place for upland and lowland communities. But Oswestry’s new markets and festivals continue to do a similar job: the Literary Festival, Oswestry’s festival of Food and Drink, the Continental markets, the late-night shopping and street markets at Christmas, the Borderlands Visual Art Open Studios festival, plus Apple Day, the Heritage Market, the Antiques Market and many, many more occasional and one-off market events. These modern festivals and markets bring different peoples together, and demonstrate how Oswestry’s heritage as a place “between” continues to drive the town’s economic life.

In trying to decide which themes to focus my comics on, Oswestry’s identity as a borderlands town – and ideas of “boundaries” and “crossing boundaries” – was an obvious topic to include. This is a major aspect of Oswestry’s heritage and history, and – as evidenced by our markets and festivals – continues to shape the town’s identity even today.

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Poster I did for tomorrow's hillfort hug event. Be there: 1pm to show Old Oswestry you care!

Poster I did for tomorrow’s hillfort hug event. Be there: 1pm to show Old Oswestry you care!

Old Oswestry iron age hillfort is still under threat from developers, and so tomorrow there’s an event at the hillfort to show how much the site means locally – and nationally. It’s “Hug The Hillfort” day at Old Oswestry from 1pm, and it’s being coordinated with a national “Hug Your Heritage” event across the country. There will be tons of pictures on Twitter tomorrow of Old Oswestry and all sorts of threatened and neglected heritage sites across the country being shown the love they deserve.

If you’re around the Welsh marches tomorrow, stop off at the hillfort and give it a hug to show you care about what happens to it!

⇒ Find the event on Facebook and Twitter.

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"Light and Dark" - The album?

“Light and Dark” – The album?

I’ve had great fun doing a quick poster for the upcoming music/poetry/film/art night at Hermon Chapel in Oswestry. It’s a multi-media happening in one of Oswestry’s coolest renovated historic buildings. It should be a really fun night – partly because the Chapel will look fantastic with all this stuff in it, and partly because although everyone’s putting a lot of effort into it, no one’s taking it too seriously! It’ll just be a great opportunity to immerse yourself in a bit of an arty thing, have some drinks, listen to some music, etc – including a special performance by “Two Dogs”, part of legendary band “Pram”. Really looking forward to it all.

I was asked to do the poster for it, and it was suggested that I look to ’80 New Wave electronic band album covers for inspiration. So I did. Here’s the artwork (sans the actual gig information); I’m sure I’ve got that in amongst my old LPs somewhere…

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I’m exhibiting a series of five prints at Rowanthorn in Oswestry. I’ve chosen as my subject matter the Buddhist idea of “Impermanence” – Anitya, in Sanscrit. The five prints are linked thematically as well as pysically. Each print illustrates one of the five aspects of Impermanence, and will be exhibited exclusively in Rowanthorn, one every month between August and December. There is a page on the Inside Out website with more about the prints.

The first print in the series – and the first one on exhibition – is “Form (Rupa)”. This is from the exhibition notes:

Form (Rupa)

In Buddhist thought, rūpa signifies not only material form, but also the sensing of material form. Echoing a photograph by Thomas L. Kelly, the subject of this print is a ḍākinī dancer from the Derge (Dêgê) district of eastern Tibet (now part of Sichuan Province) performing during the Chongra summer festival. These dancers represent the energy of passion; the ḍākinī is often a volatile embodiment of attainment.

“Such passion is immensely powerful; it radiates warmth in all directions. It simultaneously nurtures the welfare of beings and blazes through the neurotic tendencies of ego.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

[Journey Without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha]

The dancer has form, and that form – moving, swaying, full of colour, robes rustling, feet slapping the ground – is sensed. The physical movement of the dancer, the flow of the dancer’s costume and the concentration on the dancer’s face all echo this twin idea of form and the sensing of form. The dancer is isolated, on a tightrope, in front of an anonymous wall, cut off from the world outside. The western fictional mask asks us to examine our attitudes towards culture and mythology, and the links that media – whether film or documentary photography – create between the two. This carefully curated dancer, masked and anonymous, in limbo between two cultural axes, is preserved in isolation, forbidden to change.

But change is inevitable; impermanence a critical characteristic of life. The dancer in isolation recalls the many constituent elements of rūpa, such as the no- upādā elements of solidity, cohesion and movement; and the upādā of vitality, intention and space. But the clouds – the symbol I have chosen to represent anitya, impermanence – are still visible through the tiny window. In Tibetan Tantrism, part of these summer dances in which these ḍākinī dancers perform serve to remind the gathered crowds of the fleeting nature of things, that for dance full of strength, vitality and life to have meaning it must recall the inevitable change that besets all form.

The dancer cannot stay balanced indefinitely; no dance can last forever.

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