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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.


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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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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