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The Walls of Willow Street – Week 32 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Like most mediaeval towns across Britain, Oswestry was protected by its town walls. Few reminders of these walls survive – and the most obvious is one which hides in plain sight.

Oswestry historian John Pryce-Jones, in his excellent book Street-Names of Oswestry, relates how the word “willow” in the name of Willow Street is actually an anglicisation of the Welsh word walia (or, with the soft mutation, gwalia) meaning “wall”. The word itself being a reference to the fact that the road once led up to the gate that originally stood around the junction with Castle Street. Pryce-Jones makes the linguistic connection with “Wyle Cop” in Shrewsbury, the name of which might also refer to the town’s walls.

But there are other possibilities. “Willow” (and, indeed “Wyle”) might be derived from the Welsh word hwylfa, which means “a road leading up a hillside” – a term which could describe Willow Street quite well, particularly as it climbs away from Oswestry up towards the racecourse. The word might also derive from the Welsh word gwylio, meaning “to watch” – referring to the watchmen, or the half-tower that might have once stood flanking the gate (the poet John Ceiriog Hughes favoured this interpretation, incidentally). Pryce-Jones notes too that the process of anglicisation resulted briefly – around the early 1600s – in the name of the district around the street being referred to as “Wool” rather than “Willow”. Pryce-Jones himself, applying a sort of linguistic and antiquarian Occam’s Razor, favours the walia/gwalia interpretation, which I have followed in the comic.

“Willow”, as an English synophone to walia/gwalia, appears fairly early on. Pryce-Jones lists some of the English references to the street from as far back as 1337:

  • Wyliastret (1337)
  • Stryd Wylyw (1530s)
  • Williho Gate (1560)
  • Walliowe Street (1631)

Speak these names out loud and I think you can hear why he favours the walia/gwalia interpretation over gwylio or hwylfa. By as early as 1706, the name finally settles as “Willow Street” – the name we know it as today.

Oswestry’s town walls were finally pulled down following the Civil War – sometime after 1652 or so; certainly before 1660. Short lengths of wall around the gates were left standing; Derrick Pratt suggests interestingly that this was to facilitate the control of trade through tolls and tarriffs (a theme locally that goes back as far as the construction of Offa’s Dyke). However, these surviving portions of wall were also in bad repair, and between 1772 and 1782 these last remnants were torn down. Around Black Gate (near Sainsbury’s) this allowed Salop Road to be widened to allow the passage of carriages and stagecoaches into town from the new toll road (now the A5).

There is a plaque which commemorate the old gates of Oswestry up at the end of Willow Street – and you can follow the line of the old walls around town if you know where to look; there are patterns in new brick by Hermon Chapel, a map which shows the line of the walls at the entrance to the Castle, and a memorial down opposite Booka to the old gate which once stood there. Oswestry’s town walls are gone – but if you know where to look, they are not forgotten.

Oh, and the pun about the financial district I made on Facebook? Oswestry’s “Wall Street”, of course!

John Pryce-Jones “Street-Names of Oswestry” is available (reference only) in the Oswestry Library’s local history collection. If you’re interested in local history, these are great resources. Ask the members of the Oswestry Local & Family History group for help finding this and other books by the same author.

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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In Praise of Oswestry! Week 27 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Some people, it seems, just can’t say enough good things about Oswestry! During the 1400’s, someone with a particularly long list of good things to say about Oswestry was the Welsh poet, raconteur, drover and soldier, Gruffudd ap Siancyn – known by his pen name “Guto’r Glyn” – “Guto” being short for Gruffudd, and “-r’ Glyn” meaning from Glyn. The “Glyn” in his name might mean either Glyn Ceiriog, in the Ceiriog valley, or Glyndyfrdwy between Corwen and Llangollen. It might also refer to Valle Crucis Abbey.

Unusually, we have a very good physical description of Guto via the mocking of other poets: he was big, strong, with a black beard, a nose “like a billhook”, and balding – “tonsured almost like a monk”. One poet even said Guto alarmingly resembled a big bear. He was known as a joker and wrote humorous and satirical verse, often gently mocking local figures. However, he was best known as a master of “Praise Poetry” – a form of poetry common in the 1400s which was addressed to a noble patron. These were not simply fawningly sycophantic verses – these were nuanced and sophisticated works. Praise Poems adhered to complex rules that governed both content and structure, and served an important social and political function. Guto’s clients included gentry – both men and women, as well as abbots and bishops, local government and military officials between Llangollen and Shrewsbury. Sometimes these poems were clearly part of an ongoing conversation between Guto, the client, and other poets. But Guto’s prowess with words gained him nationally-important clients, too: John Talbot, second Earl of Shrewsbury and even King Edward IV.

But Guto was no Chatterton – no starving aesthete shivering in a garret. Although he was clearly well-educated (possibly at either the abbey of Strata Florida or Valle Crucis) he was not a member of the nobility or the gentry. His father might have been a smith – and, indeed, he may have followed him into that profession as a young man. He worked as a drover, kept flocks of sheep, travelled widely, and was renowned as a horse rider, a sportsman (particularly known for weight-lifting), and an archer. He had a career as a soldier – fighting in France in the Hundred Years War, and then later for the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses. He was a complex man, too – a Welsh poet working in England; a Yorkist who fought for Richard III and yet praised his killing on the battlefield; a writer of feisty, satirical verse who also penned haunted elegies in his final years.

Poet, archer, weight-lifter, soldier – and Oswestrian! Guto lived for many years in the town, ran several businesses there (as did his wife, Dyddgu), knew many of the top people in town, worked for them – and was one, too: a Burgess. When he wrote his poem “In Praise of Oswestry” in about 1460, Guto was an old man (probably in his sixties), and he freely admitted to giving up the wandering and carousing of his youth in favour of the comforts and security of town living. His description of the town’s delights, fame and wealth is no exaggeration: at that time, Oswestry – an important and significant border town – could indeed be favourably compared to London. His poem also shows a genuine and deeply-rooted affection for the town (and, despite old age, an eye for the ladies!).

Guto’r Glyn ended a long, eventful life as a kind of “poet-in-residence” at Valle Crucis Abbey, thanks to one of his patrons. Here, his last poems look back on life’s experiences from the vantage point of old age:

Woe to the weak man, two lifetimes old, who doesn’t look, – who doesn’t laugh,

Who doesn’t walk further than the furrow’s width…

Could we call this couplet “In Praise of Curiosity?”

Guto’s life, world and poetry is all worth discovering – and fortunately, that’s easy to do: the University of Wales and the Arts and Humanities Council have recently completed – under the directorship of Pr. Ann Parry Owen – a complete online database of Guto’s works, including an excellent biography and fully-annotated texts and English and modern Welsh translations. Thanks to Pr. Owen’s project, the work of Guto’r Glyn – “one of the foremost poets of fifteenth-century Wales” – will be able to reach the larger audience it deserves.


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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