Sunday, 5 July 2015

Old Oswestry Hill Fort Under Threat

Oswestry is a place of ancient origin and one of Britain's oldest border settlements in Shropshire, England. From an early period the area around Oswestry has been the battleground of fierce border feuds between England and Wales.

The Battle of Maserfield is thought to have been fought near there in 642 (or 641) between the Anglo-Saxon kings Penda of Mercia and Oswald of Northumbria, although the site of the battlefield is still disputed by historians. The Northumbrians were soundly beaten by a combined Mercian-Welsh force with Oswald killed and dismembered; according to legend, one of his forearms was carried to an ash tree by a raven, and miracles were subsequently attributed to the tree, from which the name of the town developed (Oswald's Tree) and Oswald was considered a saint. A spring with healing properties, Oswald's Well, is said to have rose where the bird dropped the arm from the tree.

Border feuds continued through the ages. In the early 13th century King John launched his campaign from Oswestry to meet Llywelyn ap lorwerth in battle. Some four years later in 1215 King John burnt Oswestry to the ground in retaliation for John Fitzalan's betrayal. Twenty years later Llewellyn attacked Oswestry and razed it to the ground. In 1277 Edward I started the construction of the town walls in his capaigns against the Welsh. The town became a key location in the uprising of Owain Glyndwr when in 1400 his followers burnt Oswestry to the ground. Three years later Glyndwr used Oswestry as his base prior to the battle of Shrewsbury.

Oswestry has also been known as, or recorded in historical documents as: Album Monasterium; Blancminster; Blankmouster; Blancmustier; Croes Oswald; Oswaldestre; Meresberie. In The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales Gerald of Wales writes of the journey from "Chester to the White Monastery (Album Monasterium), and from thence towards Oswaldestre".

The location of Gerald's Album Monasterium, is uncertain as three churches in the county of Shropshire bore that appellation; the first at Whitchurch, the second at Oswestry, the third at Alberbury. The White Monastery was apparently on the southside of the town, near some ground near the called Monk's Acre. The ancient name of the church was Blanc-minster; it seems likely that the White monastery adjoined the White Church.

Yr Hên Ddinas
Oswestry's story begins with the 3,000-year-old settlement of Old Oswestry, Yr Hên Ddinas, (The Old Fort), one of the most spectacular and best preserved Iron Age hill forts in Britain, with evidence of construction and occupation between 800 BC and 43 AD. The Iron Age hillforts is the finest example from a string of running through eastern Wales and the Marches, its highly impressive defences of formidable multiple ramparts enclosing a site of over 40 acres.

Countryside surrounding Old Oswestry hill fort is not protected from development. 
Photograph: Jonathan CK Webb
The site covers 44 acres of which the defences occupy some 28 acres and 16 acres by the interior. The vast ramparts consist mainly of four ditch and bank systems, average in height 4.5 to 5.5m externally and 1.0 to 1.5m internally, providing the perimeter defences, increasing to seven ramparts along its western side, enclosing a rough pentagonal shaped area that may have contained a small settlement. The site has two entrances; one on the western side and one on the eastern side. The western entrance consists of a series of deep rectangular hollows on either side, a feature not found at any other hillfort in Britain. The complex ramparts may have been necessary as Old Oswestry sits on an unusually low hill for a typical Iron Age hillfort, yet there are stunning views from the ancient earthwork.

Situated 1 mile north of Oswestry, approached from an unclassified road off the A483, the hillfort is located between the Roman legionary fortresses of Viroconium (Wroxter) and Deva (Chester), it is likely that the hillfort remained in use at least until the Roman conquest, however, there is no evidence that the Romans ever attacked the site, perhaps an indication of peace with the local Celtic tribe, the Cornovii? Some hillforts were re-occupied after the Romans left Britain; indeed nearby Wroxeter seems to have undergone some re-fortifications in the Post-Roman period, yet it is not known whether the Old Oswestry hillfort was occupied again.

Although the Welsh name for Old Oswestry Hillfort, Yr Hên Ddinas, 'The Old Fort,' there is an alternative legendary name of Caer Ogyrfan, 'the City of Gogyrfan.' According to the Triads of the Island of Britain, Gogyrfan the Giant was the father of Gwenhwyfar, King Arthur's Queen.

In the 8th or 9th centuries AD the hillfort became sandwiched between two major Dark Age boundaries when it was incorporated into the enigmatic earthwork of Wat's Dyke with Offa's Dyke running parallel to the west. Wat's Dyke is said to be an early Mercian frontier earthwork extending for a distance of 38 miles from the estuary of the Dee at Basingwerk, Flintshire, to the Morda Brook at Maesbury Mill, Shropshire, with two sections adjacent to the Old Oswestry Hillfort.

New Threat to Old Hill Fort 
After surviving 3,000 years of turbulent history a new threat has appeared in the countryside surrounding Old Oswestry hill fort with Shropshire council intent on pushing through a housing development abutting the fringe of the hill fort, a scheduled ancient monument in the care of Historic England, citing government targets for new builds. Land immediately surrounding the 13-acre hill fort has no statutory protection. Threats to the rural settings of historic buildings and sites have multiplied as local authorities struggle to meet housing targets set by the government.

A spokesperson for Shropshire council told the Observer: “The sensitivity of the Old Oswestry Hill Fort and its setting have been recognised by Shropshire council throughout its local plan-making process, which started in 2010. However, Shropshire council does not accept that proposed development would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hill fort. National planning guidance therefore requires that any impact must therefore be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal.” The council stated that it is obliged to provide 27,500 new homes within the county between 2006 and 2026.

Despite opposition from English Heritage, Protect Rural England, Oswestry Civic Society, OPHAG (the local Oswestry Archaeological and Historic Group), local residents during public consultation and an online petition that has drawn more than 8,000 signatures objecting to the plans, Shropshire Council is forging ahead under strategic county planning Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev) Plan with proposals for significant housing development within the
curtilage of this globally important Iron Age monument.

The main concern is the close proximity of the housing sites OSW002, OSW003 and OSW004 in the plan and the impact the development will have on the Hillfort and its setting. After tinkering with the figures since 2012, the revised numbers of dwellings for these sites are: OSW002 – land off Gobowen Road reduced from 80 to 36; OSW003 – Oldport Farm, Gobowen Road increased from 25 to 35; OSW004 (part) – land off Whittington Road reduced from 125 to 117 dwellings. Or, in other words, regardless of objections, Shropshire Council is steamrolling ahead with plans for the
development that will stretch up to the very edge of the Hillfort, destroying the view of the top and all around.

Senior archaeologists, such as Professor Barry Cunliffe of the University of Oxford, are concerned with these “ethically unacceptable” plans that they say will destroy one of the nation’s greatest Iron Age treasures. The archaeologists aim to highlight what they see as the grave threat to heritage sites across Britain posed by the liberalisation of planning guidelines and controls to encourage economic growth. It is suspected the government is using the battle over Old Oswestry Hill Fort as a “stalking horse” to test the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced in 2012 to speed up development schemes such as housing, roads and high-speed rail lines.

However,  campaigners argue that the decision to approve the housing scheme in the face of overwhelming opposition by Oswestry residents directly contradicts the spirit of the 2011 Localism Act. The act is intended to strengthen and enhance local, grassroots decision-making on matters such as planning.

Professor Cunliffe said, “The setting of the hill fort is the issue here. The objectors to the development have a very, very strong case. It [The proposed scheme] ruins the setting.”

Old Oswestry Hillfort was designated as a Scheduled Monument (number 27556) in 1997 and is now in the guardianship of Historic England (formerly English Heritage). A spokesman for Historic England said: “Old Oswestry Hill Fort is a very important site of national significance. Since 2007 Historic England, previously English Heritage, has consistently expressed its concern over proposed development sites near the hill fort and we have worked with the landowners and Shropshire council to find ways to reduce potential impact, including upon its setting.

Saffron Rainey, chairman of the Civic Society, said the group believed it was a ‘grave mistake’ to include the area in the SAMDev report. Rainey said, “the hillfort was part of Oswestry’s heritage and a valuable ancient monument comparable to Maiden Castle."

He added, “If you look at Maiden Castle in Dorset you wouldn't dream of building within half a mile of it.

Hill fort said to be where King Arthur’s Guinevere was born has lasted 3,000 years: now it’s under siege - The Guardian 27 June 2015

* * *


  1. Dont build near it. To replace feesh air heriage with more house boxes and roads in a country saturated with sensible reasons to destroyheritage and the spirit of place. My family has lived in the region for hundreds of years and after a visit to Oswestry in June 2017 I can only be dismayed by the level of crass developement that destroys localised identity, ambience and reduces people to units, homes into boxes and Spirit into ghosts.Larry Wildblood

    1. A new threat to the setting of Oswestry Hill Fort?

      The Heritage Journal reports a potential new threat to Old Oswestry Hill Fort with arable land known as Llwyn Fields, Off Llwyn Road, placed on the market for sale.

      Estate Agents, Roger Parry & Partners state the "land offers itself for a variety of uses to include agricultural, amenity, equestrian and the potential for future residential development (subject to gaining planning permission)."

      Llwyn Fields occupies land immediately opposite the main western entrance to the hill fort and if given planning permission for a residential development would see housing literally on the edge of the first ramparts and bordering the line of Wat's Dyke.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.