Oswestry’s Memorial Hall was packed out on Saturday (Feb 22) as heritage experts from around the country came to talk about the archaeology and significance of the town’s Iron Age hillfort.
Hailed a huge success, the free seminar entitled ‘In Defence of Old Oswestry’ was organised by campaign group HOOOH (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) which is fighting to stop housing development close to the 3000 year old monument.
Almost 100 people attended the event including Professor Stewart Ainsworth, the landscape archaeologist with Channel Four’s Time Team. Describing Old Oswestry as ‘spectacular’, he said that the zones around the hillfort are just as important as the hill, and were areas in prehistory that had meaning for religion and history. In line with over 8,000 people who have signed a petition against housing proposals close to the hillfort, Mr Ainsworth said that the surrounding fields should be protected from development.
At a meeting of Shropshire Council cabinet last week (Feb 19) campaigners learnt that two out of three proposed housing sites by the ancient monument had been dropped from SAMDev, the County’s development plan to 2026. But it is still under threat from a remaining site off Whittington Road (OSW004) earmarked for 117 homes.
Campaigners from HOOOH will attend a meeting of Oswestry Town Council today (February 25) asking for a review of its decision on site OSW004. Councillors narrowly voted to support housing development there based on guidance from English Heritage which has since strengthened its opposition to housing in that area.
‘Significance of setting’
Historic landscape expert Tim Malim reviewed the development of legislation and international and national policy for the protection of heritage and its setting, described as the surrounding area beyond the physical remains of a monument. He explained that the definition and protection of setting was introduced to UK planning guidance only as recently as 2010, and that the new NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) puts emphasis on the local authority to safeguard significant heritage assets such as scheduled monuments in local plan making.
Mr Malim pointed to the huge significance of Old Oswestry’s setting which was linked via sightlines to hillforts like the tribal capital at The Wrekin, and via strategic land routes to historic trading centres many miles away. It was also strategically reused by Mercia as part of Wat’s Dyke, a ninth century boundary with Wales. Much later, it was used as a World War training camp with practice trenches where Wildfred Owen, Oswestry’s celebrated war poet, was said to have led rifle training.
‘Old Oswestry Hillfort in context’
Hillfort specialist Dr Rachel Pope, Director of Fieldwork and a Senior Lecturer in European Prehistory at the University of Liverpool, traced the evolution of British hillforts from Late Bronze Age through their heyday in the Iron Age. “Old Oswestry is the hillfort we turn to for an understanding of this period of the past,” she revealed.
While other hillforts were abandoned from around 400 BC, Old Oswestry was held onto and developed as a symbol of the time. Further ramparts were added to create the distinctive multivallate form that survives today, among the best preserved of its kind in the UK. Dr Pope also suggested that the site has exciting potential to yield evidence about direct interactions with Rome.
She explained that it is not just the earthworks that tell the story of how our ancestors lived, but also the surrounding landscape. Her view was that any development of Old Oswestry’s setting would restrict the potential to add to the evidence of our past from what is acknowledged as a nationally important heritage site.
‘The Pegasus Stone and its landscape context’
Prehistory rock art specialist, Dr George Nash, sketched out the likely origins of the Pegasus Stone found in a hedge close to the hillfort’s western entrance. Thought to date back to the Middle to Late Iron Age (c. 500 BC),its bears the bas-relief image of a horse, a potent symbol of prehistoric rock art across Europe as far back as 15,000 BC.
Dr Nash revealed that it was unlike any other prehistoric rock found in Britain and was of such significance that it should provide the catalyst to a much wider piece of research. The find also underlines the extremely busy and largely unexplored archaeology that is likely to be lying under the fields around Old Oswestry, especially on land to the east and south-east of Old Port Farm.
Weighing a hefty 100kg, the Pegasus Stone has been registered on the Historic Events Record (HER) and is currently on display in Oswestry Town Museum.
‘Landscape Visual Impact & Assessment of Old Oswestry’
Dr Ben Edwards, a lecturer in archaeology and heritage at Manchester Metropolitan University, ran through the findings of a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) recently completed for HOOOH. He explained how he used advanced spatial analysis software to model the impact of proposed housing on the hillfort’s landscape setting and the visual experience from and to the monument.
“It can prove quantitatively how important landscape setting is in a way that planning authorities cannot ignore,” he said.
The report finds that the magnitude of change to the landscape and level of enclosure from the buildings would be ‘major’, as would be the impact on views for users walking the south-east facing ramparts. He added that he had seen planning applications for wind turbines turned down based on ‘moderate’ or even ‘minor’ impact results from an LVIA.
‘Working together to protect the past for the future’
Joanna Caruth of heritage protection group, RESCUE (The British Archaeological Trust), gave an inspiring talk on current threats to our heritage and its work in lobbying against them. She drew attention to the dangers facing our historic landscape and ancient monuments from the prioritisation of development as the way forward for economic growth, with our heritage assets at risk of being viewed as ‘getting in the way’.
She highlighted the disastrous legacy of planning choices made in the Norfolk town of Thetford in the 60s where Scheduled Ancient Monuments had been sidelined and smothered by housing and urban development. She also pointed to success stories such as Wincobank hillfort in Sheffield where housing plans had been defeated, and congratulated HOOOH on its campaign so far.
The five guest speakers outlined the significance of Old Oswestry’s landscape with no stone left unturned. Many in the room voiced their support for the round of protests against the gravely damaging housing proposals that still threaten this most admired and iconic of hillforts.