It has long been called the Maiden Castle of the North and hailed more recently as the Stonehenge of the Iron Age. Now a sharp hike in visitor numbers to Oswestry’s Iron Age hillfort confirms its impressive heritage stature and tourist appeal.
New figures from English Heritage, guardians of the 3,000-year-old monument, suggest that footfall has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years.
Following the installation of a counter system this summer, initial projections put annual visitors to Old Oswestry in the region of 33,000. This reveals a significant increase on the estimated 7,500 per year accessing the site ten years ago prior to landscape improvements by the former Oswestry Borough Council and English Heritage.
The figures also compare very favourably to popular, more conventional castle attractions on the Welsh/English borderlands, including Flint Castle, Skenfrith Castle and Montgomery Castle.
Helen Allen of English Heritage said: “We are delighted that, as a result of our partnership with the volunteers at Oswestry Heritage Gateway, even more people are being encouraged to visit Old Oswestry, one of the best-preserved hillforts in Britain. This is a great example of how teamwork can benefit our heritage sites.”
Maggie Rowlands, from Chirk Bank, project managed the approximate £100,000 access enhancements completed in 2008 and remains active in the hillfort’s conservation. She said: “When we put in new paths, signage and a pavement along the lane we immediately saw visitors coming out to enjoy what had previously been a neglected and overgrown corner of Oswestry.
“Both Oswestry Town Council and the old Oswestry Borough Council were project partners and hoped that it would add to the tourism opportunities in Oswestry and therefore support small businesses in the town.
“I am certain that our European Funders would be overjoyed to see how visitor numbers have nearly quadrupled in 10 years and I am proud to have been involved with such a successful project and such a majestic site.”
The Oswestry Heritage Gateway, a group dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the hillfort as the hub of Oswestry’s historic northern fringes, is also encouraged by the numbers.
“The visitor interest is really no surprise,” said group member and heritage specialist, Tim Malim. “Old Oswestry is truly unique and amazingly well–preserved, providing an easily accessible insight into Iron Age society unlike most of the more remote hillforts in the Marches. Its location and panoramic views across the Shropshire Plain to the tribal centre at The Wrekin are a vital part of this.”
He added: “Let’s not forget, too, that it is an important wildlife haven and beauty spot, perfectly framed by the hills and greenery of town’s scenic northern gateway.”
The group points out that heritage and tourism are integral to Oswestry’s strategic vision for the future, including efforts to become a Business Improvement District (BID) and to see town regeneration as a Heritage Action Zone.
Mr Malim said: “Just think how much tourism spend, employment and business investment could be attracted to the area if stakeholders joined forces to conserve and sensitively promote this British heritage jewel.”
In addition to activities highlighting the hillfort’s history and wildlife, the Oswestry Heritage Gateway organises opportunities for local volunteers to help with the site’s conservation under the direction of English Heritage.