PRESS RELEASE: TV historian warns of damage to heritage landscape and tourism value amid flood of objections to hillfort housing plans

The esteemed historian and media figure, Professor Michael Wood, has expressed serious concern over plans to build houses within ‘the fascinating historic landscape’ of Old Oswestry hillfort.

In a letter of objection to Shropshire Council planners, he wrote: “Recently, I have followed with concern the proposed developments. The Iron Age hillfort of Old Oswestry is generally agreed to be the finest site of its kind in the Welsh Borders. Professor Sir Cyril Fox in 1934 called Old Oswestry ‘the outstanding work of Early Iron Age type’ and  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in his classic guide The Buildings of Britain described it simply as ‘superb’. Any development that threatens its setting, as this self-evidently does, in my view, therefore, should be refused.”

The popular historian describes how as a child he would holiday in Oswestry with relatives, remembering his ‘visits to the hillfort in its magical setting’. He comments that Oswestry’s northern gateway around the hillfort ‘is an extraordinarily interesting – and rare – example of a medieval sacred landscape, which still awaits detailed research and survey’. This is in addition to the area’s multi-phase heritage interest ranging from pre-Iron Age to WW1 military archaeology.

In the two-page letter, he continues: “Permission for new housing like this can also set a precedent for further development, and very swiftly a historic landscape can be so encroached upon that its archaeology is damaged, its meaning is diminished, and the pleasure of the experience for visitors is seriously impaired.”

Citing his expertise in the Anglo-Saxon period, Professor Wood states that recent research into Oswestry’s history suggests that the landscape between town and hillfort has features and connections dating back to very significant national events in the early medieval period. He said that specialists now agree that Oswestry was the site of one of the most famous battles of early British history, when King Oswald of Northumbria was defeated and killed by Penda of Mercia in 642. Miracles were reported there soon afterwards, according to the 8th century historian Bede, and a cult site developed, possibly at the site of St Oswald’s Well. He suggests that over the next couple of centuries, the area between the hillfort and the town was turned into a sacred landscape for the cult of St Oswald.

He concludes: “Even if the proposed plan does not actually ‘touch’ the hillfort, this does not mean that it won’t cause damage to one of the great historic landscapes of the Welsh Borders. The local authority needs to carefully consider the national importance and the tourism value of the hillfort within the wider context of the Oswestry Heritage Gateway, including the rich historical connections that can be traced to sites across the town, on which more undoubtedly remains to be discovered.”

Professor Wood’s impassioned words follow shortly after comments by Cressida Cowell, award-winning author of the How to Train Your Dragon series, who has also spoken out against the proposals. Recently announced as the new Waterstones Children’s Laureate, she revealed that Old Oswestry and its Iron Age landscape had helped inspire her latest bestseller, The Wizards of Once.

Plans to infill hillfort’s near setting

Members of the public as well as local consultees and national heritage organisations have lodged more than 130 objections against plans to infill part of the hillfort’s near setting with some 120 houses.

The primary heritage consultee, Historic England, has raised numerous issues with the planning applications, expressing its ‘serious concerns’ over the master planning and design. Oswestry Town Council, Selattyn & Gobowen Parish Council, Cambrian Heritage Railways, Oswestry and Border History and Archaeology Group (OBHAG) have all objected. The Council for British Archaeology, The Prehistoric Society and RESCUE (the British Archaeological Trust) have also submitted damning critiques of the harmful effects development would have on the heritage significance of the hillfort and its setting, regarded widely as ‘The Stonehenge as the Iron Age’.

Campaign group HOOOH said: “To have highly respected academics like Professor Wood speaking out against this short-sighted scheme is very clear evidence of the undisputed importance of Old Oswestry and its surrounding heritage landscape. Any form of development, let alone one so large, that will wreak damage on heritage so important and rare is a matter of national interest, especially when houses can be built elsewhere. At a time when Oswestry’s long term housing targets have been revised down and new land has come forward, we think that the case is stronger than ever for these planning applications to be called in by the government.”

Professor Wood has made over 140 documentary films and written numerous bestselling books garnering wide acclaim for his insight, skill and dedication in bringing history to life. As well as being Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, he is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Society of Antiquaries. He is also a recipient of the British Academy President’s Medal for ‘services to history and outreach’, and of the Historical Association’s Medlicott Medal for ‘outstanding services and current contributions to history’. Campaigners say that, while the formal deadline has passed, people can still submit objections via Shropshire Council’s planning portal ahead of the determination date currently advertised as September 16.

Professor Michael Wood’s objection letter can be found here:  https://tinyurl.com/y3n47qtt                                                             

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