|Sounds Funny, Looks Fab
Oswestry. An odd-sounding market town in the depths of Shropshire, on the Welsh-English border. Back in the 13thC CE, the English would have known it as Oswaldestre (1272) and the Welsh as Croesoswald (1254). It was at the forefront of the border wars, changing hands three times between the English and Welsh - a thing of importance later on in this weblog. (The meaning of Oswestry? In English"St. Oswald's OE treo 'tree' (possibly in the sense of a 'wooden cross') ". In Welsh it was "St. Oswald's cross").
It is also the hometown of the awesome First World War poet Wilfred Owen; and having studied his work many, many years ago at school, I had been intrigued to visit the place for quite some time. It didn't let me down, and it is possible to see some absorbing memorabilia of his life and work in the Heritage Centre, including photocopies of the original Anthem For Doomed Youth. Very sobering.
But Oswestry is home to a jewel that far pre-dates the skirmishes of the Marches and senseless butchery of Flanders; that jewel being the phenomenal Old Oswestry hillfort, which beats the other two on date by about 1500-2000 years. And phenomenal is the word – I believe that this site is second only to Maiden Castle in Dorset; rightly so – it is a massive, complex, awe-inspiring structure.
The arresting Kate and I pulled up in the small car park at the foot of the western entrance on a gloriously warm and sunny spring afternoon. As it was mid-week, we were delighted to hear the happy screams of children emanating from a nearby schoolyard, and not from the hillfort itself. The sky was a deep blue, with a few wispy clouds, the sun shone forth warmly for the first time in two weeks, and before us, the huge, well defined ramparts of Old Oswestry rose up. I licked my lips with anticipation.
Unique and Unusual
A few steps into the narrow passage of the western entranceway made one realise what a daunting feat of engineering constructed this vast place. The ramparts are immense, yet initially look like a roughly doled out puddingy mass, certainly to the west. But a closer look reveals seven lines of ramparts, and – uniquely – eight to ten huge pits, which in diagrams appear as if a gigantic hand has crimped the edge of the hillfort, much like a pastry pie crust. Aerial views give a clear depiction of this most unusual feature of any hillfort; but from the ground it appears to be more of an obstruction to anyone wishing to attack the place.
In fact, it would appear that nobody is entirely certain what these pits were designed for – whether they were water tanks, quarries, or extra fortifications. Could they have been used to trap any invaders? Were they animal pens? Animal pens seem like a good idea to me – and as Kate said, they probably have some very simple and straightforward explanation of that nature. As they are adjacent to the largest entrance, presumably they must have had something to do with callers (pleasant or otherwise), or the transactions of goods. Nowadays, two of these pits sustain well-established ponds, complete with pond skaters or possibly whirligig beetles. (It was hard to see without getting covered in stinking mud). A third pit is home to another pond which seems to be silting up – nonetheless, it has a fine growth of bulrushes. Bizarre.
English Heritage have kindly provided five fairly unobtrusive signboards and a tour round the hillfort which is quite helpful, so after moving along the ever-narrowing western entrance passage, we followed the informative signs, and climbed the stile that leads up onto the top rampart.
Sights For Sore Eyes
Well. The views were wonderfully pretty. To the west we were treated to a fabulous scene of gently undulating hedged fields with spinneys and copses, emerald pastures that were home to cows and sheep, and a blue, blue sky that stretched for miles to the soft mountains over the border in Wales. Away to the north was the Cheshire plain, and this flat territory also stretched round to vanish into the eastern horizon. The southern edge offered a charming view over Oswestry itself, and nearer, what remains of the rampart of Wat's Dyke (more later).
We rested for a picnic overlooking this idyllic English scene, complete with manor house of the style seen in Knight Frank adverts. After a fine repast, I left Kate sleeping in the wonderfully warm sun, and set off to walk the ramparts. The centre of the hillfort is fenced off, although there seems to be a rough track leading into the middle from the northern end. During the First World War, Canadian troops were allowed on to the top to play at digging trenches and blowing up things; in the Second World War it was apparently ploughed. By all accounts it had been smothered in trees and undergrowth for some considerable time, sounding a dark and forbidding place; quite a contrast to the open grassland of today, although several small shrubs are doing well amidst the ramparts.
We had been blessed with a fabulous day for a our visit, even so, I couldn't help feel slightly sorry we hadn't made it a month before - every side of the structure would have been a wonderful shade of deep blue, due to the unending carpet of bluebells that covered the ground. They were just about over, so the blue wasn't as brilliant as it might have been, but occasional splashes of white wood anemone brightened the bracken and grass. Old Oswestry was teeming with wildlife, with warblers and larks singing all around, and kestrels hunting on the western side. Butterflies flitted across the grasses in tumbling groups, and all in all, it was a thoroughly pleasant experience.
Tramping along the eastern edge, the ramparts literally towered above me, and it took a good twenty minutes to do a full circuit. I was reminded very much of the British Camp in the Malverns, which I visited as a child.
700BCE And All That
After doing another circuit for the hell of it, I took some photos and explored the pits. The confusing nature of this part of the hillfort put me in mind of Maiden Castle, with its disorienting and intimidating entry earthworks. (Minus the ponds). Background reading would suggest that Old Oswestry was probably as important as Maiden Castle. Possibly home to the Cornovii tribe, it is suggested the fort had been settled as early as 700BCE, although it would have been unfortified at this time. The ramparts were built in three phases, with the curious pits built in the final phase. By the time of the Roman occupation, it was deserted; although the 10thC CE Welsh Annals tell us that in 658CE it was the site of the final stand of the Welsh king Cynddylan, bested in battle by the Anglo-Saxon king Oswy. Cynddylan was reputedly the last descendent of the legendary King Arthur to rule in Shropshire, but as these chronicles are a bit hit-and-miss, this should be taken with a pinch of salt. In Welsh, Old Oswestry was probably known as Yr Hên Dinas,– the Old City; a more romantic tale has it as Caer Ogyrfan, the City of Gogyrfan. Some sources suggest that Gogyrfan was the father of Guinevere, the fatal temptress of Arthurian legend.
Whatever the ancient name of this fabulous place was, we know that it was still of immense defensive importance in medieval times, being incorporated into Wat's Dyke, a vast defensive earthwork running 65km along the Welsh-English border, probably built around the 7th or 8thC CE.
This is a fascinating and absorbing place, with a rich history and intriguing questions. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially for a picnic on a beautiful spring day, and hope that you will enjoy it as much as we did; I can see this becoming an entirely suitable sop to the lack of access to Uffington Castle, due to my recent move to North Wales!
P.S. The bit about 'O We Try'? Some wag had once masked out the s's on a sign for the town . . .
What a corker! This is a huge, overwhelming, complex and thoroughly unusual hillfort. Massive ramparts tower upwards, on the eastern side numbering five banks, but on the west increasing to seven. Even more intriguingly, the western side has five massive pits built into the defences, a construction totally unique in hillfort design.
The history is rich (see weblog for full run-down), the views magnificent, the atmosphere lovely and unspoilt. An absolute must-see for any self-respecting hillfort fan, or those requiring a jolly splendid picnic.
Posted by treaclechops
25th April 2004ce
Edited 25th April 2004ce
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