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As the Old Oswestry Hillfort Campaign has said…..

The day has come, dear reader. Shropshire Council are taking the Sam Dev report to Full Council this Thursday [that's today], and have published the results of the consultation on soundness which a lot of us responded to. There is a lot to read, if you follow this link then scroll down to no. 22 the papers are all there. Interestingly enough, despite many of us asking for notification to attend this meeting I don’t know of anyone who had been contacted, and I only found this by accident last night….

You might think that because there’s a lot to read the decision will be very complicated. But no, it couldn’t be simpler. Either Shropshire Council will vote to damage the setting of the most important ancient heritage site in Central England or they won’t. Either they’ll reject the views of a whole raft of independent experts or they won’t. Either they’ll ignore the clearly-expressed views of local people (which the Government says must be taken into account) or they won’t. Fingers crossed we don’t hear phrases like “equitable compromise in all the circumstances” or “regrettable but unavoidable”. For the avoidance of doubt, damaging the setting of the hill fort is no more unavoidable than this was ….

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Whoever did this should be ashamed ..... but at least he didn't claim expenses for doing it!

Whoever did this should be ashamed. But at least he didn’t claim  expenses for doing it.

Heritage Action member Sue Brooke has been peeking over the garden fence again, and gives us this update on the Caerau Hillfort excavations in Cardiff.

Well the leaflet dropped through the door about two weeks ago. At the end of last week the local community magazine arrived, both with the invitation to ‘come and join the excavations.’ So I did.

I’ve written about Caerau Hillfort in Cardiff in the past via this journal. It was, you may recall, featured on a Time Team episode – one of the last in the final series made, shown in April 2012. It was actually also featured in one of the Time Team dig books. But since all this ended and the so called glare of publicity faded away it may seem like it has all been forgotten. Not so.

The CAER Heritage Project has been working constantly in the local areas of Caerau and Ely, (CAER is an acronym – Caerau and Ely Rediscovering). They have their own website and the usual Facebook group following as you would expect, but they are actually up there promoting their project aims of rediscovering the past.

Community excavations took place last year. Again this year, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, my triangular shaped field is the focus of activity for anyone interested either in local history or archaeology itself. I couldn’t get there myself last year but this year I found myself free for the first days of the planned dig, and since the weather has been so beautiful I accepted the invitation of ‘come and join the excavations’ and wandered along.

It’s probably best that you understand, at this point, that although I find archaeology fascinating and, having watched probably most of the Time Team episodes I viewed myself as something of an armchair expert. But I never ever wanted what I had come to think of as MY triangular shaped field to be dug up. I had researched this field, written thousands of words on it, drawn maps of it, walked up and down in it and generally did my best to keep it as a secret. Although local legend, if you like, was that there was a Roman Fort located up alongside the old church of St Mary in the ring-work, I had always believed it to be the triangular shaped field that would hold the biggest and, hopefully earliest secrets. I could bore for Wales on the subject of this field.

When Time Team visited I spent each and every day up on the hill, horrified at the goings-on. I never thought for one minute that this field would give up shiny swords or gold treasure but I felt it was important to the development of the local area in which I have always lived. This hillfort is quite literally over my garden fence. I wanted to know more about who lived there, how they lived there and why? For me it was, and still is, as much about the people as the place.

Caerau Sign

But here I am, on my way to go back up the hill to yet another excavation. It is a long and very steep walk up. Thankfully it has been reasonably dry lately so it makes it far safer underfoot. I arrived at the foot of the hill to find the excavations signposted. It’s actually a very pretty walk up and definitely worth it when you eventually reach the top. The gates were open to the triangular shaped field and just inside there were some gazebo type tents which form an information point.

Caerau finds

Some of the latest ‘finds’ are being cleaned up but they are displayed on trays and I was actually given some sherds of pottery to hold. In my hand! Cardiff University students are on hand to talk you though what they have found so far and it was really fascinating stuff. I know both project directors – Olly Davis and Dave Wyatt – from my early work with the group just prior to them forming the heritage project, and it was nice to catch up with them again. Olly walked me around the site, pointing out what they were doing and the significance of their very early discoveries. Olly explains things really well, not reverting to that dry academic way of speaking that you can often hear when the so called expert knows what he is on about but you simply end up nodding in bemused and confused agreement. Olly pointed out the various features actually in the ground, giving his early interpretation of them and setting them into a historical context that I, as a local historian with only a broad knowledge of history in general, could understand.

CAerau trench

I was shown around the various trenches that have already been put in and met some of the university students involved. It was really nice to see the whole thing being recorded on film and in pictures by a local resident. Various local people were on the site and had been included in the digging itself. Olly told me that there had been 30 visitors to the site the previous day and they were expecting many more. Local schools have been fully involved again with the project. Local children and young people will be attending the dig, in planned visits, during the duration of the excavations.

Caerau excavation

There are potentially some important discoveries to be made up at the site. Without giving away too much of the detail there are signs of some exciting possibilities in the ground that could hold importance to understanding early life in Wales. Back at the gazebo I was shown the geophysical results and the Lidar images that have been taken and these were explained clearly to me. There is also a large reconstruction drawing on display – again the work of a local resident – which gives a nice insight to how the site may have looked. There is also a booklet – free of charge – that gives lots of information on the previous work undertaken and some of the discoveries made.

Caerau booklet

I have to say that this ‘red-carpet’ treatment wasn’t exclusive to me. I spoke with Olly asking him if he ever got the chance now to get in the trench and dig – which, after all is what he trained for, and he replied saying that showing people around and interpreting the site took up an awful lot of his time. Although he did agree that not having his nose in the trench did allow him a better overview of the site as a whole. We may make a local historian out of him yet!

Having had a really good look around I was relieved that the trenches weren’t taking over the whole of the field. The trenches from the previous excavations were now barely discernible and I expect that these recent ones will fade back into the grass with time. The work that is being done will certainly help me gain a better idea not only of the place but of the people who lived within it.

What makes this heritage project just that little bit different is that it includes the members of the local community; it actually encourages them in, gives them a trowel and makes them get dirty! The key objective of this project was to:

Put local people at the heart of cutting edge archeological research, to develop educational opportunities and to challenge stigmas and unfounded stereotypes ascribed to this part of Cardiff.

I think, from my visit today that CAER Heritage Project actually does what it says on the tin – even if they are digging up my triangular shaped field.

So, I now share the invitation with you. Go and join the excavations. They run from 30th June through to 25th July 2014. There is a lot going on up there that it probably wouldn’t be fair of me to share in this little article – please, go and see for yourself. I may see you there – I’m going back tomorrow only this time I’m going to dig!

There is also an article about the dig on the BBC web site.

All pictures © Sue Brooke

During my recent trip to Cornwall, I managed to finally visit a site I’ve had my eye on for some time: the remains of an Iron Age hillfort near to where we stay.

In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales included in his description of Ludgvan the following:

“A ditched camp, called Castle-an-Dinas, and measuring 436 feet in diameter, occupies the summit of the highest hill, and commands extensive views.”

Whilst this may be factually correct, the hillfort is now quite difficult to see from the surrounding countryside, due in part to the existence of the upthrow of a large quarry to the southeast. However, once access to the hillfort has been obtained (see access notes, below), there are indeed wide ranging views to the North, East and round to the Southwest. Chysauster Courtyard House settlement lies 3/4 of a mile directly west from the hillfort. The hillfort itself consists of two concentric stone ramparts. A further slight external rampart of earth and stone can also be seen.

Borlase gives us slightly more detail:

“Castle-an-Dinas consisted of two stone walls, one within the other in a circular form, surrounding the area of the hill. The ruins are now fallen on each side of the walls, and show the work to have been of great height and thickness. There was also a third or outer wall, built more than half way round. Within the walls are many little inclosures of a circular form, about seven yards in diameter, with little walls round them of two or three feet high ; they appear to have been so many huts for the shelter of the garrison. The diameter of the whole fort from east to west is 400 feet, and the principal ditch 60 feet. Towards the south the sides of the hill are marked by two large green paths about 10 feet wide.”

The approach to the NW entrance

The ditch from the NW entrance, looking SW.

The ditch from the NW entrance, looking SW.

But this hillfort, the north entrance of which is still quite well defined (if somewhat overgrown in mid-summer) holds another surprise. Near the southeast rampart is what looks to all intents and purposes to be a small castle with four turreted towers. This is Rogers’ Tower, a folly built sometime in the late 1700’s by the Rogers family, who carried much influence in the local area. They owned Treassowe Manor, situated between the hillfort and Ludgvan Churchtown, and later moved to the Penrose estate just outside Porthleven.

The tower was built largely using stone ‘robbed out’ from the ramparts of the hillfort. The precise date of construction is debatable, but there is some supposition that the tower may have been used as a lookout point over the English Channel during the political upheaval which lead to the Napoleonic wars.

Rogers' Tower

However, although used by the family as a destination for outings it seems the tower quickly fell into disuse, and by 1817 was described as ‘now in a state of decay’. By 1859 this had progressed to ‘ruined’. In the 1920s, Castle an Dinas and Rogers’ Tower were included in Cornwall’s newly established list of Scheduled Monuments, and the tower was used as a lookout by the Home Guard during the Second World War. In 1960 some repair work was carried out, and this is commemorated by a roughly scrawled carving in the replacement pointing inside the tower. Further work was carried out in 2002/3 leading to the tower we see today.

Also placed within the confines of the hillfort, near to the tower is an Ordnance Survey triangulation (trig) point. The trig point was last levelled in 1955 (Levelling is the process of measuring the relative height marks across the landscape, and ultimately to a fixed datum – Mean Sea Level at Newlyn for the British mainland). Digital mapping has largely made such trig points redundant, and no doubt they will be regarded as heritage sites in their own right (if they’re not already – some enjoy scheduled monument protection).

A view SE from near the entrance, showing the trig point, the tower, and St Michael's Mount

A view SE from near the entrance, showing the trig point, the tower, and St Michael’s Mount

Access Notes:
The 6″ OS map of 1888 clearly shows a south eastern approach from the road at Inch’s Castle (now Castle Gate), but this has long been gobbled up by the quarry. A road 300 yards to the west now passes through into the quarry, but is marked as private property (and could be considered dangerous for pedestrians). There is a footpath on the road from Badgers Cross to Chysauster to the southwest, near to Little Chysauster farm but when I tried this route, the footpath was marked as closed ‘due to erosion’. Instead, I therefore elected to take a path from a farm shop to the east (just off the B3311 at Grid Ref SW491350), following the track northwest and skirting Trenowin Downs. At the first cottage, do not be tempted to cut across left, but continue on the track until a gate across the track. Go through the gate, and immediate left (now heading southwest and uphill) where the track dog-legs across Noon Digery. Continue uphill, crossing a stile where the track reduces to a footpath. Still heading uphill, look out for a stile on the left (approx SW482352), onto Tonkins Downs. This heads directly southeast again, and leads directly to the hillfort and the northwest entrance. Once through the causeway entrance, Rogers Tower can be easily seen almost directly ahead, beyond the trig point.

map courtesy of Bing Maps/Ordnance Survey.

map courtesy of Bing Maps/Ordnance Survey.

Sources:
Archaeology Report describing the remedial work of 2002/3

West Penwith Resources

The Megalithic Portal

All photos © Alan S. 2014

Two years ago English Heritage Chief executive Simon Thurley tweeted “Despicable & disastrous decision ….. If built it will spoil a very special place forever.” Settle down though Oswestry, it wasn’t about your hill fort. It was about Lyveden New Bield, a National Trust property in Northamptonshire threatened by a wind farm development.

Despite the massive expense, EH, NT and Northants Council fought and won landmark victories against the proposals first in the High Court and recently in the Court of Appeal. The Times reported that the case was being watched closely by the wind-power industry as it was “expected to set a precedent on how much protection heritage sites have from turbines”. Well, they have their answer now, the wind farm plans have been scrapped and the decision will sit very nicely as a benchmark in EH’s new Heritage Planning Case Database.

It has effectively established that in very crass instances damage to heritage assets by wind farms shouldn’t be allowed. Wouldn’t it be great if now EH and Shropshire Council fought just as hard to establish that in very crass instances damage to heritage assets by housing developments shouldn’t be allowed?

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[See our articles on Lyveden New Bield here]

At the beginning of the Oswestry Hillfort saga  we mentioned the danger that it might develop along the lines perfected by Tarmac PLC at Thornborough Henges – and indeed used by almost every developer and market trader wishing to make a bob or two……

del

You ask for the earth and progressively reduce what you’re asking for until the punters agree to what you were originally hoping for and think they’ve got a bargain.  That’s exactly the track that Oswestry seems to be taking.  No way did the developers think they’d get lucky with their first or second or third demands but now …. far fewer houses… further away … you know it makes sense Rodney!

Except that it doesn’t. It’s still awful. A while back we contrasted what was going on at Oswestry with a similar situation in Malta, and it’s Malta that is still showing how things ought to be. The number of houses  that El Del Boy wants to build near the Xaghra Stone Circle there has been reduced from 10 to 2 (and further away) but the authorities are being urged…

to prohibit any development in the buffer zone to the Xaghra Stone Circle and to change the local plan to ensure that no development is ever allowed in this zone.

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For more about Xaghra see here  and here.

Especially the ones at Oswestry!

A warning: if you want to see one of Britain’s finest hillforts at it’s optimum get up to Oswestry TODAY.  It’s hard to believe it but there are some elected Councillors on Shropshire Council that have in mind to damage its setting, so this view may well be different next Easter…..

Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), comments on the Old Oswestry housing proposal: "Countryside across England is being lost as a result of the Government’s planning policies, but the proposal to build over a hundred houses in the setting of Old Oswestry Hillfort is notably philistine and short-sighted. It is bad enough that the developer thinks this is an appropriate place to build; the fact that the Council is supporting the scheme beggars belief. Of course we need to build more houses, particularly affordable houses, but it is not necessary to trample on our history and despoil beautiful places to do so.”

View from the Hillfort, including land the delusional NIMBYs want to protect.  One of them, Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Countryside across England is being lost as a result of the Government’s planning policies, but the proposal to build over a hundred houses in the setting of Old Oswestry Hillfort is notably philistine and short-sighted. It is bad enough that the developer thinks this is an appropriate place to build; the fact that the Council is supporting the scheme beggars belief. Of course we need to build more houses, particularly affordable houses, but it is not necessary to trample on our history and despoil beautiful places to do so.”

Notably philistine” and “not necessary“! Any Councillor who votes to allow the development is going to have to convince themselves and others that neither of those accusations is true. Good luck with that!

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IMAGE:  (C) Bill Boaden and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

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Wiltshire does a Shropshire!              [Image Credit: Montage: NSE 2014]

The above of course is a fantasy. But it’s interesting because the distance from the monument to the houses, about 150 m, is similar to the first proposal for the development around Oswestry Hill Fort. What would be regarded as utterly ludicrous and unacceptable worldwide in Wiltshire is being pushed for in Shropshire.  And yes, Shropshire County Council, “pushed for”. No-one should imagine it’s not obvious that for some people this isn’t a process, it’s a plan.

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Anyway, those campaigning to keep Oswestry Hill Fort’s setting development-free may enjoy Section 7.2 of the November minutes of the English Heritage Advisory Committee, just released. It was a presentation on “setting” and how EH’s guidance on the subject has been “woven into government guidance”. Their key points on setting are:

  • There is always a degree of subjectivity in assessing setting but EH guidance provides a standard framework and means of analysis. The Department for Communities and Local Government has accepted the approach.
  • A line to define setting cannot be mapped in advance of development proposals coming forward. It is not fixed spatially.
  • Appreciation of setting will change over time.
  • While visual impacts, especially views, are likely to be the most important factors, other elements may well affect setting.
  • Setting is not dependent upon public accessibility (but especially ‘popular’ views etc may be particularly important).
  • Designed settings may well be more important than ‘fortuitous’ settings but the latter, e.g. in many conservation areas, may be a major part of the significance of the heritage asset.
  • Setting has no significance in its own right: setting is not a heritage asset; it is not a designation.
  • The interest in the setting of a heritage asset lies in what it adds to (or detracts from) the significance of the asset.
  • Only some elements of the setting may have a bearing on that significance; others may be neutral.
  • Buried archaeology can have a setting.

We suspect it is good news for the campaigners in 3 ways….
1. Nearly all of those points can be cited to suggest development would be inappropriate, not the reverse.
2. EH have formulated a standard framework and means of analysis for assessing setting which the Government has accepted. Nothing could be more sensible. It means there should be no purely subjective, inexplicable or unclear decisions, whether by officials, councillors or Inspectors.
3. EH has already said the Hillfort is “one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation” and yet, as everyone can see, it’s setting on the Town side has been reduced so much  that it’s now derisory. So it would be SOME “standard framework and means of analysis” that enabled any official or councillor to successfully argue it ought to be even smaller! So bravo to EH for constructing a bulwark against impenetrable or idiosyncratic decisions.

That’s all the Campaigners have ever asked for or been owed, a fair assessment on the merits of the case. Nothing else.

scissorman

Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;
That both his thumbs are off at last.

Some say “The Scissorman” is a real person. Others that he is merely being used as a literary device to represent The Profit Motive. Who knows? All that is certain is that whatever anyone tells you in posh technical language what’s really happening at Oswestry is a fight between those who want to conserve History and those who want to make a personal profit, the bigger the better. Yet how can one know that’s true when it’s easy to photograph History but impossible to photograph The Profit Motive?

Or is it?

Balfarg Henge

That’s Balfarg Henge, Fife in the middle. The rest is The Profit Motive.

No, Oswestry Hill Fort isn’t going to look like that, not imminently anyway. (So no claims we’re spreading misinformation or using scare tactics please, we’re just showing how ruthless Money can be if left unopposed). What is yet to be revealed is the degree of success the Campaigners will have in preventing the Hill Fort looking anything like that. Half as bad or a tenth as bad would be an outrage. Yet The Profit Motive has given zero indication it gives a damn about History or is willing to exercise self-restraint – it would simply walk away if it did – so it all depends on the strength of those who believe the Hill Fort’s current setting should be kept entirely sacrosanct.

Diana Baur, (one of the  Oswestry campaigners)  sent us a comment yesterday that reminded us of The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb….

The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs.
And ere they dream what he’s about
He takes his great sharp scissors
And cuts their thumbs clean off, – and then
You know, they never grow again.

Mamma had scarcely turn’d her back,
The thumb was in, alack! alack!
The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissorman.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb.

Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;
That both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home; there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;-
“Ah!” said Mamma “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

It seems likely that if we all suck our thumbs the scissor man WILL cut off part of Oswestry Hill Fort’s setting.  Snip snap snip!  And it will never grow back. As Diana makes clear ….

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The “Jaws” of development snapping all around us! Snapping everywhere unfettered in all directions because, as Owen Paterson [who is Oswestry's  MP and also Government's Environment Secretary!] has again re-iterated in a second letter to me, in respect of the Old Oswestry Hillfort , and I quote: “I know just how important this issue is. I hope you will understand that neither Minister nor Government officials can intervene or comment on individual planning applications because of Ministers’ quasi-judicial role in the system”.

So what in heaven’s name actually IS his, or ARE ministers’ roles??
In respect of the Old Oswestry Hillfort we are not yet talking about a planning application, we are talking about whether or not the hillfort setting will be allowed to be desecrated in the SAMDEV process which involves satisfying Government targets on covering this land with ticky tacky 4 and 5 bedroom houses in prestigious places kick-starting the economy through the housing market and charging onwards into a housing boom bubble and bust that will mean first time buyers are even less likely to be able to afford to buy one.

We are now being invited by Shropshire Planning department to submit our views on the SAMDEV process a second time round via the Shropshire Council Website, but expressly to comment on the “soundness” of the idea of using the hillfort setting for housing development. It’s patently unsound on all fronts, but we are still waiting to hear what exactly they mean by “soundness” – it’s Alice in Wonderland talk where you will think you have answered the question, but will be hauled over the coals by the Red Queen for not so doing because you have no “understanding” of the question.

I looked up the definition of “sound” and the adjectives, of which there are many and include:

1. free from damage, injury, decay, etc
2. firm; solid; substantial: a sound basis
3. financially safe or stable: a sound investment
4. showing good judgment or reasoning; sensible; wise: sound advice
5. valid, logical, or justifiable: a sound argument
6. holding approved beliefs; ethically correct; upright; honest
7. (of sleep) deep; peaceful; unbroken
8. thorough; complete: a sound examination
9. informal ( Brit ) excellent
10. law (of a title, etc) free from defect; legally valid
11. constituting a valid and justifiable application of correct principles; orthodox: sound theology
12. logic
a. (of a deductive argument) valid
b. (of an inductive argument) according with whatever principles ensure the high probability of the truth of the conclusion given the truth of the premises
c. another word for consistent

From my point of view building on the setting of the Old Oswestry Hillfort is a completely unsound idea on all fronts.

Here are the six highly pertinent questions put to Shropshire Council yesterday by the estimable John Waine on behalf of HOOOH followed by extracts (outlined in red) from the answers provided by Councillor M Price, Portfolio Holder for Strategic Planning. Please read both the questions and the answers carefully. What do YOU think is going on?

Q and As

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