I felt rather overdressed as we struggled up the steep earth bank, the sun scouring the early morning mist from the hillside. As we placed our feet on the dark brown earth, we were merely brushing the surface of an ancient landscape more composed of myth than physical reality.
The Wrong Hill
Finally, after a long hard climb, we reached the top of the hill. The view was incredible and stretched towards Wales, Cheshire and Shropshire. However, our moment of elation was punctured as we noticed the hill we had intended to climb was some way over to the west!
Reaching the Summit
Another long arduous hill climb later and we had reached the summit of Old Oswestry Hill Fort, one of a chain of hill forts which dominate the Welsh Marches in Shropshire. As we looked around the windy summit, the ramparts and ditches began to tell us their tale.
Centre of a Community
Old Oswestry had been the centre of a fortified community for over a thousand years. Direct evidence of settlement dating to 1000 BC has been uncovered from beneath the grassy surface including a series of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age roundhouses huddled on the summit.
Excavations allowed the whispers of this now forgotten community to be heard. Each roundhouse possessed a central hearth around which extended families would gather for warmth and comfort against the winter gales which swept, and still sweep, the Welsh Marches.
System of Settlement
Old Oswestry was more than merely a home for its inhabitants. From high in the open skies above, aerial photography reveals a complex Iron Age settlement and field system existed.
Some have proposed the labourers toiling the Shropshire soil in the surrounding area would have provided the community of the hill fort with supplies in return for protection in times of trouble.
By the seventh century BC, Old Oswestry had become a booming entrepot of trade. Furrowed pottery imported from Wiltshire (the landscape which would spawn Stonehenge) and salt containers from Cheshire lay hidden under the Shropshire soil until discovered in the late 1930s.
Striding into Myth
By 43 AD the hill fort was abandoned with coming of the Rome. From that point, fact escapes us as the hill and its inhabitants stride into myth.
We know nothing of how Old Oswestry fared during the Roman occupation. There is no evidence the armies of Rome ever laid siege to the hill’s massive ramparts. Not until 410 AD when Rome abandoned their former province of Britannia, did the hill fort re-awake.
Wat and his Dyke
After the fall of Roman Britain, the Welsh Marches erupted with conflict as the former Romano-British inhabitants fought a hard and desperate battle for survival against incoming Germanic migrants later known as the Anglo-Saxons.
In the heat of this war, the Anglo-Saxons marked their newly won territory with a fortified ditch known as Wat’s dyke into which Old Oswestry was incorporated as a key component.
We know very little, if anything, about Wat and who he (or she) was. All we do know if that later generations attributed the construction of the dyke to Wat.
Wat’s dyke may have marked the western frontier of a now lost and nameless kingdom which once covered Shropshire and Cheshire within its dominions.
City of Gogyrfan
According to popular tradition (although we must always be weary of such claims), by the seventh century AD, the hill fort had become the City of Gogyrfan, home of race of giants led by Gogyrfan.
Gogyrfan, a name men uttered with fear, was believed to have fathered Guinevere, wife of King Arthur. Thus, Old Oswestry had become one of the well-springs of Arthurian legend.
The Powys Kings, and later princes, turned the crucible of Old Oswestry’s associations with Arthurian legend to their own political purposes to fabricate a claim to have the right to sovereignty over Shropshire.
Cynddylan, the last Welsh Powys prince to rule Shropshire, they purported had fought his last battle on Old Oswestry before tumbling from the pages of history as the Welsh lost control of Shropshire.
They claimed Cynddylan was descended from King Arthur. The Powys princes would, in fact, never rule Shropshire again.
Peace at last?
Finally and quietly, Old Oswestry fell out of the hands of myth-makers to lie alone on the Shropshire plains.
It felt strange walking away from the hill fort in the warm morning sun, knowing how the lives of real people who had lived and created the community of this hill fort would be less well-known and remembered than the legends which replaced them.
Who knows if the real purpose of Old Oswestry will be forgotten again, only to be resurrected in another myth, its real inhabitants mere inconvenience to the creators of legend.
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