OLD OSWESTRY HILLFORT
Old Oswestry Hillfort has been occupied since at least the late Bronze Age although the impressive multi-vallate defences seen today date from the Iron Age. The site is one of the best preserved examples of this type of fortification. During World War I the hillfort was requisitioned for battlefield training and a large number of trenches were dug across the site.
Oswestry is located at a key nodal point in the border region where the main north/south route converges with roads to Ellesmere and Shrewsbury. The site of Old Oswestry has probably been occupied, at least periodically, since the Neolithic period (3500 to 2000 BC) and by the late Bronze Age (circa-1000 BC) a portion of the site hosted a small settlement which was probably enclosed by a timber palisade. However, it was in the early Iron Age (circa-700 BC) that the first hillfort defences were constructed. These consisted of a double rampart with simple entrances on the west and east sides. The fort interior was around 15 acres which was an enormous area when compared to contemporary hillforts elsewhere in the country. Excavations conducted in 1939 by William Varley found evidence that the site was populated by timber framed roundhouses with wattle-and-daub walls, some of which were later rebuilt in stone.
After its initial construction, the hillfort's defences underwent three distinct periods of upgrades. The first consisted of an additional rampart, outside the earlier defences, on the north, west and south sides. The entrances into the hillfort were also modified at this time to create in-turned passages, the Iron Age equivalent of a barbican. The second phase was an elaborate series of earthworks on the west side of the site including two more ramparts that projected down the hill and a series a pits. These measures were almost certainly designed to impress rather than provide a genuine defensive advantage. An additional rampart, which projected out from the existing defences, seemingly offered a postern entrance. The final phase of upgrades consisted of two more ramparts that enclosed the entire hill and the existing defences.
Archaeological finds show that metal smelting took place at the site and there have also been discoveries of salt containers and pottery - all evidence that Oswestry was a major trading post that probably served a large area. It is therefore likely that the impressive multi-vallate defences, like many such large and elaborate sites, was intended to overawe its visitors rather than provide physical protection. Oswestry hillfort was ultimately about being a grand enough structure to draw in visitors from across a wide area.
Oswestry hillfort remained in use until around the first century BC or first century AD but the reason why it was abandoned is unclear. Unlike some hillforts in southern England, such as Maiden Castle, there is no evidence of Roman interference but it is possible the site was suppressed by the invaders after the foundation of Wroxeter. Thereafter the abandoned hillfort was simply used for grazing livestock until the construction of Wat's Dyke circa-AD 820. This linear earthwork, which stretches approximately 40 miles between Basingwerk and Maesbrook, incorporated the hillfort in its length. The purpose of the dyke was probably to define a border between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh (British). How long it remained in use for and whether Old Oswestry Hillfort served any function, other than to provide a set of existing ditches and ramparts that plugged a 500 metre stretch, is unknown. The Normans built Oswestry Castle and founded the town on the lowlands to the south of the hillfort.
After centuries of being used solely for grazing livestock, Old Oswestry hillfort found a new role during the First World War. Between 1915 and 1919, the British military established a training depot for troops bound for the Western Front at nearby Park Hall camp. Up to 4,000 troops were stationed at the camp and the hillfort was used to create a battlefield training environment for them. An extensive network of practise trenches was dug around the site and it was used for live firing exercises for both small arms and mortars. The latter caused significant damage to the archaeology of this important site. Wilfred Owen, the famous wartime poet, whose home town was Oswestry briefly passed through the camp on his way to the continent.
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Old Oswestry Hillfort is one of the best preserved examples of an Iron Age fortification. The multi-vallate defences consist of five ramparts and the entire circuit is accessible. Sheep graze freely on this land so dogs must be kept on leads.
Old Oswestry Hillfort. The hillfort as seen from the B5069.
Old Oswestry Hillfort. The defences of the hillfort enclosed the entire hill with the newest ramparts running almost along its base. The summit enclosed around 15 acres and, compared to other such sites that grew over time, this was an enormous enclosure. The slight earthworks of Wat's Dyke, a suspected ninth century earthwork, can be been seen running behind the house on the right.
Ramparts. The ramparts survive to impressive height and are some of the best preserved examples in Britain. They evolved over four distinct phases of development. The first was a double rampart near the summit. This was followed by an addition of a further rampart. The third phase was construction of the western defences. The final addition was a further two ramparts around the base of the hill.
Western Defences. The defences on the fort's western slope were designed to impress. They feature a series of ramparts that extend down the hill and enclose a series of deep pits. The purpose of these is unknown; perhaps they were water filled defences or might have been simply for show.
Western Entrance. The western entrance was accessed via a long passageway equivalent to a medieval barbican.