Holt church and graves of the local Bellis family

As part of my day-job as Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester, I am programme leader for the archaeology Masters degrees. Earlier this week, Dr Hannah Ewence and I went out on a half-day field trip with our new Masters students. The students are all keen to start next week on the following 3 programmes:

  • MA Military History
  • MA Archaeology and Heritage Practice
  • MA Archaeology of Death & Memory

We wanted to create a field visit to a site near Chester to serve as an induction event for new students to meet each other. We also wanted to use the field trip to introduce new students to a range of concepts and approaches shared between the Masters degrees.

We decided to visit Holt, Wrexham. Situated on the River Dee and opposing the Cheshire village of Farndon, the village and its environs are rich in archaeological and historical remains. The village has an active historical society keen to explore it, as discussed here. On this trip we explored the following key sites and themes…

A Landscape of Conflict and Communication

First we walked down to the River Dee and the historic bridge. We started off here by emphasising that, while this might appear a sleepy backwater, this was for thousands of years a key node in communication networks. This is true both in terms of the maritime route of the Dee itself from the Irish Sea through Chester up into the Cheshire plain and Wales, but also as a ford over the Dee linking Wales to North-West England. As such, Holt and Farndon have been foci of both conflict and communication in equal measure over the long term. We discussed the 15th/16th-century bridge as marking an older ford and thus it marks and defines the location of the Roman settlement, Anglo-Saxon minster, medieval castle and borough, and the ford’s importance in the English Civil War where it became a focus of conflict between largely Parliamentarian Cheshire and Royalist Wales;

Roman Holt

We discussed the Roman settlement at Holt; a topic of interest for military history and heritage practice alike. There is nothing to see but we walked beside the Dee and discussed what we know about this military station which produced brick, tile and pottery for the legionary fortress of Deva. One has to go into Chester to see some of the artefacts, but there are heritage displays addressing it in the church;

Anglo-Saxon Farndon

We didn’t walk over to Farndon due to time restrictions. However, from the bridge, we discussed its prominent hilltop location and its circular churchyard. The church might mark the spot of an Anglo-Saxon minster church built upon an earlier Christian site. It was here that Edward the Elder died in AD 924. Also, it was perhaps from nearby here that Edgar was rowed on the Dee to church in Chester and back by the kings of Britain in AD 973, as an act that may have publicly expressed their deference to Edgar’s over-kingship. The landscape here preserves a landscape of faith and power in equal measure.

Holt Church and Churchyard

Next, we explored St Chad’s church, Holt: a medieval church with fabulous 15th-century font and post-medieval memorials including war memorials. Here we let the students explore the heritage displays and reflect on their effectiveness at telling the history of the building, but also the settlement and surroundings of Holt.

The churchyard of St Chad’s was also a focus of our interest. Before entering the church, we had explored the churchyard and discussed the many commemorative dimensions of this space – both religious and social. We discussed the importance of churchyards for studying the history of death, commemoration and community. For instance, we talked about the shifting nature of graveyards, how the form and variability of memorials are a challenge to study and how they are also a challenge to manage as a heritage resource; they are readily displaced by many agencies and lain down for health and safety considerations. We also discussed the 18th-century sundial and the increasing importance of time in the post-medieval world.

We witnessed some striking 18th and 19th-century memorials as well as seeing their equally striking reuse as paving around the church. There was also discussion of prominent families’ memorials and the revitalisation of churchyards to receive the interment of ashes marked by modest ledgers. All these themes were pertinent to the MA Archaeology of Death & Memory but equally served to reveal themes relating to military history and heritage practice

PANO_20151007_153549Holt Castle

Then we explored Holt Castle, subject of recent excavations and a new heritage display as discussion in another of my recent posts here. Again, this site was of interest to historians, heritage and archaeology students as we discussed what we effective and what was challenging about the heritage displays and the threats posed to scheduled ancient monuments. We noted the prominent sign

Detail from one of Holt Castle’s new heritage boards

Wayside Cross and War Memorial

We then went to see the medieval cross and war memorial in the market square and discussed the restoration of the medieval cross-shaft and its juxtaposition with the war memorial. It seems to be that, consciously or not,  the war memorial mimics the form of its medieval predecessor, even if they are starkly different in original function, ornamentation and textuality. Certainly, as landmarks they are now in ‘conversation’ with each other, prominently located to be seen and recognised in relation to each other.

Together with the roadside memorial to Major Roger Barnston that we had visited en route to Holt, we discussed the valorisation of the military dead in 19th and 20th-century Britain through monumental landmarks, sublimating mourning into both notions of national sacrifice and materialising local political agendas.

Holt war memorial and medieval cross – citations through time?


The final stop was the pub; the Peel O’ Bells adjacent to St Chad’s church, where I bought the students a much-deserved round of drinks and some of them even had crisps!

All-in-all, it was a profitable and entertaining afternoon and it was great to meet all the bright new energetic minds keen to start studying their Masters degrees.