A story in the Daily Mail yesterday claims that Wales owes England 1.8 million sq ft of land (or less sensationally, 41 acres) as a result of a mapping error that places the Powys-Herefordshire border 39 feet to the west of where it ought to be.
Since at least 1887, Ordnance Survey maps have stated that the border in the vicinity of Twyn Llech, between Capel-y-Ffin on the Welsh side of the border and Llanfeuno on the English side, runs along the watershed between the Wye basin on the east of the ridge and the Honddu basin on the west. They have marked the position of the border according to where it was believed that the watershed ran – through where the summit of the ridge was believed to be. This is bare, bleak countryside, over 2,300 feet above sea level but so flat that it’s hard for the naked eye to detect any slope at all, let alone a summit. Even so, a keen hillwalker who has walked the ridge 18 times, Myrddin Phillips of Welshpool, suspected that he could make out some higher ground just west of where the border path runs and with the help of some state-of-the-art GPS equipment established that the true peak was indeed 39 feet into Wales. That’s 39 feet of Wales which, if you take the 1887 Ordnance Survey map at its word, should rightly belong to England because it’s east of the true watershed. Multiply that 39 feet by the nine miles of ridge along which the border runs and you get the 1.8 million sq ft that England should be entitled to grab back from Wales. “This will be scant consolation to England,” notes the Mail wryly, “after losing to Wales in the Six Nations rugby tournament two weeks ago.”
The shifting landscape
This is, of course, nonsense – though quite entertaining nonsense. According to the Mail,
“A spokesman for the Ordnance Survey said its MasterMap – its most detailed mapping product – has the boundary down as correct.
He added: ‘The 1887 maps Mr Phillips has used are guidelines only, where the boundary is 15m (49ft) wide.
‘We are not obliged to put a boundary in but we do so as a guide. In our most detailed mapping product the border is located accurately and correctly.’“
In fact geographical features shift around all the time, and borders do not generally follow them once their positions have been fixed. There are plenty of examples of this in my neck of the woods, around Wrexham, where historically the border has been formed by the river Dee. Here the river valley is wide and shallow, very prone to flooding, and the Dee meanders back and forth. Anyone who studied geography in school knows how meandering rivers shift their course as bends are eroded and closed, forming oxbow lakes, and new paths form as old ones silt up. The border remains where the Dee’s course ran hundreds of years ago, while the Dee itself – oblivious to its vital function as an international frontier – has wandered off hundreds of yards in one direction or another.
In fact the situation is even more striking north of Chester, where the border still follows the course that the Dee had before it was canalised between 1732 and 1736 in a last-ditch attempt (literally) to keep the port of Chester open and avoid its inevitable eclipse by Liverpool. Nobody claims that because the border was originally set as being along the Dee, it should now move with it. The Dee has served its purpose and the border is the border.
And by the way, just think what might have happened if the Dee hadn’t silted up in the 17th and 18th centuries. The city that is now Liverpool might have grown up, not on the east bank of the Mersey, but on both banks of the Dee. What would the consquences of that have been for North Wales? Would the new metropolis have been a Welsh or an English city? We’ll never know, and I suppose that’s just as well.
An open border
Haggling over the position of the border can be fun, so long as it’s not taken too seriously. If my namesake, the Stephen Morris who contested the Senedd seat of Monmouth on behalf of the English Democrats in 2016, does the same thing again then I’ll be very tempted to return the compliment by running for Gwlad in Shrewsbury. The important point, however, is that it’s in the interests of people who live on both sides of this border to keep things open, and friendly. The Gwlad manifesto makes this explicit in so many words, with the statement:
Complete freedom of movement with unrestricted, document-free travel across all land and sea borders. In particular:
- No restrictions to be placed on English or Irish residents commuting to jobs in Wales or vice versa.
- No tolls or customs to be placed at land or sea borders.
That’s not to say the border is of no consequence. It is a real border, separating two different countries, and we aim to follow precedents set by Yorkshire and the Channel Islands to assert a degree of control over who can settle within Wales and own property here. We want to ameliorate the worst consequences of richer English commuters and retirees driving property prices beyond the reach of local people, and of Wales importing social problems from England in order to line the pockets of those who run our bloated Third Sector. Even so, people like me who cross the border a dozen times a week on legitimate business have nothing to fear from us: there won’t be border posts and you won’t need your passport.