Are we losing ground to England?

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.’

The border in the vicinity of Wrexham, just south of the villages of Holt and Farndon

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.

The border between Flint and Chester

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.

5 thoughts on “Are we losing ground to England?

  1. I was intending to comment on the border following the original course of the Dee to the northwest of Chester but you beat me to it in the article! I have another point of curiosity to raise: does this ‘exclave’ of Wales, or more precisely the bit west of the A494 closer to where river becomes estuary, constitute a chunk of the Wirral?

    I’m guessing that rather than the almost right-angled turn to the south west the now-canalised river takes north of Chester Golf Club, its course from this point would have been a smooth, almost sinusoidal meander, to converge with the border near Sovereign Way, off Sealand Road. I also just had a thought, of how Sovereign Way is an interesting choice of name for a road that runs almost right along the border. Perhaps a reaffirmation of this being One United Kingdom despite there being a border in the vicinity, or am I over-thinking things?

    1. See also :

      “Nowhere is this more in evidence than up here in the North East, where the border runs straight down the middle of Llanymynech High Street, swishes back and forth either side of the Dee around Wrexham and cuts straight through the suburbs of Chester at Saltney, before making a final lunge over the Dee, taking in a chunk of the Wirral and ending at a sandbank in the Dee Estuary.”

      If the Wirral is regarded geographically as being the peninsula of land between the Mersey and Dee estuaries, then I’d say for sure that the ‘exclave’ (great word!) is part of the Wirral.

      But as for Sovereign Way – no idea why it has that name. Seeing it on the map again, though, brings back vivid memories of having to be at the Royal Mail Sorting Office there before 7am with 30,000 election leaflets in the back of the car, when I was Gwyn Evans’s agent in the election campaign last December!

      1. Maybe it can be the *new* Flintshire Detached! If that border-straddling pub in Llanymynech is still open and hasn’t become yet another victim of brewery greed and ‘property development’ it will be interesting to see how it functions with regards to differential lifting of lockdown restrictions.

        I recall having my induction at the Royal Mail depot a good few years ago now. What is also interesting about the urban sprawl in those parts is how developments like the Blacon housing estate and the Sovereign Way road itself seem to respect the border, but others, like the Park and Ride and the football ground are spread across it. My guess would be that such differences are due to whether the original developers could be bothered to apply to both local authorities for planning or not.

        1. Not long after we moved to the north-east in 2016 we had cause, in the context of searching out office equipment for my other half’s pioneering new job, to wander – fruitlessly in the end! – around what the OS map describes variously as ‘Sealand Industrial Estate’ and ‘Chester West Employment Park’. Observing that the map indicated that industrial units had in places been built across the border as if it didn’t exist, I remember speculating just how that would work out in practice in the ultimate event of an independent Wales!

          Maybe I’m too corralled into the thinking which hard frontiers mould: I remember waiting for well over an hour without any evident necessity to cross the frontier between Bulgaria and Romania on what was no more than a tourist day trip. On the other hand I also recall travelling between Belgium and the Netherlands without let or hindrance with no more difficulty than one has here when crossing from Wales into England. You just passed a roadside sign. And I’ve read that for years – maybe centuries! – parts of the border between those two countries were speckled with little enclaves of Belgium entirely surrounded by Netherlands territory and vice versa. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a problem as long as there’s a general will not to make it into one?

          Nevertheless the Sealand Industrial Estate sowed on my mind a sense of future conceivable difficulties in the event of Welsh independence: could a situation in which one part of a site – and in a few instances even one corner of a building on that site – was in England and the other in Wales really be made to work? Because you can bet that were Wales ever to opt for independence the likelihood of generalized ‘good will on all sides’ would be slight! I suspect that at least some boundary adjustments would become inevitable.

          And in that context another issue which arises in border areas is the presence or absence of a local popular mandate. What would be the implication if a majority of the people in Wales – presumably in a referendum – opted for independence, but in some local border areas voters gave the notion an overwhelming ‘thumbs down’? Would – should – they be compelled to acquiesce, or ought there to be some provision for those areas to be incorporated into England?

          I know of only one instance where this particular conundrum has arisen in the past, and that’s the decision to ‘disestablish’, exactly a century ago after decades of ‘chapel’ campaigning, the Church of England within Wales. Parish boundaries between one parish and another had over centuries evolved entirely independently from the rather fluid notion of where England stopped and Wales began, and by 1920 there were nineteen Anglican parishes whose parish boundaries straddled the border.

          The decision was made that those parishes where the church building was in Wales but the parish itself extended into parts of England should be accorded the right to decide whether they wanted to move into the new disestablished ‘Church in Wales’ or stick with the ‘C of E’ – in which case their parish would be detached from its previous Welsh diocese and attached to the neighbouring English one. Most of those parishes opted to stick with the status quo, the largest of which is Presteigne (Llanandras), formerly in the diocese of St Davids but having opted to remain part of the C of E ended up in the diocese of Hereford. Llansilin, outside Oswestry, was the exception.

          But that same privilege wasn’t accorded to border parishes which for long centuries had historically been part of Welsh dioceses, but whose boundaries included no part of Wales as Wales was defined in 1920. One parish outside Oswestry which had been part of the diocese of St Asaph since the middle ages voted to stay with that diocese, even though it had no legal entitlement to do so; but as its parish boundaries included no part of Wales as Wales was conceived in 1920, its vote was of none effect and it was still peremptorily transferred into the diocese of Lichfield along with the rest of north Salop.

          I suspect this business of consent in border areas would become a thorny issue, as and when the independence issue comes to the fore.

          1. An interesting read. Recall that Belgium was once part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, so their open border arrangement (and quirks like Baarle-Hertog as mentioned by you) are I’d guess a consequence of this history, in a comparable manner to the Common Travel Area between ROI and the UK. There is plenty of good precedent out there to be drawn from for border arrangements in an independent Wales.

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