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From: Stephen Hayes
To: All
Date: 2005-05-27 19:00:12
Subject: Visiting ancestral homes and living relatives in Britain

My wife and I have just returned to South Africa from a trip to Britain,
visiting family and friends and places where ancestors had lived. A couple
of months before we left I asked on some of the genealogy forums for advice
on how to make the best use of limited time, and now that we're back home I
thought others who might be planning to do something similar might find an
account of it useful.

I had not visited Britain for nearly 40 years, and my wife had been for a
few days when she won a ticket to the cup final in 1996 (when Man U beat
Liverpool). We'd never really visited places where our ancestors had lived,
though she had toured around more than I had.

We got quite a lot of different advice, and one of the most valuable was
not to spend too much time in record repositories, but rather absorb the
atmosphere. So we planned a fairly tight schedule -- hired a car in London
when we arrived early on a Mon- day morning, visited friends near
Winchester, and then spent a couple of nights at a B&B near Bath
(Pickfords at Beckington, recommended!).

The next day we picked up a second cousin in Bristol, and visited some 5th
cousins at Kelston near Bath. I'd not met any of them before, though we had
corresponded. We looked at the family trees each of us had drawn, chatted
about the people on them, and looked at family photos. We'd scanned a lot
and put them on a laptop computer, which was the easiest way to carry them
and show them to people. In the afternoon we took cousin Jane to Winscombe
and Axbridge, where Hayes ancestors had lived. My great grandfather's pub
in Axbridge, the Red Lion, was now a private house, but cousin Jane, bold
as brass, knocked on the door and asked if we could have a look around. The
new owner, an American interested in renovating old buildings, very kindly
gave us a cup of tea, and said he was quite used to people coming into the
kitchen and asking for food, not realising that it was no longer a pub.

Next day we headed off to Cornwall, pausing for lunch at North Curry where
the earliest Hayes ancestor claimed to have been born. The crumbling stone
church, with its octagonal tower, under scudding clouds, with strange birds
calling, was far more numinous and spooky than Glastonbury, which we had
passed through to get there, and in spite of its reputation, seemed banal
and suburban by comparison. And being there was important. I'd read about
the flat lands in books, and about the basket willows, but
*seeing* them made a big difference. The pub, the Bird in Hand,
did a pretty good lunch. Some things had changed since 40 years ago --
English cooking had improved. No more plastic and breadcrumb Walls sausages
-- they had real meat. No more twee "French fried potatoes".
Honest-to-goodness chips were back in fashion. Other sixties kitsch had
gone too -- like pubs with shin-high tables and muzak.

We visited some villages in Devon, scurrying through narrow sunken lanes
like rats in a maze. All we saw of one ancestral village was a sign on a
hedge: "Dunchideock -- please drive carefully". Don Moody, who
used to frequent one of the genealogy forums, had said Doddiscombsleigh pub
provided a very good meal, but we were still full from lunch at North
Curry. Wandered around the church yards at Ashton and Trusham, snapping
gravestones with the digital camera, but the memorials to the Stooke family
inside the Trusham church were in better condition. A briefer stop in
Chudleigh (only one ancestor apparently born there) mainly to look for a
loo, and on to Cornwall across Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor. The moors looked
just like the South African highveld.

The next day was a tour of Bodmin Moor parishes. Cardinham, Temple,
Blisland, St Breward, St Teath, St Tudy. Cardinham had very old pews, so
there could be no doubt that generations of ancestral bums had sat on those
seats. It was election day, and when we turned up at Temple there were cars
parked all over, so we assumed at first that everyone had decided no vote
at once, but no, it was a mediaeval wedding in the church, complete with
knights in shining armour, and many colourful costumes.

A highlight was Bodmin. Saw the house my g g grandfather had once lived in,
at 3 Higher Bore Street. But before that he had lived at Scarlett's Well,
and my great grandfather had been born there. So we went there, and drank
from the well. There was only one house there, so they must have lived in
that, though some parts were probably recent additions. But it suddenly
made sense of his occupation as "woodman'. So seeing it, and the
villages in relation to each other, made it much more real. Imagination
doesn't come close.

The next day we were off to Cardiff, supper with another second cousin,
comparing research notes, telling stories. Then North Wales to one of my
wife's second cousins, farming in Snowdonia near Caernarfon. Spent the
following night with friends in Shropshire, then up to Whitehaven where my
wife's grandparents came from, and to Wastwater, which her grandmother
always used to say had "the highest mountain, the deepest lake, the
smallest church, and the biggest liar, but he's dead." If his
gravestone was in the churchyard, we didn't see it. Then to Girvan, where
my great great grandfather was buried, along with the seven of his eight
children who died in infancy. No wonder he committed suicide.

My mother's cousin in Glasgow was the only one we intended to see but
missed; she'd gone off on a bus trip for the day. And so it went, more
cousins in Edinburgh, seeing my alma mater at Durham, staying with a
college friend at Stockton, visiting another cousin in Leeds, visiting
churches in the Isle of Axholme, anoth- er fifth cousin in a little village
in Cambridgeshire, ending up with four days staying in a friend's cottage
in Twickenham, from which we visited the Colindale newspaper library.

London was the only place where we used public transport. Hiring a car was
the only way we could fit in the visits to all the other places. English
friends, when they saw our schedule, thought we were crazy, but it was the
only way we could fit in seeing as many people and places as we did, and it
wasn't rushed. It also meant we did not overstay our welcome. But we had
ancestors from all over the British Isles, and mostly round the edges --
none in the middle. That meant we didn't get to see living relatives who
lived in places like Birmingham, but one can't do everything. You can
choose your friends, but you can't choose your family, so it's always a
toss up whether you'll get on with relatives you've never met before, but
we thoroughly enjoyed meeting all of them, and we hope they were as pleased
to see us.

At the Colindale newspaper library we managed to establish a num- ber of
exact dates of death (cheaper than certificates) from newspaper
announcements. And in some of the early 20th century ones there were more
detailed accounts of funerals and mourners and all.

Apart from the newspaper library, the only actual research data we
collected was digital photos of tombstones, with tran- scriptions made in
situ of ones that might be hard to read in the photos.

So at the end we can say of our trip that everything went well, nothing
went wrong (at least not seriously). There were some things and people we'd
like to have seen but didn't, but there's a limit to what one can
accomplish with 3 weeks leave. We squeezed in as much as we could without
feeling rushed.

So to any others from outside Britain who have British ancestors we would
say, try to visit the places where your ancestors lived, and make contact
with living relatives, even if you've never met them before. You may not
hit it off with all of them, but you're bound to meet some that you like.

Highlights? Hard to say, but probably Scarlett's Well near Bod- min. That
house was probably where my great grandfather was born in 1851. This is
where he grew up (10 in the 1861 census). He played in these fields, these
woods, this stream, drank from this well. These were the things he saw, the
sounds he heard, the smells he smelt.

Some general observations -- changes noticed in Britain in 40 years: I've
already mentioned the improved food. The privatisation of London Transport
was a retrograde step. In 1966, when I used to drive the 133 bus over
London bridge at 9:00 am it was a sea of black brollies and bowler hats
hurrying to the City, and at 5:30 pm the tide reversed. This time I saw
only one bowler hat -- on a college servant at Oxford.

Britain is expensive. Petrol costs twice as much as it does in South Africa
(and we still complain), beer and food in pubs as well. Public transport
too. Bed and breakfast places cost about the same, though, but we noticed
that the more you pay, the less you get. And all but one provided no place
to write, not even a postcard!

Estuary accents are everywhere, even in Cornwall. Didn't hear a West
country accent until we visited my 5th cousin in a little village in the
Cambridgeshire fens -- he still spoke with a Bristol accent. But along with
the spread of London accents to the provinces, an increase in local
loyalty. In the 1960s Union Jacks were everywhere, often tongue in cheek:
on coffee mugs, loo seats, tea towels, you name it. But this time we saw
the Cornish flag on the graves of soldiers who'd been killed in Iraq.
English flags, Scottish flags, and of course bilingual road signs in Wales.
There have been a lot of changes in Britain since the 1960s, but most of
them seem to be for the better. But I still haven't tasted what I am told
is the quintessential British dish: Chicken Tikka Masala.

So, thanks to everyone who gave us advice, whether we took it or not, and I
hope this encourages people who've never seen the homes of their British
ancestors to make the trip.

Steve Hayes
E-mail: hayesmstw{at} (see web page if it doesn't work) Web:

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