Category Archives: Genealogy & Family History

A Crowd-Sourced Favourite Photo Collection (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 03: Favourite Photo)

Is it even possible to choose one favourite photo? I know I couldn’t. All those “What’s your favourite…?” questions send me into a panic. What? You want me to choose a favourite? Right now? Just one? Favourite of all time, or at the moment? Cue brain freeze. I just can’t.

The topic did get me wondering, though, what photos hold meaning and memories for family members and so I decided to crowdsource a collection of photos from them that they might be willing for me to share.

I asked for a favourite family photo (of an individual or group, or of a place or thing with family connection/meaning) and, where known, an indication of when and where the photo was taken and by whom, as well as who or what is in the picture, and why it is a favourite.

A Couple of My Faves

Starting during my 2015 visit to Scotland, my uncle in Edinburgh began digitising the squillions of photographs that belonged to my grandmother and sending them to me (will I ever get them into some sort of coherent order?) It’s an absolute treasure trove though, sadly, there are already loads of people and places we don’t know, proving again why this process needs to be started as early as possible, while those who do know are still living.

Of course, this provided a massive pool of pictures to choose from but it was black and white photo number 627 from this collection that gained my vote this time round:

Grandad Bill and Granny Morag.

It shows my maternal grandparents, William (Bill) Donald Spence and Marion (Morag) Beaton Spence (née Macdonald). I don’t know when or where it was taken (possibly Orkney?), or by whom, but what I do know is that it makes me smile. I just love the expression on my grandfather’s face. He died in 1956 so I never met him but, in almost every photo I’ve seen of him, he looks very serious, professional, collected, polished. This picture, though, just seems to catch him in an unguarded moment of spontaneous joy and I love it!

I’m going with something old and something new, so now for one of my newer favourites: this is my Mum and I on the day I got married just a couple of years ago, sharing a moment outside the chapel before the processional, taken by Shawn Brown Photography. There were tears, especially as we remembered my Dad together, but there was joy, too, and I was profoundly grateful that Mum could be there to “walk” me down the aisle (with a little help from my friends!) The photograph was taken at the start of an afternoon that would forever change my life – a wonderfully happy afternoon, surrounded by so many of our friends and family, as I wed the one I love.

Myself and Mum.
Hubsy

On that note, Hubsy’s special privileges did not allow him an escape from this assignment. He took it very seriously, though, even giving me permission to “remind” (nag?) him to send me pictures. He sent three, and I’ll let him describe them…

“This photo is of my grandpa (Basil Wetton) and myself. It is the only photo that I know of, of both of us. It was taken in about 1973 when I was about 18 months old. He died when I was 2 years old. I still have distinct memories of him. He fought in World War 2 as part of the 2nd Transvaal Scottish Regiment. He was captured by the Germans at El Alamein after falling on a train track and breaking his back. He spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp. The photo was either taken by my mom or my dad at the front door of our family home in Bordeaux, Randburg.” We have since discovered that the photograph was taken on the day James was dedicated.

James and Grandpa, Basil Wetton.

“This photo was taken by my mom when we were children, of my sister (Kerry), my maternal grandmother ‘Ouma’ (Louise Zoutendyk), our beloved dog Pippa (my first pet) and myself. I have very strong memories of everything in this photo: the tea set, the tray, the tablecloth, the table and chairs, the clothes Kerry and I were wearing, Ouma’s clothes, the Christmas Cake we had every year, the decorations on the cake, the flower behind Kerry’s head, the pot holder hanging on the wall, the wall itself, the area of the garden in which that photo was taken… the ‘Pool Area’ of our family home in Bordeaux, Randburg.”

Kerry, Ouma (Louise Zoutendyk) with Pippa, and James.

“This is a photo of mom, Louie Wetton, but don’t you dare call her ‘Louie’ – it was ‘Lou’. This photo was taken by me in December of 2016 at Thyme on Nicol, one of our favourite places for lunch. She had recently come out of hospital. She had been very ill and the doctors had told me that it was only a matter of time and that we should prepare ourselves; she wouldn’t be coming out. That was the worst day of my life. I got home and walked around the pool area consumed with fear, anxiety, and dread. I prayed that God would give me just four more months with her. She came out of hospital the next day. I took this photo of her being very aware how fortunate I was to be with her in that moment. I can still feel how I felt at that moment. She died four months later.”

James’ Mom, Louie Wetton.
Uncle Ronald

Uncle Ronald was a close friend of my Dad’s before he married Dad’s sister and so became my uncle. Despite not seeing one another as frequently as when all the cousins were younger, our families have remained close over the years, sharing many holidays and making many happy memories together.

Uncle Ronald has been such a calm, consistent support to me since Dad’s death – always there, and always willing and able to offer a clear, objective perspective when I need it. He was the first to make contact with me after I spammed the family with my hare-brained idea about joining the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge, roping them into it with various assignments. He grilled me about the challenge and about this, the first family assignment, as well as about my blog, trying to understand the rather fluffy parameters of the project I’d placed before him. Then he sent me this – one of his favourite family photos:

From left to right: Cousin-in-law Angelo, Dad Edgar, Uncle Ronald, Lynette, Mum Shona, and myself.

This is what he had to say about it: “It was taken on Serapa in 2008 over the Christmas period. I see Angelo is driving so I presume Wendy took the photo. Not sure where Mark and Megan were, but I am sure they were on the farm. This photo brings back so many memories of the times, over the years, we all spent on Serapa especially over the festive season. We so enjoyed being with the Nelsons as we all have a love for the bush and nature. I wonder what we were all looking at? Was it an animal or a bird or did Wendy just force us all to pose for the photo? Whatever the reason, I think it makes a great family pic.” Serapa is a game reserve in Rooiberg, Limpopo, South Africa, in which Uncle Ronald has shares.

Auntie Althea

Auntie Althea is my Dad’s sister, and the one who ensured we continued gathering together as a family over the years. She and Uncle John still make a point of regularly visiting my Mum in frail care, for which I’m so very grateful.

Auntie Althea wins the over-achiever award for this assignment, providing me with eleven of her recent favourite photographs to choose from, telling me I could sort them out and wishing me luck!

Preferring to get permission from family members before posting pictures of them (and, more especially, of their children), I’ve only included a selection of these here, since I didn’t get round to contacting everyone before publishing this post.

One of the first ones she sent was of Uncle John with his grandchildren, though this was before little Fay was born:

Back: Cullen. Front, from left to right: Uncle John, Caleb, Abigail, and Jarryd.

I love the different expressions on all the faces, and Jarryd testing the heat from the candle!

This next photo Auntie Althea titled, “Christmas breakfast with Matthew, Michelle, and boys.”

Back, from left to right: Jarryd, Matthew. Front, from left to right: Caleb, Michelle, Auntie Althea, Uncle John.

Last year, Uncle John and Auntie Althea visited both the United Kingdom, catching up with family there, and Spain. This photograph is one from that trip: “A visit to the Cupani Wine Farm in Valencia, Spain, with Billy and Diane, and daughter, Vonnie.” Billy is Uncle John’s cousin.

From left to right: Uncle John, Auntie Althea, Vonnie, Billy, Diane, and one of the owners of Cupani.

Auntie Althea also included this shot: “Lunch with schoolfriends.” How incredible to have kept in contact with friends from schooldays over decades and to be able to share a meal with them!

Uncle John and Auntie Althea on the right of the picture.

The other photographs received from Auntie Althea included a few from a wonderfully memorable pre-Christmas family lunch we enjoyed at the frail care with my Mum on 19 Dec 2022, and the remainder are all from that UK holiday referred to earlier: a wonderful day with Uncle John’s sister, Lynne, and family, in Inverness; a picnic at Windsor Castle; all the family that have immigrated to England and Scotland; a family photo at Alistair and Stacey’s home in Bedfordshire with Sean and Emily (cousin and cousin-in-law respectively of Alistair and Matthew).

Stacey

Stacey is my cousin-in-law, having married Alistair, Auntie Althea’s youngest son. They and their children have now emigrated from South Africa to the United Kingdom, and so we get to see them even less than we used to but it’s a joy to be able to follow some of their adventures on Facebook. Stacey graciously sent me a couple of her favourite photos.

Alistair took this photograph in August 2023 during a family outing to St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, England. One of the reasons Stacey loves it is that they were all so happy and relaxed at the time.

From left to right: Stacey, Cullen, Fay, and Abigail.

This photo of Abi and Alistair was taken by Stacey in April 2023 and she shares why it is one of her favourites: “It was a beautiful country walk and I just remember how lovely it was to hear the two of them chatting and enjoying one another’s company.”

Abigail and Alistair.
Remembering

I have loved seeing the photo choices of family, and reading their recollections. How strange it is to imagine a world before photography when it’s something we tend to take for granted, especially in this digital age. I wonder how many memories and family stories have been lost over the centuries because there was no visual reminder of them. Perhaps our ancestors were just better at remembering and storytelling and listening than we are…

A One-Man Global Village (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 02: Origins)

Aside from a fascination with my origins, the desire to get my DNA tested was really fueled by two other motivators: the ability to (1) confirm research undertaken via traditional channels (essentially a paper trail), and (2) leverage the results in my research to, hopefully, further it and break through some genealogical brick walls.

From South Africa, it was (and still is) a tricky business getting tested through one of the companies that includes family matching since most don’t ship kits to South Africa and returning them is another drama. So I waited patiently(?) for a trip to the UK in 2015 to get tested (you can read about that here).

Spreading the Love

Of course, one test is never enough and I was hooked – now I was after my parents’ DNA! That way, I would be able to determine which family matches came from which branch of my family tree, and what I had inherited from whom. However, DNA has a rather nasty habit of revealing any skeletons in the closet, and so can be a bit of a sensitive subject.

Nevertheless, my parents willingly joined me on this adventure as soon as I was able to get a couple of kits into the country using a freight forwarder. And, guess what? They are my parents. I’m sure we all breathed a collective sigh of relief!

Mum

My Mum’s ethnicity estimate1 really held no great surprises: 86% Scottish, a little Irish, and a sprinkling of Norse – straightforward, tightly ringfenced, nothing particularly unexpected.

Dad

My Dad was generally a quiet man (though he certainly had strong opinions!) He was also a quietly enthusiastic and consistent supporter of my genealogical research and would often ask what new discoveries I’d made and whether I had found out any more about John Nelson (one of the aforementioned brick walls – my 2x great grandfather, with potential links to Ireland).

From research I’d already conducted, I expected Dad’s origins would be around 50 – 75% British and roughly 25% German.

One-Man Global Village

Well, note to self: “Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.”

His DNA ethnicity estimate2 soon had me referring to him as a one-man global village! Okay, it’s perhaps not entirely accurate and a little dramatic, but I think that Dad, in his quiet way, was secretly quite pleased with the title and his rather enigmatic origins.

Questions

The English and Scottish influences account for around 55% of his ethnicity, and then there’s that Irish 6% (John Nelson, is that you?) and a touch of Welsh ethnicity, which is also a mystery.

But where, pray tell, does the Scandinavian ethnicity come from and why does the Germanic influence only account for 6% – so much less than expected? Perhaps the German branch is less German than we thought. Could that same branch be responsible for the Baltic, Eastern European, and Basque origins in the estimate, too?

Surprise!

It was the African, Indian, and Filipino origins that really blindsided me, though, but perhaps they shouldn’t have. You see, aforementioned 2x great grandfather, John Nelson, an enigma himself, married a lady by the name of Magdalene and of her we know nothing prior to the birth of her children with John – not a surname, not a date of birth, nothing of parents or siblings, just… nothing. My suspicion is that she may be the ancestor that carries this ethnicity. My theory would seem to be supported by my father’s only DNA match on the testing site with Magdalene in his family tree – he, too, shares a sprinkling of this ethnicity but, still, we have no conclusive evidence.

So, for now, at least half my father’s ethnicity, especially the origins of John and Magdalene Nelson, remain a mystery which, I suspect, will keep me out of mischief for years to come!

A Corunna Connection, a Cutlass, and a Centenarian’s Super-Stroll (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 01: Family Lore)

“Grandad told me… we had an ancestor called Danny McIntyre who fought in the Battle of Corunna. Grandad used to show us his cutlass which had a curved blade and was quite rusty.”1

Family Stories

So went one of many family stories I heard from one of my mother’s cousins while sitting around her kitchen table on my first trip to Orkney. While it grabbed my attention then, I later confirmed the details of the tale with her via e-mail.

“Grandad” referred to here (also known as “The Major” or “Major Spence”) was my great-grandfather on my Spence line: William Still Spence, a major with the Royal Army Pay Corps. He was, by all accounts, highly respected and there seemed little reason to doubt the story, though it sounded perhaps slightly fanciful and we had nothing else to back it up, though I did recall encountering a Donald McIntyre in our family tree.

Further, the story goes that, at the tender age of a hundred, Danny McIntyre would walk over the Orcadian hills from Costa to Stromness (a distance of some 13 to 18 miles, depending on the route, one way), knocking the thistles out of his path with his stick as he went, in order to collect his pension!2

Confirming Corunna

I doubt anyone in the British forces would want to be associated with that ill-fated Corunna Campaign in the winter of 1808-1809, when, outnumbered by the troops Napoleon had been amassing, they seemed to spiral into disarray and suffered heavy losses. They apparently rallied, though, and fought courageously in the Battle of Corunna while preparing to retreat from Spain, winning a tactical victory, some may say. Regardless, I was now determined to discover whether there was any truth to the tale that a family member had fought in that battle, and so the search began.

Since, at this stage, only one McIntyre had featured in my research (my fourth great grandfather), I turned my focus to him. Census records were my first port of call as I knew his first wife (from whom my ancestors descend) was Mary Begg, and his second marriage was to Betty Hourston, so their presence on a census record with him would help confirm I was looking at the correct person. It turns out that he appears in every census from 1841 until his death, each time in the registration district of Evie and Rendall, Orkney. Interestingly, in the 1841 census, he is recorded as Daniel McIntyre, an Army pensioner, and appears with his first wife, Mary, as well as Mary, the youngest of his three daughters.3 The 1851, 1861, and 1871 censuses all record him as Donald McIntyre, with his second wife, Betsy, and indicates that he is a Chelsea Pensioner (until 1955, the Royal Hospital Chelsea administered the payment of pensions, hence the name).4, 5, 6 So he was, without doubt, a military man, but that still doesn’t prove he fought at Corunna.

Next, I decided to look for the birth records of Donald’s children. Thus far, I’ve only tracked down one – for Elizabeth, his eldest, who happens to be my direct line ancestor – yay! In this, an Old Parish Record for her birth and baptism on 28 May 1814 in Stromness, Orkney, Donald is listed as a Private Soldier in the 9th R.V. (Royal Veteran) Battalion.7 While this Battalion (formed in 1805) initially served at Edinburgh Castle, a company was later dispatched to Orkney, which is likely how Donald came to be there, since he wasn’t an Orcadian by birth.

Now, with evidence of at least one of the corps to which he belonged, I attempted to track down military records for Donald. This met with some initial success: what appears to be his “Statement of Service”. This, indeed, has Donald serving with the 9th Royal Veteran Battalion between 28 November 1811 and 24 September 1815, aligning with the other evidence unearthed thus far. Then, from 25 September 1815 to 03 July 1816, he served with the 3rd Royal Veteran Battalion, which was reformed from companies of the 6th and 9th Royal Veteran Battalions. Interestingly, before both of these, from 10 April 1807 to 27 November 1811, he is recorded as serving with the 71st Foot Regiment – a regiment which saw action at the Battle of Corunna! He was discharged on 03 July 1816 as being “unfit for further Service” as a consequence of a “Wound on the Hip Joint”,8 leaving the fanciful side of me wondering whether this might have been an injury he sustained in battle that hadn’t healed properly! Perhaps we’ll never know. However, we do now know that Donald McIntyre served with a regiment in Corunna at the time of the campaign there.

It was his death record, though, that provided the most convincing evidence. As reported by his grandson, John Wood, Donald McIntyre died from old age on 28 December 1876 in Evie, Orkney. It was, however, a note scrawled in the margin of the entry that confirmed the tale for me: “Fought at Corunna!”9

And the Cutlass?

Ah, yes – the cutlass. Well, it has been seen personally by relatives still living. As we already know, my mother’s cousin was shown Donald McIntyre’s cutlass by her grandad, Major Spence. My uncle, too, wrote to my Mum and I in 2017 saying, “But there is no doubt that swords existed. I remember ‘sword fights’ at Fountainhall Road. At least I remember an old cutlass and a more ‘swish’ modern sword with a sheath.”10

What we don’t know is how Donald came to be in possession of a cutlass. Was it issued to him? Did he purchase it? Sadly, this seems to have passed out of living memory. What has now also become a mystery is what happened to it. In the same e-mail confirming the story she had been told about Donald fighting at Corunna, my mother’s cousin said, “I don’t know what happened to the cutlass after Grandad died but Auntie Margaret might have got it.”11 Sure enough, my uncle is in possession of a letter dated 04 December 1971 and signed by late Auntie Margaret which reads as follows:

The following two swords are to be given to Morag (Mrs M B Spence) or to her son [NAME FOR PRIVATE USE].

1 old fighting sword of Donald McIntyre

1 ceremonial sword (Queen Victoria) with case

which belonged to my father Major W Spence12

Attached to the letter was a second page relating to two more borrowed swords:

Borrowed from Morag (Mrs M B Spence) the two swords as follows:

1 ceremonial sword (Edward VIII) with case

1 Nigerian sword with brass head

To be returned to Morag on request.13

Intriguing – now we’re not only looking for a rusty old cutlass from the 1800s, but at least three other swords, too! We have tried in vain to find out what became of them by contacting cousins, piecing together memories, stories, and letters, and yet they appear to have vanished without a trace. One theory is that they may have been sold at some point, but there is no indication that the letters recording provenance were updated or cancelled (perhaps just an oversight?), and so the mystery remains.

A Centenarian’s Super-Stroll

Is there truth to the tale that Donald McIntyre regularly covered the distance between Costa and Stromness at the age of a hundred to collect his pension? Well, the census records alone all agree he was a pensioner.14, 15, 16, 17 His death record states that he was 104 years old when he died, so it certainly seems he lived to be a centenarian.18 His home was in Evie, a couple of miles from Costa. All these facts support the story that this man, beyond the age most of us will live, made the 26 – 36 mile roundtrip on foot to collect his pension on a weekly or monthly basis.

While there is still much to learn about (and from) the life and times of Donald McIntyre, a.k.a. Dan/Danny/Daniel, it seems quite plausible and probable from the evidence gathered that he did indeed fight at Corunna. It also seems possible that he walked between Costa and Stromness to collect his pension at the age of one hundred. What is certain is that he left a legacy still remembered by his descendants and, for now, his fascinating story lives on. As for the cutlass and the other swords, perhaps they are still “living on” somewhere but, for now, they do so disconnected from their stories.

#AncestorChallenge2018 – Quarter 1 Roundup

Being a little behind the times (yes, as usual 🙄), we were already midway through January before I stumbled across the #AncestorChallenge2018 hashtag while meandering the Twitterverse.

Used with the kind permission of David Allen Lambert. Follow him on Twitter at @DLGenealogist or his blog, thepastfinder.wordpress.com.

The challenge resonated on many levels. Firstly, it’s true that memories and stories quickly begin to fade, unless they’re recorded. Secondly, a tweet is a whole lot more manageable than an entire blog post, right? That’s not to say that the challenge excludes blog posts – quite the contrary – but it doesn’t dictate the format or medium or length for the content of the tweet (or what it links to), and there’s a freedom in that. Thirdly, the challenge could just help move my research (and organisation of it) forward, baby steps at a time. And, by the end of it all, I’d have 52 ancestral tidbits “published”, in a manner of speaking – more than I would have otherwise. So I decided to take up the challenge.

To stick to it, though, I needed a plan and so I chose to pick an event from an ancestor’s life that fell during the week scheduled for each of my tweets (not that I’ve managed to tweet on the scheduled day every time, or even in the appropriate week, but, as “they” say, better late than never!)

However, it occurred to me that many friends and family members aren’t Tweeple and, furthermore, my #AncestorChallenge2018 tweets could end up sandwiched in a mini-melee of other, unrelated tweets, so I figured a quarterly roundup of them in a blog post was the way to go and, voilà, a new blog post (or four) was born 🙂

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5

https://twitter.com/RowenaGNelson/status/959377129048854528

Week 6

https://twitter.com/RowenaGNelson/status/962029668605005824

Week 7

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12

https://twitter.com/RowenaGNelson/status/976936926149259264

Week 13

And, so, there you have it: my #AncestorChallenge2018 tweets for January to March 2018. Until next quarter…

Till We Meet

View of the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery. © TWGPP & CWGC. Used with the kind permission of The War Graves Photographic Project.

It was a balmy Sunday evening in El-Qantara el-Sharqîya, or Kantara, as it was known to the Allied forces. Situated in the northeast of Egypt, the city’s name comes from the Arabic for “the bridge” and it was here, on that night, 11th November 1917, that Private Lachlan Macdonald, slipped away over the bridge between time and eternity.

The Quiet before the Storm
In Palestine, ten days earlier, the first phase [of the third battle] for Gaza was carried out by the Allies: the assault on the sand dune known as Umbrella Hill. It was still under Turkish control, as was the city itself, following the Turks’ successful resistance to the Allied advance in April 1917.

While this resistance resulted in respite from fighting, the Royal Scots’ focus in the Middle Eastern theatre of war turned, instead, to the development of transportation infrastructure, gaining ground in No-Man’s-Land, and the construction of a series of elaborate trenches and fortifications facing the objective still very much in their sights: Gaza.

On the 30th September 1917, Lachlan, under the 4th Royal Scots, joined the 412th Field Company Royal Engineers, as part of the 156th (Scottish Rifles) Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division. As a pioneer, he would likely have spent much of his time working on those roads, railways, and trenches, an experience vividly described by Major John Ewing: “The soil was infested with insects of every description, and in numerous trenches and hollows the troops found unpleasant companions in snakes, flies, tarantulas, scorpions, and centipedes. During the hot and dry weather the atmosphere was thick with dust so that even the tiniest scratch tended to become a septic sore.”1

It was also during this lull that the soldiers received new rifles, steel helmets and, in the case of the 4th Royal Scots, new command: Lieutenant-Colonel A. M. Mitchell.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death
But this was war, and the fighting was bound to resume, which it did with the attack on Umbrella Hill, on the 1st November 1917. At 23:00, under heavy fire from Ottoman soldiers, the 7th Cameronians and a company of the 7th Royal Scots advanced. Despite the ferocious aggression of the Turks, and the captain of the 7th Royal Scots taking a hit, they, together with their wounded leader, and the Cameronians, made superb headway and, within half an hour, by 23:30, the hill was theirs.

Umbrella Hill : the most advanced of the redoubts guarding Gaza. Image: British infantrymen advance at night across No Man’s Land towards Turkish positions on Umbrella Hill, which rises up gently in the right background. The British soldiers, carrying rifles, move out of their advanced trenches in the left of the composition, with the dry ground in front of them dotted with shell holes and clusters of barbed wire. The dark sky is illuminated by a halo of light … Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1520). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/18002. Watercolour and charcoal, by James McBey, 30 October 1917.

This victory paved the way for the second phase of the battle for the Palestinian city: prying El Arish Redoubt and “Little Devil” (a network of trenches to one side of the fortification) from the grip of the Turks.

The operation was to be carried out by Lachlan’s battalion, the 4th Royal Scots, together with the 8th Cameronians and the aid of the 7th Royals Scots, should it be required. The carefully-planned assault would take place in waves, formed along four lines of tape laid out earlier. As the men started to move out along the tapes, they were sighted by the Ottomans who unleashed a storm of fire from their machine guns. Nevertheless, the 4th Royal Scots resolutely concluded their deployment along the battle lines.

Just before 03:00 on the morning of the 2nd November 1917, the two tanks escorting the battalion set off toward enemy territory. Neither made it very far, though: the first was soon rendered inoperative and the second was hit and ended up in flames, having reached the opposing trenches, leaving the Royal Scots to advance without them. Even so, and despite the ceaseless barrage of machine gun fire from the Turkish soldiers, they made formidable progress through the lines of their enemy. Then, as Major John Ewing recorded, there was, “…a terrific crash, while stones and earth hurtled through the air and the ground seemed to rise in eruption…”2 Lance Corporal R. Loudon, a signaller with the 4th Royal Scots, added, “Two Turkish contact mines exploded… blowing many of the men to pieces… As I got near the Turkish trenches the enemy shell and machine–gun fire became so intense, with shells bursting all around…”3

Gaza : the shells on the left are bursting on El Arish Redoubt. Image: a view from the slot of an observation post at shells exploding over Gaza. There are two large explosions on the far left and another two on the far right, with the buildings and minarets of the city visible in the middle. Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2940). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/18150. Watercolour and ink, by James McBey, 22 September 1917.

Reeling from this massive blow, the Royal Scots somehow managed to pull together and press on with their mission. Still in the dark of those early hours, they attacked “Little Devil”, slowly but surely forcing the Ottomans out, “with bomb and bayonet”4.

On the Edge of Glory
The fighting continued all through the day but El Arish Redoubt had been successfully captured by the 4th Royal Scots. In the midst of the battle, they received a message from Brigadier-General A. H. Leggett: “Well done, 4th Royal Scots! Hold on for all you are worth. Your battalion has covered itself with glory.”5

They paid a high price for that glory, though: bloodshed, and lots of it. Many lost their lives; many were wounded and, somewhere among them, in what David R. Woodward termed “Hell in the Holy Land”6, was Lachlan. He was wounded in action on the 2nd November 1917. But how? Was it in that deadly machine gun fire? Or the explosion of the mines? Or in the assault on the series of trenches known as “Little Devil”? Perhaps we’ll never know, this side of eternity, but he must have been taken to Deir al-Balah where, on the 3rd of November 1917, his service records state that he was dangerously ill, having suffered shrapnel wounds to his midsection. It seems he was then transferred to the 44th Stationary Hospital in Kantara, Egypt.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell, in command of the 4th Royal Scots, received another letter from Brigadier-General Leggett: “I particularly desire to thank you and every officer, N.C.O., and man of your gallant battalion for their magnificent services and unequalled dash and bravery in the attack, capture, and consolidation of El Arish Redoubt. The task was a very formidable one, but nothing could or ever will be able to stand against the gallantry and iron determination, you, one and all, so recently displayed. I hope to see you all soon and thank you personally for all you have done, but in the meantime I should much like you to make it known to all ranks how grateful I am and how intensely proud I am of the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles.”7

I don’t know whether Brigadier-General Leggett ever met with the Queen’s Edinburgh Rifles but I’m fairly certain that Lachlan never heard of his letter or got to meet him for, on 14th November 1917, the matron of the hospital wrote to Lachlan’s wife, Christina, informing her of his death, on 11th November 1917, from fatal wounds to the abdomen, while his service records confirm this and add that he suffered a secondary haemorrhage.

Letter from Matron G Hughes, 44th Stationary Hospital, Kantara, 14 November 1917.

Lachlan Macdonald was my great-grandfather. Piecing together some of the story of his last days has filled me with emotion. In reading various accounts of the war in Palestine, there has been an almost tangible sense of terror at facing the horrors of battle. I’ve felt sick to my stomach as I’ve sought to place myself in Lachlan’s shoes at the instant he was wounded and then grappled with what it must have been like to endure. Tears have fallen as I’ve envisaged him dying in that hospital in Egypt, and as I’ve imagined Great-Granny Christina, back home in Leith, opening that letter from the matron, and needing to break the news to their three children, who would always carry in them something of the man she married.

But a character portrait has also begun to emerge of a man of courage, exhibiting selflessness, and who, while staring death in the face, “was most patient in bearing his sufferings”, as Matron Hughes observed. Today, 11th November 2017, is the 100th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s death. It’s also Remembrance Day and so I choose to remember, not only his death, but his life and the lessons and legacy he left behind.

Lachlan’s grave in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery. Photograph by David Milborrow. © TWGPP & CWGC. Used with the kind permission of The War Graves Photographic Project.

Till we meet, Grandad Lachlan, till we meet…

Disclaimer
Until fairly recently, we knew nothing of Lachlan Macdonald’s death, aside from the fact that he died while serving during the First World War. In fact, we knew very little about him at all.

Then I discovered his grave in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, as well as a family headstone in a small cemetery on Skye, through The War Graves Photographic Project. My uncle in Edinburgh, with whom it has been such a privilege to journey on this voyage of family discovery, scanned the letter through to me from Matron Hughes, which was found amongst papers belonging to our Macdonald relatives. Following the information on Lachlan’s Kantara grave, I ordered both volumes of Major John Ewing’s The Royal Scots 1914–1919, in the hope of gaining insight into the context in which my great-grandfather served and died. Subsequent to the September 1940 bombing of London, about 60% of soldiers’ service records from the First World War were lost in the ensuing fire. Those that remained became known as the “Burnt Documents”. We are therefore incredibly fortunate that, in Lachlan’s case, his service records survived and I was able to get hold of them through Ancestry.com.

While I cannot say for sure what happened in the events leading up to Lachlan’s death, it is from piecing together the information found in these sources that the story above has gradually taken shape and the picture of his last days has become clearer. I can’t, though, even pretend to understand the Great War, and am by no means a military researcher, but have tried to ensure that facts have been retained and that my findings are consistent with them. However, it’s entirely possible that the story may continue to evolve as more evidence and new information comes to light.

Similarly, I apologise where my military knowledge, and interpretation and use of military terms, may be lacking. I’m sure my proficiency in this area will also continue to develop with time and, consequently, lend a greater depth of understanding to what we have already been able to uncover.

DNA of a Champion Santa and Other Creatures

I wake up with all the eagerness of a kid on Christmas Day. On my bed when I arrived at Granny Oxford’s yesterday was the DNA testing kit I had ordered from AncestryDNA. Today, before I eat or drink anything, I’m going to spit in a tube and send my saliva to Ireland for testing – how exciting is that?!

My long-awaited AncestryDNA kit!

My DNA Testing Backstory
I had been itching to have my DNA tested for ages. AncestryDNA was the logical choice since I have a family tree on Ancestry.com. However, they don’t ship kits to South Africa – surprise, surprise – so I’d parked the idea for a bit.

However, through the fabulous Facebook group, South African Genealogy, I virtually (or digitally – whatever the correct term is) bumped into a “brand new” third cousin. She’s related to me through my Dad’s paternal grandmother, Augustina Welhelmina Becker, born to Julius August Wilhelm Becker, who arrived in South Africa from Germany as a child. Brand-new-third-cousin also happens to have her family tree on Ancestry.com and her great grandmother was Augustina’s sister. You’re still tracking with me, right?!

Anyway, during some e-mail correspondence with brand-new-third-cousin, it transpired that she had her DNA tested and, quite astonishingly, it revealed her ethnicity to be almost 40% Jewish. She believed it to be from one of the German branches in her family tree and so the desire to have my DNA tested was renewed: I figured it could either confirm or eliminate the Becker line as the potential source for third cousin’s ethnicity surprise! Consequently, when my trip to the UK was confirmed and my itinerary was starting to come together, one of the first things I did was order an AncestryDNA kit online.

Now, here I was, carefully depositing just the right amount of saliva into a test tube, sealing it, shaking it to release the stabilising fluid, and popping it into the collection bag and then into the prepaid mailing box provided, all ready for the postman to pick up on his way past.

A Warm WI Welcome
After a lovely, late-ish, leisurely breakfast and a quiet morning with a few cups of coffee thrown in, we slowly begin preparing ourselves for the Sibford WI meeting, which means gathering platefuls of scrumptious eats from the larder and the freshly-finished Christmas stocking, before making our way to the Sibford Village Hall.
Granny Oxford has obviously prepared ahead: during the announcements, apologies and welcomes, I’m warmly introduced as “her adopted granddaughter from South Africa.”

The new Sibford WI banner, beautifully embroidered for the WI centenary by Mollie, one of the local members, is on display, and Mollie explains the symbolism and elements of The Sibfords she so skilfully incorporated into the work.

The new Sibford WI banner.

What Makes a Santa?
Having initiated the process to gain insight into my own DNA just this morning, I’m about to discover the DNA of a Santa. The Sibford WI speaker today is Santa Ron from Luton, who has been Santa-ing for decades – just over five of them, in fact. That’s a fairly substantial career to compress into a short talk but a champion Santa has got to have some serious time management skills, right?

Santa Ron, although not a very good photo, I’m afraid. However, it hopefully gives a feel for the jolliness of the man and a sample of his jolly wardrobe!

He takes us on a flypast of some of his red-suit-donning-work, which started when he dressed up as Santa to deliver gifts to his own son. Since then, he has brought festive cheer to countless youngsters, raised funds for charities, travelled the world and attended a myriad of conventions and functions around the globe. If you’ve ever wondered what Santas do in the summer (Northern Hemisphere summer, that is), they apparently descend on Denmark for the Annual World Santa Claus Congress held in Bakken (the oldest amusement park in the world, established in 1583)!

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of Santa Ron’s career was winning “World’s Best Santa” at the Santa Claus Winter Games in 2004 on his first attempt, and that against veteran Santas! Held in Lapland, qualifying Santas from several countries arrive to battle it out for the coveted title. Aspiring Santas, if you want to know what it takes to become a champion, listen up! You’ll be expected to eat porridge while ensuring your ample white whiskers remain spotless, forge friendships with and harness grumpy reindeer, climb chimneys, gift wrap like a pro, exhibit nerves of steel in hair-raising sledge and reindeer sleigh races, and more, all in the icy temperatures of the Arctic Circle while maintaining a jolly, personable demeanour!

In keeping with the Christmas theme, the meeting wraps up with the judging of the Christmas stocking competition. Predictably (in my humble opinion!), Granny Oxford’s entry takes top honours 🙂 After helping with the cleaning, washing and packing up, we head home to prepare for our next engagement!

I Heard the Bells…
Granny Oxford is quite musical and, although she takes piano lessons, we’re making our way to something a little more unusual this evening: hand bell ringing! Yes, it’s a thing, and quite beautiful (if one knows what one’s doing, I guess!). I don’t, sadly, and don’t even read music, so can’t fill in for the absent bell ringers. Instead, after helping them set up, I simply watch, intrigued, as this group of ladies work together to coax magical, fairy-like melodies from a vast array of brass bells.

The bell ringers in action. Granny Oxford is on the front right (in the jersey with olive green patterns).

As we drive the dark lanes back to Sibford, I mull over what has been a day of eclectic and extraordinary experiences and, once again, marvel at the privilege of being a part of them, even as I look forward to my bucket list plans for tomorrow 😉

Carelessness and Consequence En Route to Granny Oxford

This morning’s schedule is filled with a strict series of carefully coordinated train trips that will carry me from the south coast of England through London Town to the edge of the Cotswolds – Banbury, to be precise. There, my “adopted grandmother” will meet me when my final train for the day pulls into the station at 12:05, but much needs to fall into place first.

I Know Where You Live[d]!
Charlotte Walker, recorded as the informant of great grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton’s birth, lived at 3 Trinity Mews in Hastings so, naturally, I’m going to swing past the place before heading off to the station to catch my first train which leaves just after 08:00.

Trinity Mews is roughly a block and a bit away but I still jog-walk there for fear of being late for the first leg of my northbound journey. The property is marked as private so I don’t go in but snap a few pics from the street.

Oh, for more time (and a peek inside Number 3)! I long to uncover who Charlotte Walker was. All I know is that she was present at Great Grandma Kate’s birth but was she the midwife? A friend of the family? Perhaps there’s a baptism record or a newspaper clipping somewhere that would make the connection for me. Perhaps title deeds to the Trinity Mews residence would answer some questions. I wonder if I’ll ever know. For now, I have to content myself with standing outside the home of one who witnessed my great grandmother’s entrance into this world.

Monday Morning Madness
I motor back to Cambridge Gardens, snapping a spooky selfie on Brassey Steps as I go.

The Speedy, Spooky Selfie Snap on Brassey Steps.

I grab my bags, check out (i.e. leave the key in the door – foreign concept to a South African!) and make my way to Hastings Station. The platform is insanely busy and, I realise, it’s school rush hour. Consequently, the arrival of the train signals a rather tense jostle for position as I join the tide of satchels, briefcases and shopping bags vying for a spot on it. I only have 5 minutes between its arrival at Brighton and my next one’s departure for London Victoria, so can’t afford to miss it. There’s no sitting room left and those of us standing are so tightly packed that it takes a few attempts before the doors manage close successfully.

Thankfully, I make my connection to London Victoria and, with the train having emptied considerably, I peel off my backpack and find a seat. Barely an hour later, I wrestle my luggage onto my back again and hightail it through London Victoria to Victoria Underground Station. The direct route, amid all the construction, involves stairs and so it’s here that I’m particularly grateful to have my luggage on my back. I catch the underground to Oxford Circus and then once more from there to Marylebone.

I walk through to London Marylebone station and collect my ticket for my final train trip of the day from the self-service machine. Phew – what a morning! The platform for the Banbury departure is not yet listed on the boards so I grab a cappuccino while I wait – a fitting reward for a hectic schedule, skilfully executed. Until now.

I look up at the boards and notice that the platform for the 11-something to Banbury has now made an appearance. Shouldering my baggage once more, I make my way through the gates and bundle myself into a quiet carriage. It’s not long before we leave London behind and are cutting our way through the English countryside.

The Consequence of Carelessness
The train makes several stops along the way and, after about forty minutes or so, I almost instinctively become aware that it’s not going to make it to Banbury by 12:00. As I process this thought, I cast my mind back to the booking I’d made. I remember seeing another train scheduled to leave London Marylebone at around the same time as the one I’d chosen but it was scheduled to take almost an hour longer. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” was the thought that had gone through my head when I booked my ticket and now here I was, inadvertently aboard the wrong 11-something to Banbury 🙁

As the realisation dawned, my heart sank. The fact that I had caught the incorrect train and was going to arrive late at my destination didn’t bother me; it was that my adopted grandmother had offered to drive to Banbury to meet me at the station and now I wasn’t going to be there – that bothered me a great deal. Mortified at the thought, I scold myself severely before considering an appropriate course of action.

She doesn’t have a mobile phone (that I know of) but I wonder whether I can get hold of her before she leaves home. My mobile, which has thus far had no problems finding a network, now stubbornly refuses to connect. For the remainder of the trip, I continue trying to call, all to no avail. I fly out of the train as we eventually pull to a stop in Banbury. Swinging myself down the stairs, I frantically search the parking lot – nothing. I retrace my steps to the longer term parking – no sign of that familiar face there, either.

Catching public transport is the next option but I want to make certain she’s arrived home first and isn’t still searching for me. My phone has not yet found itself so it’s time to go old school and use the payphone. For that, I need the correct coins, which I don’t have, so I figure that’s a good enough reason to buy a Ribena in the station shop. Clutching my precious change, I make the call and discover she’s not yet there. After a ten minute wait, I try again and this time she picks up – yay! We chat briefly, I apologise profusely, and then dash out of the station building to hail a cab.

Granny Oxford
We negotiate the traffic out of Banbury and soon Oxfordshire is flying past in a blur of green. My thoughts turn to my adopted grandmother. She was a teacher at my mother’s school, George Watson’s Ladies College in Edinburgh, back when my mother was a student there. They stayed in touch through the years and I met her during a trip to the UK with my mum in the 80s, I think.

We corresponded erratically after that and, years later, in the late 90s, while I was doing Oracle Forms development on a Fleet Management System in Bracknell, she helped me maintain some semblance of sanity during what was a particularly difficult time of long working hours and relentless project deadlines. Often, if I had a weekend off and it was my turn to use the pool car, I would head north on the hour and a half-ish drive to spend a couple of days with her. It was then that she began referring to me as her adopted granddaughter. One of my colleagues at the time dubbed her “Granny Oxford” and, while she lives in Oxfordshire, not Oxford, and isn’t my biological granny, the name stuck.

“Which way?” my driver asks suddenly, pulling me out of my reverie. I look around. I don’t usually come into Sibford this way but soon get my bearings, even though it’s been eight years since my last visit. I direct him the rest of the way and, a few minutes later, I’m hugging Granny Oxford and her sister, who now lives with her.

Home Away from Home
“Dinner’s not quite ready,” I’m told as I walk through the door, so I go upstairs to put my luggage down. Nothing has changed. The familiar guest room feels like home, from the pink paint on the walls to the rose-patterned curtains, to the window overlooking the apple tree in the front garden, to the wooden floor and the white dresser. I breath it all in deeply and exhale slowly before making my way downstairs again.

My bedroom window looking onto the apple tree.

Dinner (or lunch, as I know it) is a delicious stew, and is followed by dessert and an afternoon filled with catch-up chats. One of Granny Oxford’s outstanding characteristics is her incredible industriousness and that hasn’t changed either. She’s constantly baking or making or learning something. Her larder inevitably contains an array of home-baked goods, her hands are always busy and her calendar is usually covered with a generous sprinkling of appointments. She introduced me to needlework when I first met her and, on this particular evening, she’s putting the finishing touches on a Christmas stocking she’s made for the WI (Women’s Institute) meeting we’re apparently attending tomorrow 😉

Exhausted, I eventually fall into bed and drift off into contented slumber, but not before whispering a prayer of thanks for awesome adopted family 🙂

A Sunday Stroll to Church Then into Battle!

Kate Isabella Bolton’s parents, Alfred and Clara, were married in Emmanuel Church, Hastings, in 1877, and so my plan is to head there for a Sunday service and get to sit in the building where my great, great grandparents would have committed themselves to one another, almost 140 years ago.

Portion of “England. Certified Copy of an Entry of Marriage. General Register Office; Hastings, Sussex, December Quarter 1877, Volume 2b, Page 51, No 37 for Marriage of Alfred Bolton and Clara Pinny.”

It’s a fair walk but a beautiful morning for it, cool and bright. Seagulls squawk pleadingly overhead but, other than that, it’s still quiet out.

I stop briefly on the way to get some shots of Holy Trinity before heading up Castle Hill Road again. It’s a little more forgiving when one has a bit of time to spare!

Blessings
I reach the church with about half an hour to spare and wander the streets that surround it, appropriately named Vicarage, Priory and Emmanuel. As I do so, strains of 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) filter out of the building as musicians prepare for the service. It’s one of my favs and seems somehow appropriate. Gratitude gets my insides doing a little happy dance!

Just before 10:30, I make my way indoors just as two elderly ladies do the same. They notice I’m not a regular, introduce themselves and bustle me through the doors, introducing me to a number of other congregants along the way.

I file into a pew, trying to look inconspicuous, but a couple sitting behind me are eager to hear my story. We chat easily as I share where I’m from, why I’m here and where I’m heading, and they tell me something of themselves. It transpires that their daughter and her family had recently been holidaying in Orkney and so more threads of this amazing tapestry of connectedness reveal themselves, as the chords of 10,000 Reasons reach my ears for the second time today 🙂

Emmanuel Church, Hastings, Order of Service.

Afterwards, I’m graciously invited to stay to tea but have a train to catch and so say my goodbyes. The lady sitting behind me with her husband says, “We won’t forget this day,” and I swallow the lump in my throat – I walked into this building a total stranger and leave, barely an hour and a half later, blown away by the kindness and warmth of this beautiful community.

Pensive but filled with joy, I head back down the hill, admiring the splashes of colour, mostly pastels, that mark many Hastings houses.

Into Battle!
At the station, I buy a return ticket to Battle (I’m optimistic, you see!) and hop on the train. Battle, as you may have guessed, is a place rather than an event, although it is named after the Battle of Hastings which took place on this site in 1066. It’s also where William the Conqueror had an abbey built in gratitude for his victory over the Saxons and in penance for the blood that was shed. It’s a good 15-minute walk to the battlefield from Battle station and I find that I’ve arrived on a weekend commemorating the battle which took place here on 14 October, 949 years ago.

Consequently, Battle isn’t devoid of danger after all, for the place is teeming with people and almost every child is armed with a sword or axe of wood or plastic which they’re flailing around madly, at a height rather hazardous to adults! I take refuge in what remains of the chapter house and dormitory range.

I then head down to the battlefield, wandering among the Saxon tents, where battle preparations are underway. In keeping with the theme, I decide on a wild boar burger with applesauce for lunch – delish!

Then, sun glistening on their helmets and standards fluttering proudly, the Saxons, led by Harold, draw up battle lines to form their trusty shield wall. It has served them well in recent victories and, as long as it holds, they will stand. Soon, the Normans are deployed onto the battlefield, William the Conqueror leading them.

The battle rages and a skirmish sees William falling. In the confusion which follows, his men drop back, now unsure, faltering. William is alive but needs to prove it to his warriors. He remounts and removes his helmet, so they can see his face, as he rides along their lines.

A flank of the Norman army begins retreating. They’re pursued down the hill by a group of Saxons. William sees his next tactic demonstrated. He orders his army to repeat the retreat and, sure enough, some Saxon soldiers are drawn away, following the Normans apparently retreating down the hill, only to be surrounded and annihilated by them. The shield wall is thinning.

Then, another flurry of Norman arrows trace a graceful arc into Saxon lines. Shields are lifted to deflect them but a cry of horror rises to the skies, too – an arrow has pierced Harold’s eye and he drops to the ground – dead. A band of faithful men surround him, loyal to the last, but they lose their lives and Harold’s standard falls.

The Saxons rally bravely but they are leaderless and the shield wall is disintegrating. The Normans pick it to pieces and William emerges victorious to lay claim to the English throne. This historic field I’m standing in lies soaked in the blood of battle and marks a turning point in the British narrative.

I walk back through the grounds, below the Guesthouse Range and the Abbey, past the dairy and icehouse, to explore the Duchess of Cleveland’s walled garden.

As I head back toward the gatehouse, I pass a tapestry strung up between some trees. It’s not the famous Bayeux tapestry, as one might expect, although there is one panel dedicated to the technique used for that piece. Rather, this one tells the story of a lesser known battle, the Battle of Maldon. The artist informs me that it took him three years and that it’s for sale… for £6 000, if you’re interested and happen to have that lying around!

A badly stitched composite of four photos of the tapestry of the Battle of Maldon. It took forty photos to capture the entire tapestry!

Another badly stitched composite of four photos of the tapestry of the Battle of Maldon. These four frames show the end of the tapestry.

Full Circle
Back in Hastings, it’s already dark as I take another walk along the beachfront, to Queen’s Apartments.

Queen’s Hotel, now Queen’s Apartments, where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny.

This used to be the Queen’s Hotel and it’s where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny in Emmanuel Church, where my day started.

I’ve come full circle. I’ve returned to places that were part of the lives of my ancestors, part of me. I’ve had a history lesson. I’ve touched the past. And I have an early start in the morning!

On the Streets Where You Lived (Part 2)

I pre-planned this now-late lunch for Café des Arts, having stumbled across them on the Internet. Perhaps it was their tagline that got me: “Satisfy Your Coffee, Art and Food Passions”. Perhaps it was their social concern. According to the intro in their menu, the “café was opened by Autism Sussex in 2009 as a social enterprise to provide training and work experience for people with Autistic Spectrum Condition. The aim is for trainees to learn transferable skills which will enhance their chances of future employment in the wider community.”

Hastings Orientation
I order a cappuccino and look around. Large, comfy-looking armchairs encircle low tables in the front windows. Stained glass windows and wooden panelling line the back of the café area. Shelves display works by autistic artists. They’re all for sale, another way Café des Arts seeks to support and empower those on the autistic spectrum.

The café is also directly across the road from Holy Trinity, which appears to be the church of the parish in which my great grandmother’s birth was registered. “Where was she baptised?” I wonder idly. Was it in the beautiful though unusually-shaped church I was now looking at? I make a mental note to find out…

Portion from “Benjamin Tree (Registrar), Certified Copy of an Entry of Birth Given at the General Register Office, Registration District Hastings, 1878 Birth in the Sub-district of Saint Mary in the Castle in the County of Sussex, No 343, Kate Isabella Bolton, Application Number 5995428-1, BXCG 312312 (England, General Register Office, 09 Oct 2014).”

Holy Trinity Church, Hastings, was built on a triangular piece of land formed by the intersection of Robertson and Trinity Streets in the 1850s (about the same time Hastings Station came into being). To my uneducated eye, it seems the site may have been ideally suited to the eccentricity of the church’s Victorian architect, one Samuel Sanders Teulon, a great character, by all accounts. Hastings itself had, of course, been around a lot longer, with its first documented mention in 790. Historically a Saxon settlement, market and fishing town, and port, it later became a popular seaside resort, and remains a tourist destination today.

A Brisk March up Castle Hill
By the time I’ve devoured a delicious goat’s cheese, pesto and salad sandwich, it’s just after half past three. If I’m to make it to Hastings Castle at all, it needs to be today and I’ll need to hurry – last admission is at 16:00. I pay my dues and turn right out onto Robertson Street, marching hurriedly in the general direction of the castle. I appear to be on track by the time I reach Castle Hill Road but it shows me no mercy. It’s a steep climb and, within minutes, I’m gasping for breath and it feels as though molten iron is searing through my calf muscles. Just when I think I’ll never make it on time, I round a bend and see a sign for the castle.

I reach the entrance, barely able to speak, at 15:57 – just in time to buy a ticket and stumble into the last audiovisual presentation of the day. Afterwards, I wander round what remains of the castle, though much of it has long since collapsed into the sea or fallen prey to ruin, decay and disrepair. With its majestic vantage point high above the town and overlooking the sea, it’s easy to see why William (the Conqueror) ordered the building of a fortress here, a few days after the Battle of Hastings.

As with any castle worthy of the title, Hastings Castle has a few ghost stories to tell. One belongs to the structure itself: it is said that 18th century sailors out at sea were occasionally able to look back and see the castle whole, in all its former glory. Ghosts said to wander the ruins include that of a nun, a lady in white, and a woman carrying a baby (who is thought to have ended her own life and that of her child following desertion by her lover). The phantom of murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is also thought to hang out here. Fortunately for my constitution, I saw none of these, although this creature could be seen wandering around:

Yours Truly in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

Middle Street Today
I have no number for the Middle Street location where Great Grandmother Kate was born and, even if I did have, I doubt the building would still be there. Nevertheless, I make my way back down Castle Hill Road and into the “New Town” again. Middle Street is easy to find. It feeds into the shopping district and, today, The Body Shop occupies one corner and a pub the other, at that end. Behind these, the backs of shops are housed in newish-looking buildings. Further up, there’s a university parking lot and then a couple of ramshackle, rundown houses on either side. At the top of the street, graffiti covers a garage door.

If I had more time here, I’d be hitting the museum and archives, finding out more about this street in the late 1870s. For now, I simply get to walk where my ancestors walked, about 137 years ago. I savour the experience and then, as the sun begins to set, I head for the beach and the Old Town.

Walking the Town Flat and Reaping a Reward
It’s a gorgeous evening but the beach is quiet. I meet a seagull who’s very friendly until I try to photograph him. I wander along the pebbles.

Hastings pier and beach (yes, it’s a pebble beach, because that’s mostly how England rolls!)

I pass the miniature golf course and railway, the amusement park, and then the net shops. The information boards tell me, “These Tall Black Wooden Sheds are unique to Hastings.” They were used by fishermen to store their fishing tackle and keep it dry and prevent rot.

I’m now striding down Rock-a-Nore Road in search of Rock A Nore Kitchen, a tiny restaurant earning quite a name for itself, judging from the commentary on the Interwebs. With only about five tables and a reputation which is both glowing and growing, I suspect they may be fully booked this evening. They are.

Not to be easily outdone, I have another evening meal option up my sleeve. I am in England, after all, and on the coast. Fish and chips is pretty much mandatory, and I’ve done a bit of homework: Life Boat Restaurant is the place to go. It’s back a little, in the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, which I’m already wishing I had more time to explore.

While waiting for my order, I notice confirmation of popular Internet opinion taped to the counter in the form of an article from the Hastings Independent Press. It shows Life Boat Restaurant voted the top fish and chip restaurant in Hastings, by the locals, in February this year.

Who’s the Best?

It’s almost 20:00 now and I’ve put in a pretty decent power-walking effort today. I feel I’ve earned my meal but nothing could have prepared me for the size of it.

I’m not sure that there’s any truth to the tagline on the packaging, but I’d like to think so!

They offer a medium and a large cod. I chose the medium and shudder to think what the large would have looked like. The pics do not do it any justice at all but I feel it would have fed at least two and a half people!

Medium cod and chips (allegedly!)

Exhausted, but sated and grateful, I eventually fall asleep in the town where my great grandmother would have done the same, as a baby, over a hundred years ago.

On the Streets Where You Lived (Part 1)

Of course, sleep never seems to last long on a plane before one gets hyper-uncomfortable. There’s a whole lot of squirming and a little bit of shut-eye playing on repeat until breakfast is served some two hours before landing.

It’s a continental breakfast, quite fitting since we’re now flying over France. I’m tracking our progress on the moving map, you know – just to make sure the pilot’s on course and holding altitude and all that! I start lifting the shutter and sneaking peaks out of my window, matching the lights below with our current location. It’s not long before I identify the lights of Paris, beautiful even in the darkness from 40 000 feet. We begin our descent.

Clearing Immigration and Making Connections
I’m a little concerned I may not have left enough time to catch my bus from Heathrow into London so, on disembarkation, I power-walk through Terminal 2 (the Queen’s Terminal, I’ll have you know!). It’s a long walk but welcome after 11 hours airborne, strapped to a seat.

I’m astonished to find that, for UK and EU passport holders, there’s barely an immigration official in sight but, instead, a row of self-service booths. Trying to look inconspicuous, I shuffle slowly towards a free booth, buying time to carefully take in all the instructions: step onto the yellow footprints on the floor, remove your glasses, put down your bags, place the photo page of your passport on the scanner, look at the camera, remove your passport…

The gates swing open! I make a mental note to thank my amazing mother for her wisdom and presence of mind in obtaining British citizenship for me all those years ago. Not only does it make entry into the UK a breeze, without any queues, but it also made leaving South Africa smoother – no questions about visas and how long I’d be staying and where I’d be staying and what other places I’d be visiting – what a pleasure!

Having collected my luggage (which, thankfully, arrived – something I never take for granted), I make my way to the Central Bus Station. I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of a lift. With almost 22kgs on my back and a day pack of 7½kgs clipped onto my front, a thought occurs, “I hope my Eiger-climbing uncle doesn’t disown me when he sees this lot!” I’m quite sure he’s perfected the art of travelling light. I console myself with the fact that I carry gifts as well as electronic equipment, including a mobile scanner and a netbook, none of which a climber would require!

I make it to the bus station with enough time to grab a much-needed cappuccino and a strawberries and cream muffin before boarding the National Express bus bound for London.

Connections of Another Kind
It’s a fine, crisp day here and bright enough for sunglasses. Out on the M4, trees cloaked in gold, studded with jewel-like flecks of red, are a reminder that it is indeed autumn here, though.

We stop at a traffic light and, out of the window on my right, I see a gorgeous old entrance covered in window boxes and baskets brimming with flowers. It’s a beautiful, postcard-British pub. I reach for my camera and then notice the building’s name: The Bolton. I scramble to get my camera out of its pouch as my neighbour, sitting next to the window, sees the scene and tries to snap it with his cell phone. We both miss it.

“Are you a Bolton, then?” he asks. “No, but some of my Dad’s family were,” I respond, “What about you?” “No, but the friend I’m meeting up with in a bit is.” We start chatting after that and I discover he’s from Swindon, coming into London for a surprise birthday get-together at The Shard and then ICEBAR LONDON with some of his college mates, whom he hasn’t seen in years. I also discover he spent his honeymoon in South Africa. He, in turn, discovers a bit of my journey and the reason for it and, when I mention Orkney, shows me his wedding band made there. It certainly looks Orcadian: silver, with Norse-like runes engraved around it. “It’s supposed to read, ‘Hope, Love and Happiness’,” he says, and then, after a brief pause, “Aren’t these random connections just great? They make the world seem smaller, don’t they?” We talk about family and family history and he resolves to dig into his father’s family tree. “I’ve often thought I should look into it,” he muses and, with that, the bus pulls into London Victoria Coach Station and we go our separate ways.

Hastings-Bound
While it is perhaps better known as the site of that (in)famous battle way back in 1066, Hastings is also the birthplace of one of my paternal great grandmothers, Kate Isabella Bolton.

Great Grandmother Kate Isabella Bolton

Her parents were married there, too, and it’s where I’m headed first. A brisk march has me collecting my ticket in London Victoria Station and on the platform within a few minutes. I tuck into my magical strawberries and cream muffin while waiting for the train to depart and soon we’re out of the suburbs and cutting our way through quintessentially English countryside: pastures dotted with sheep and lined with post and rail fences or neat hedges or stone walls, steeplechase courses, and crops spread out like intricately stitched quilts.

Around lunchtime, I find myself at Hastings Station. Another short walk delivers me to Apollo Guest House. After a shower and a little reorganisation of my day pack for strolling the streets, I’m out the door again, meandering down the road in search of Robertson Street…