My interest in genealogy has provided me with an excuse to go globetrotting. I cannot fail to mention the wonderful trips my husband and I made to South Africa and to Canada to meet two of my mother's cousins and their families. Everyone was so welcoming to this distant relation whom, with one exception, they had never met. My husband and I very quickly felt part of their family and very much appreciated having a base from which we were able to explore, meeting other members of the family along the way. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who made these trips unforgettable and I am delighted that we have been able to return the hospitality in some instances.
Some episodes during these expeditions stand out. In Africa, being almost in the path of a huge herd of elephants and then being right beside them as they cropped the bushes at Addo Elephant Park: in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Park being charged by a rhino on a night drive in an open lorry and the next day from our car seeing lionesses and a rhino and her cub almost within touching distance: being cut off by a flash flood in Zululand - thankfully we were in the 4x4 of an experienced guide - on a 'Boer War Tour' and, being drawn to the church at Rorke's Drift by the African chanting from within, taking some discrete video pictures of what I had assumed was a wedding, only to discover it was a funeral! (In my defence, we had just witnessed part of a wedding ceremony where the bride and groom's parties were exchanging traditional chants across a valley.) There was also the magical moment when, having given up hope of seeing whales at Hermanus, there they were and, as dusk fell, we sat watching the last three whales of the season swimming in the bay while we drank champagne from a Coca Cola can - too long a story to recount but it was a Welsh resident of Hermanus who had given us the champagne!
We also saw whales on our trip to Canada though in very different circumstances. This time we were in an inflatable motorboat off the coast of Vancouver Island. The sea was rough and as we bumped over the swell to find the school of whales there were spine-crunching descents off the backs of some of the waves. I have already mentioned the trip to Canada to meet Gwyn Owen and some of his family. The RCAF website had an email address for people seeking ex-comrades; it provided me with an address on Vancouver Island and a phone number. I rang the number, only to find communication was impossible as Gwyn was quite deaf but we then exchanged letters and soon afterwards my husband and I combined a holiday with meeting my Canadian kinsfolk. It was Gwyn's interest in our family history that prompted me to return to producing my account of our genealogy after a break from my research. I am so glad I had the opportunity to meet him and my second cousins, though I wish it had been when his English cousins were still alive and sadly Gwyn has since died.
There have also been some memorable incidents nearer home. To date the only penalty points on my driving licence were collected for speeding to carry out more research in Wales. Once there, a friend and I had an interesting encounter with the late Lord Tanet, who as John Biffin was a member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet. I thought the house next to the church in Llanyblodwell was the vicarage where Elias Owen had died and, wanting to take pictures, sought out the owner who was on hands and knees weeding the cobbled courtyard, which like the outbuildings around it had little changed over the years. I explained the circumstances and he was most cooperative.
It was like taking a step back in time, as was much of that trip, and as I took my photographs I imagined the groom racing
to saddle the horse to fetch the doctor (see the
of what had happened). It was just after midday and as Lord Tanet was alone in the house he invited us to
join him for lunch at a quaint old pub (right) just across the road. There we were joined by two of his neighbours. We explained
why we were there and one of them roared with laughter,
John, he said,
Surely you know your house was never the
vicarage! The photos of the house were of no relevance so I sent them to Lord Tanat who wrote me a very friendly letter
of thanks from the House of Lords.
On a subsequent visit with one of my Canadian second cousins we did visit the property that had been the vicarage and the house was magnificent, much grander than the one next to the church, with terraced grounds stepping down to the river Tanet.
Some of my most emotive research has involved the experiences of family members in the First World War. Much of this has been carried out at the Public Records Office in Kew, where I was moved to tears as I copied out the letter (click on 'Features' on top ribbon to return to this page) Billy Owen (William Henry Kendrick Owen) had written to his father before he died from injuries received at Festubert. Subsequently I visited some of the places in France and Belgium where he and other members of the family had seen action. The tragedy of Festubert was vividly recounted in pencil in the Battalion War Diaries and I can understand how Billy and so many of his comrades lost their lives there. Apart from one small rise the terrain is totally flat and exposed. It explained why the men in the first wave of the attack were simply mown down by machine-gun fire. Some of the chaos, confusion and carnage of Festubert is described elsewhere.
I stood and tried to imagine what it must have been like for these young men, with flying lead from incessantly rattling machine guns mowing down their comrades, with smoke obscurring their view and thunderous shells flying overhead and falling around them. Some lines from Wilfred Owen's poem Anthem for Doomed Youth' came into my mind. This was a poem much loved by my mother; as a rule she seldom showed emotion but this would always prompt a choke in her voice:
As we left the local war cemetery where many of Billy's comrades, including his commanding officer, lie buried, a small parade arrived for a short Armistice Day ceremony. (pictures)
Further north, I explored some of the places where others of our family saw action. It was interesting to see the Steenbeek in Belgium and the new bridge at Masnières in France, built to replace that destroyed in the fighting, where Morgan Maddox Morgan Owen was involved in major battles, Houlthurst Wood, beautiful in its autumnal colours where my mother's cousin Noel Tyson fought and where soldiers from many nations lie buried and Zantvoorde where Noel fought and died. It was a pure coincidence that our trip coincided with Armistice Day but it was poignant to be standing beside Noel's grave in Belgium on that day and in the evening to go to a service and a wreath laying ceremony at the Menim Gate.
On that trip to Ypres, quite by chance, we encountered several of my husband's former rugby teammates, some of whom we had not seen for several years. They were sitting outside a restaurant/ bar and hailed us as soon as we stepped out of the car; it was probably their cry of greeting that distracted us so that we failed to notice the very small signs announcing special parking restrictions from 4 p.m. that day. (A sign on or near the ticket machine might have been more sensible.) Many others, like us, returned to find their cars had been towed away. We subsequently experienced an interesting drive through the cobbled streets of Ypres in the back of a police van, blue light spinning, to collect our car … and to pay a hefty fine.
It was at Ypres that I bought my first book by Lyn Macdonald. She creates powerful pictures of WWI. Recollections of members
of Morgan Maddox Morgan-Owen's Regiment, 11th Rifle Brigade, are included in
They Called It Passchendaele: The Story of
the Third Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in It.
Another very moving experience during my research was watching the making of Channel 4's Time Team programme about digging up the Spitfire in which my mother’s stepbrother Paul died in the Second World War. It was quite surreal to see the aircraft emerge after so many years. The programme's producers arranged for a wonderful display of acrobatics by a Spitfire over the site of the dig – it had previously buzzed us in spectacular fashion at the aerodrome at Calais, much to the disapproval of a retired wing commander, an advisor on the programme, who deemed it highly irregular. When parts of Paul's remains were discovered amongst the wreckage, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was brought in and I returned to Wierre-Effroy with other members of the family some weeks later for a very moving interment ceremony at Paul’s graveside in the village churchyard. Local veterans and dignitaries marched with us. I only wish his mother could have known how significant Paul, her only child, had become to the local people; every year his grave has been a focal point of their Armistice Day ceremony, symbolising for them the RAF’s efforts and sacrifices in liberating France. I believe a wealthy Dutchman plans to reconstruct his aircraft.
On my first visit to Wierre-Effroy I took the opportunity to visit Vernon Owen’s grave along the coast at Etaples. Vernon had fought alongside his cousin Billy at Festubert and by a tragic twist of fate he too was fatally wounded near Festubert some weeks after Billy. His remains lie on a windswept slope, his headstone looking out across the sea that should have carried him safe home to Wales.
Thus this research has prompted and augmented several journeys abroad and I am sure it will do so again. It has also prompted many enjoyable trips within the United Kingdom. As the net spreads ever wider there are few places I go where I cannot pursue some aspect of my family research but there are so many more people I want to meet and places I want to visit and, in the fullness of time, I hope I shall.
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