I’ve spent the last couple of days at Rootstech 2019 at The Excel in East London. This is a large exhibition and learning event where genealogy meets technology. As well as a wide range of exhibitors, there is a timetable of presentations, talks and demonstrations from DNA and genetics and manuscript translation, new or updated software packages to help with tracing ancestors all over the world.
Dan Snow, the historian and TV presenter gave a keynote speech on Friday morning about his love of history and his path to learning about his ancestors. He explained how he enjoyed visiting the places his forebears had lived and how he felt about walking where they once walked. He encouraged the audience to get out there and explore where their ancestors had lived.
I get this. In a previous blog I wrote about my trip to Bragg Creek in Alberta where my great Aunt Mabel and her husband Charlie Harwood had settled and lived and where, among the ruins of an old cabin, I found the remains of a brick fireplace he had built. Sitting by the Elbow river in the peace and stillness of the evening, I closed my eyes and believed the sound of the water and the birdsong were the same sounds my great aunt would have heard back in her day. If you read the blog I’m sure you will understand how visiting Bragg Creek was such a spiritual experience for me but walking along the streets in East London where my family once lived can elicit the same feelings.
A friend who was starting out on her journey to discover the history of her family suggested we went to their home town in Surrey for a drive around, finding the roads or even the houses where they had once lived. We even stopped for lunch at a pub where her great-great-grandmother appeared as a servant in the 1881 census. We visited churches, stood outside houses and walked the paths they once trod; and naturally we sought out the family grave.
Standing in front of an ancestor’s grave and reading the headstone can also feel rather wonderful. It’s not the burial itself or the thought of the bones beneath being those of someone we have only met through old papers and records and a photograph if we are lucky. It’s the thought that at one time, the rest of the family stood on this exact spot while the burial took place. All those people on your family tree, in one place and time and how they came together and maybe returned to visit and place their flowers on their loved one’s resting place until the day when their body was lowered into the grave too.
It’s a good exercise to go and see where your ancestors lived as it brings to life their history and their story. If you can’t get there or want to know if the old house is still standing then there is always Google maps https://www.google.com/maps.
You can take a virtual stroll along the street and check the house numbers, although be aware that if there has been redevelopment in an area the houses may have been renumbered to incorporate new properties. You can virtually walk streets on the other side of the world too. It’s no substitute for physically being there, but sometimes it’s the best we can do.