Mud and General Mayhem

May 2017 2We have returned to what passes for normality, whatever that is, after more days with family and friends on the Isle of Wight. Our stay co-incided with ‘Walk the Wight’ when large numbers of people circumnavigate the island on foot in aid of charity. They assemble in a field about 5.00am, make a great deal of noise and finally set off when a very loud claxon sounds at 6.00am. This is all very laudable, except that the assembly point was in a field directly behind our caravan. We did our own portion of Wight walking up and down Culver Cliff without the benefit of a claxon or the need to scream and shout vociferously as we set off.

Whilst I have been away gardeners have been at work, finally installing the patio that I have been planning since my conservatory was built three years ago. Why is it that projects such as this are always accompanied by heavy rain? I now have a swath of mud in lieu of a garden and it seems mud pretty much everywhere else too. I am trying to console myself with the theory that things have to get worse before they get better. They are certainly currently at the ‘worse’ stage. Some plants I hoped to retain are no more. I just hope the gardeners didn’t encounter the cats’ last resting place.

The dust, mud and gardeners mean that I have no way of drying any laundry. My clothes line has gone the way of other things in the garden. I plan to take the wet washing to a clothes line belonging to a fisherman of my acquaintance. I peg my underwear to one of those multiple peggy things that mean you only have to grap one item instead of several in case of rain. Next, to put the washing in the car. I have forgotten that a cement mixer now resides where my car should be. My car is a considerable way up the road. I treat the neighbours to a sight of my ’smalls’ to start their day.

In other events this week, I have listed to an excellent talk by Pamela Vass about the Lynmouth floods and whether cloud seeding experiments played a part. If you’ve not heard of this, look it up. Pam seemed to have read every flight log at The National Archives in pursuit of her research. Her book Seeds of Doubt is a fictionalised account.

Most of my time has been spent finishing my In Sickness and In Death: researching the ill-health and deaths of your ancestors course. Yesterday I was completing the section on tracing medical personnel. The online course starts in August if you want to join the fun. Great to hear yesterday that a former student on my Writing and Telling Your Family Story course has completed a family history; you can join that particular party too but you have to wait until October for that one. Now it is a mad rush to get through the to do list, which is still longer than my prospective novel (well almost) before the job we must not mention hit’s the fan. Oh and a nine day family reunion to host in the meantime. Life is never dull.

Of Talks and Technology

Today was the annual conference of the Isle of Wight Family History Society of which I have the honour to be a vice-president. I got the day off this time and could listen to others speak. I did have my turn at the front earlier in the week, addressing my local WI who were hosting their group meeting. I was regaling them with memories of 1946-1969 an activity that was not without attendant problems. It is very rare that I use notes for my talks but this one involves reading passages from Remember Then: women’s memories of 1946-1969 and how to write your own, so I have the relevant passages ready typed in one hand. I have my remote control for moving on my slides in the other hand and in my other hand I have my X-factor style mic. The observant amongst you will have spotted the first problem here. The theme of the afternoon was the 1960s, complete with appropriate dress. Having found a 1990s outfit that paid homage to the 1960s, I then stupidly decided to wear hand-me-up high heeled boots that originated with Martha. My strange shaped feet rarely fit in to normal shaped footwear and this was no exception. Having successfully cut off all circulation to my toes I hobbled away from my audience smiling bravely.

Anyway, back to today. As always a wonderful opportunity to meet old friends. We managed to work out that some of us first met 29 years ago when they attended my family history classes. In fact still others go back 32 years to when I first joined Isle of Wight Family History Society, when I returned to live there after three years on the mainland. It was a very good day, with two interesting tales of families who left the island. These were great illustrations of how you can weave a story from your research findings. The day finished with Richard Smout’s excellent talk about early years and childhood on the Isle of Wight.

Today also a strange encounter with “an online worldwide e-commerce marketplace connecting millions of subscribers with local merchants by offering activities, travel, goods and services in more than 28 countries.” Whilst attempting a purchase I am instructed to ‘Enter your house number here’. My address is numberless. I enter my house name. ‘Your house number must not exceed 7 characters’. That’s tough it has 13. Instead, I enter the house name in the street box, along with the village name that has to be substituted for the road name I also don’t have. I now have a 29 character street name. ‘Your street name must not exceed 19 characters’. Great. Given that I have to provide a postcode, I can risk leaving out the village name and just put the house name under street. ‘You must enter a house number.’ Lacking the seemingly essential house number I try putting a full stop in this box. Eureka! Whether the parcel will arrive is another matter. I know I have an unconventional address but I can’t be the only person whose house name exceeds 7 characters. I fire off a complaining Tweet to the appropriate e-commerce marketplace, which makes me feel better.

All at Sea

We are currently on the ferry heading for ‘south island’ aka the Isle of Wight. Not so much a holiday for us having lived there for 30+ years, more a catch up with friends and family. We were fortunate to get the ferry operative with a brain cell today. On arrival, 45 minutes early for our sailing, we were not told to drive round the block for 15 minutes complete with caravan (as has happened on previous occasions) we were very sensibly invited to embark on the half empty ferry that was leaving an hour earlier than our scheduled sailing. She did then rather spoil the impression of intelligence by peering in to the car and saying, ‘are there two of you travelling?’ I resisted the temptation to say, ‘the other six are in the boot.’Good job we are used to ferry travel because we have committed to another cruise. I am now officially on the programme for the 14th Unlock the Past cruise to Alaska in September 2018, along with a really great line up, many of whom are friends. The fact that this clashes horribly with the job we must not mention is a bridge as yet to be crossed.

And in my collection of weird emails today: from a well known online retailer ‘Please rate this item – did your Elsan chemical toilet capsule meet your expectation?’ What expectations does one actually have of a chemical toilet capsule?

We had the usual problems with the non-descent of our automatic caravan legs (that’s the legs that are allegedly automatic not the caravan). With their failure, we are now having to be careful not to both stand at the rear end of the caravan at the same time.

I managed to avail myself of the facilities on site and use the swimming pool before a quick (that would be very quick) paddle. We forewent the delights of the soft play and play park, reserving those for later visit, when we will be accompanied by person of a more appropriate age.


May 1959

My first visit  to the Isle of Wight

We decided to continue our north to south transit of the Isle of Wight today. I recalled that my first visit here was 58 years ago and during numerous holidays and several decades of living here I have walked most island footpaths. Strangely though I didn’t complete a circumnavigation until after I moved away (although we did have an abortive attempt in about 1980). That done, we are now going north to south to be followed, if we survive long enough, by east to west. As we haven’t done a great deal of walking lately we restricted ourselves to a short stretch from Godshill to Whitwell. This was enough to remind me that last time I walked far I decided I needed new walking boots. Waterproof they are not. Somewhat soggy socked we trekked through a profusion of wild flowers before taking our ease.

Books, Talks and Lunatics – Family History Mayhem

It is Monday. I am dressed in my thermals with more layers on than I care to remember. The last time I’ve worn this many clothes it was minus 25 degrees and I was in Lapland. It can only be a Bank Holiday in England. It was my turn to be a ‘writer in residence’ at Bucks Mills. It was a truly lovely setting. I only knew that because I’d been numerous times before. On arrival it was difficult to see the sea through the mist (ok, let’s be accurate here – impenetrable fog). It was also bracingly cold. The day did brighten and there was a steady stream of visitors. To be fair, more were interested in the Cabin we were huddled in than our literary efforts but it was an experience.

DSCF3708The family were visiting so on the one day that constituted summer (Tuesday) we frolicked in gnome hats at one of my favourite local tourist destinations (really is best not to ask). Then it was time to practice what I preach and encourage my descendants to take in interest in their past. Lucy learned to arrange her first family tree. More inhabitants of its branches to add on her next visit.

Next, some time in the seventeenth century, shooting school children and the like. I was not originally supposed to be on the team for this particular school but one of my colleagues wasn’t well enough to attend so it was across the border to Cornwall for two days. A couple of gems from these sessions: Me to a group of 12-13 year olds: ‘Why do you think people had so many children in the seventeenth century?’. (I know, you’d think this would be asking for trouble but it is very rare that anyone mentions lack of contraception in graphic detail – though one girl did say ‘pleasure’ this time). Response: ‘If one child needs a kidney transplant then there are more who might be compatible.’ Oh to be inside the head of a thirteen year old. Or actually, maybe not. To make matters worse, this child had just sat through an hour on the medicine of our time! If he came away with the impression that Master Christopher is a dab hand at kidney transplants we are doing something wrong.

Part of my session involves ‘make-overs’ – giving the little darlings seventeenth century clothing to don on top of their uniforms. I hand a young lad a pair of breeches – with the usual dire warnings about fastening the waist tie with a bow so he doesn’t get irretrievably knotted in (the consequence of which is that I make him go in to lunch wearing the breeches). Helpfully, as usual, I inform him that there’s no need to remove his shoes (never a good idea to encourage thirteen year old boys to remove their shoes in public). I fail to add that bit about not needing to remove his school trousers ……….

Somewhat rashly I had also agreed to revisit the wonderful venue that is Devon Rural Archive (again to fill in for someone who was sick) on the evening of the first day in Cornwall. The journey was considerably shorter if we went straight from Cornwall to the southern edge of Dartmoor, rather than returning home first so, sat-nav at the ready, off we set. We knew from experience that we needed to consciously avoid the Tamar toll bridge so when asked by Sally sat-nav ‘Do you wish to avoid tolls?’ we naturally pressed Yes, expecting to be directed across the Tamar somewhere in its northern reaches. Not so. We had neglected to instruct the sat-nav (and indeed she had neglected to enquire) not to take us on any vessels. One crossing of the Torpoint ferry later and we were heading back in to Devon.

My talk, which was on the Civil War in the South-west, is never quite what the audience expect. They come to hear long lists of battles, the victors and the vanquished, which, quite frankly, bores even me. What they get is something very different. No spoliers, book me and find out!

Someone, who shall remain nameless but it wasn’t me, decided we’d go home via the shortest, rather than the quickest, route. Won’t be trying that again. Unfortunately the vehicle that is large enough to transport the pikes and armour that we required for the school does not have a means of charging a sat-nav. Somewhere truly in the middle of nowhere it whimpered and died. Ever the Girl Guide, I was prepared for this and we resorted to that wonderful invention, a map. We didn’t get lost but it did take an inordinately long time. We finally got home about sixteen hours (and five hours of presentations) after we left it.

Books. I promised you books. The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies have made Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors book of the month (this means it is 15% off). I always worry that this is because they’ve landed themselves with loads of copies they can’t shift but they assure me it isn’t so. Daisy is actually making progress; bet you thought I’d abandoned it. A chapter finished today. Bit of a gruelling account of an instance of diphtheria in 1914 but I don’t want to give too much away.

This week also brought the not unexpected news that Who Do You Think You Are? Live will be no more. So the last chance for me to say that you can now download the handouts from my WDYTYA?L talks. Actually you can get them on my own website but should you want those from others you will need the Society of Genealogists’ link. And lunatics? Well the above is probably enough lunacy but I have spent a fascinating time looking at the patient case books for Bethlem Hospital (from whose name we get the word Bedlam). These are available on FindmyPast. Genuki have also made a list of Exminster Asylum patients available, which includes one of my very minor Daisy characters. There are several there I need to investigate in more detail. It may even turn the minor character in to a more major one. I am fascinated by the history of mental illness and indeed illness in general. If you feel the same you might like to sign up for my online course on the history of medicine, In Sickness and in Death: researching the ill health and death of your ancestors. This starts in August.

Lots going on over the next couple of months. I will try to keep you up to date.

Writers in the Cabin

The seven authors in our writers’ group are eagerly anticipating our forthcoming ‘Writers in a Cabin’ residence. Will we cope with the lack of electricity, phone signal and sanitation? How will we interact with the resident insect life? Will anyone want to come and say hello? As yet, all great imponderables, although some of us have already made up their minds about the spiders. In the hope of persuading you to spend time in a very special place and of course increasing the footfall for us, may I encourage you to read on?

Writers in Cabin flyerNestled at the bottom of the hill in the little fishing hamlet of Bucks Mills, lies The Cabin. This two-roomed hut began life as a fisherman’s store before being acquired by Judith Ackland’s family. Together with her friend Mary Stella Edwards, Judith used the building as an artists’ retreat for half a century. The solitude and spectacular views across the rugged North Devon coastline make it ideal for those seeking inspiration. Now in the care of the National Trust, the Cabin is almost exactly as the artists left it in 1971.

From 29 April – 1 May, it will once again be a setting that encourages creative talents to flourish. Between 10.00 and 4.00, the seven members of the North Devon authors’ group will take it in turns to use the cabin and its wonderful surroundings as their muse. The work of all these writers is rooted the past, in the local landscape, or both. They look forward to discussing their work, both past and forthcoming and signing copies of their books. This will be a unique opportunity, not only to view inside The Cabin, which is rarely open to the public but also to talk to enthusiastic and friendly authors about their writing.

The Writers in the Cabin will be:

Ruth Downie writes crime novels set in Roman times. Ruth’s book Medicus has recently attracted a ‘Discovered Diamond’ award for historical fiction.

Susan Hughes writes books set in the first half of the twentieth century. Her debut novel A Kiss from France was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2017. She is now writing her second book.

Wendy Percival is the author of mystery novels featuring genealogy sleuth Esme Quentin, which include The Indelible Stain, set on the North Devon coast, near Hartland.

P J Reed is a poet and author who writes of the beauty and ethereal nature of the changing countryside. Her latest anthology Flicker was published last month.

Liz Shakespeare’s books are inspired by the people, history and landscapes of Devon. Her latest novel The Postman Poet, which was launched last month, is based on the true story of Edward Capern who composed poems and songs whilst delivering letters in Victorian North Devon.

Pamela Vass writes North Devon based fiction and social history. Her novel Seeds of Doubt debates whether the Lynmouth floods of 1952 were an Act of God or the Act of Man.

and Me!

Who Do You Think You Are? Live Days 2 and 3

Day 3? Day 3 is not yet over – how can she be posting about Day 3 already? Read on and all will be revealed.

Day 2 dawns and we wend our way back to the NEC. This time the motorway is kind to us but the shuttle bus fails to play the game, or indeed turn up at all for twenty minutes. Finally, back in Hall 2, I spend a couple of busy hours promoting online genealogy courses on the Pharos stand then, after a little more chatting, it was another expert’s session with an interesting enquiry about a will that appeared to have been proved twice, fifty years apart. In the interests of pacing ourselves, we sneak out a little early to rest aching feet, backs and vocal chords.

Day 3 brings its own problems in that a fisherman of my acquaintance wakes up barely able to move, having pulled a muscle in his back. I assume my ‘care in the community’ role and tie his shoe laces for him. Today is the day that Master Christopher and Mistress Agnes are due to make an appearance, so we are fully equipped with our seventeenth century costumes. Sadly, one of us is not currently equipped with the ability to dress himself unaided, particularly as his costume involves thigh boots. We need a safe place to change. Normally, we would both repair to our respective gendered toilets but this is clearly not going to work today. We discuss the relative merits and demerits of the ‘fully accessible’ toilet and the baby change area, both of which seem gender neutral. The disabled toilet wins, clearly one of us is not currently fully abled. Amidst groans of anguish, we manage to transform Master Christopher into his seventeenth century self. We hope that no one has been listening outside or spots us emerging or they may be wondering what we were up to.

A successful few hours of networking follows. Actually it was a little too successful in some respects. I approach one of the big companies who are exhibiting to request that they may part with 35-40 of their promotional bags for us to use at a conference. The lady in charge eagerly presses a box of 200 bags upon me. I demure, I really only want 40 at the most. She insists. She is on a mission and clearly has no intention of taking this box back with her. Have you any idea how large, or indeed how heavy, a box of two hundred bags is? I stagger along to stash my loot, wondering how well this is going to go down with my chauffeur.

Mistress Agnes and Master ChristopherNext a photo call. Mistress Agnes and Master Christopher have been selected to promote a future conference. I am not sure quite what sort of attendee we may attract but our souls were duly stolen and our portraits painted. I should point out that the photograph on this blog is not said promotional photograph. No prizes but I am waiting for the eagle eyed to spot what is ‘wrong’ with this picture. More interesting conversations follow and contacts are made. By this time, Master Christopher is in some parlous state and needs to revert to his twenty-first century self. On the way to accomplish this mission we pass a stall selling back massaging machines. You are correct in your assumption that this has nothing whatsoever to do with family history and there are rather more unrelated stands than would seem desirable this year. I guess spaces have to be filled. It was somewhat incongruous to see a seventeenth century character wired up to modern technology but the lady doing the demonstrating seemed keen to have her photograph taken with us. The pause at her stall did ease Master C’s predicament long enough for him to get changed. We repeat the fully accessible toilet exercise in reverse. This is trickier than our earlier escapade as, by this time, there are rather more people to avoid. A couple of hours later and it really is time for him to lie down in a darkened room, or at least lie down. Not only do we have enormous, heavy boxes of bags to transport but other display materials as well. Taking what appears to be part of a stand out of the hall before close of play is tantamount to a hanging offence and as for trying to bring a car through the security cordon in order to load it before the appointed time….. In the end our plight is heeded and indeed one of the security guards is clearly concerned to see that our wounded soldier is going to drive. Believe me this is safer than the alternative of letting me loose on a motorway in a car that I am not used to. Fortunately we only have a very short journey back to the van. So sorry to all those I didn’t get a chance to see or say goodbye to. There is always next year.

Who Do You Think You Are? Live Day 1

Yes, Yes, I know it is the end of Day 2 – give me a break, it’s pretty full on all this networking lark. For once no trolleys were harmed in the process of our Who Do You Think You Are? Live experiences (see previous blog post for links to further details). Today (that’s of course now yesterday) was my busy day. On arrival we were guided to a car park that was as far as possible from the hall as the NEC complex allowed and took the shuttle bus down the hill amidst many folk who looked like they were in for a fun day at some form of transport convention or what appeared to be an OFSTED conference.

I hastened to get my presentations uploaded ready for later in the day (Miss Efficiency me) and was flattered to be remembered from last year by one of the technicians. Then it was off to the experts’ advice tables. Always a good plan to offer to be an ‘expert’ as it does at least ensure that you are able to sit down. I did have one of those ‘arrgggh’ moments. My appointment sat down early for their twenty minute slot, as my previous satisfied customer had gone away early. ‘I don’t know anything about my great grandfather Joe Brown’ (the name has been changed to protect the guilty but it was an equally common name). A large sheaf of typescript, which appears to have been taken from Ancestry is proffered. This contains dates of birth, marriage and death, entries in every applicable census, parentage, spouse and offspring of the ancestor about which the enquirer ‘knows nothing.’ ‘It says here he was born on 6th January 1870’, say I, ‘where did you find this information, was it from the family?’ ‘Oh that’s definitely right.’ says the enquirer.  I pursue the named parents, finding their marriage index entry. I explain how to get a marriage certificate and how that should hopefully give Joe Brown’s grandfathers’ names. I find Joe Brown’s father in more than one census. I find Joe’s spouse’s line back to grandparents. ‘You haven’t told me anything about Joe,’ is the response. I point out what we had discovered. ‘Oh but I knew all that already.’ I gritted my teeth and resisted the temptation to point out that I had not only answered the question he had asked but also the question he should have asked – what more could be expected, great granddad’s shoe size? Well that was thirty minutes of my life wasted then.

Sheridan Parsons

Photo by Sheridan Parsons

It was then time for my first talk, twenty minutes on inspiring young children to take an interest in history and heritage. This session was the best kept secret of the convention, somehow having been left off the website and display boards. Nonetheless it did attract an audience of more than one and led to a very interesting contact. Then it was pretty much straight off to my full length presentation in the main studio. Mustering ‘rent a crowd’ is no longer possible now these sessions are charged for. Nor can you rely on acquiring an audience from those who need to rest their bunions after a long day on their feet, so I was worried about speaking to an empty hall.

John Boeren

Photo by John Boeren

In the end, this was a sell out session with over two hundred people who had parted with real cash in order to hear me talk about finding elusive ancestors. This included several friends who had turned out to support me – thank you. My worries that the audience would demand their money back if they couldn’t find their elusive ancestors by the end of the session were unfounded. I did explain that I had left my magic wand at home. Despite something very weird happening to the formatting of my slides as they translated to the double screen, the talk did seem to go done well and I had a large queue of questioners outside the studio afterwards.


On the strength of the book sales after my talk, I then invested in the most expensive bottle of water in the world, in the form of a ‘free’ gift as a recompense for purchasing a Living DNA kit. This involved a charming young man watched me scraping the surface off the inside of my cheek, all in the name of discovering where my geographical origins might be. At the end of a long day we joined in a world record attempt for how many people you can cram into a shuttle bus and then crawled along the motorway back to the caravan to collapse in preparation for doing it all again tomorrow.