Heritage tours can be very interesting extensions to genealogy research. As well as providing an opportunity to find items specific to your ancestors which are not available anywhere else, they provide insights into the past, and a linkage to other countries (or, in North America, to other parts of your own country!) that would not otherwise exist.
Have you wondered what the villages were like where your forefathers lived, and what their homes looked like? Where they worked? What landmarks they saw every day that might still be around today?
These are some of the questions that inevitably will arise in doing family history research, which can only be answered satisfactorily by doing a heritage tour.
By 2005, I had made enough progress in my genealogy research that I had grown curious about where my ancestors had actually lived in the Old Country. I wanted to know more - to actually see the villages, and perhaps some of the buildings that were there in their day.
I decided to visit England and do a heritage tour of a few of the villages, and try to find the homes where some of my ancestors had lived.
One of my cousins, also a genealogy buff, happened to be going to England at the same time with his wife. As part of our heritage tour, we arranged to visit the family home of a maternal ancestor in Yorkshire.
This was the Elmhirst family seat. The family fortunes had improved considerably back in the 1300s, a generation or two following which they were elevated to the peerage. That line contains my only connection to royalty, that I'm aware of!
I am told that the home has been in the Elmhirst family, or that of a female descendant, since that time. A rather large home, it was taken over by soldiers in Cromwell's time.
A seventh cousin lives in what used to be the farm workers' quarters, and he showed us around the lovely property and other family holdings in the area, some having been in the family since the 1300s.
The Yorkshire rolling hills
I remember standing in the back yard of the main property looking out over the rolling hills, and suddenly being struck by the realization that one of my direct ancestors some 500 years before had lived and walked on this property, and had looked out over those same hills!
It was almost like he was standing there with me, looking over my shoulder. It was quite an emotional moment - somewhat eerie, somewhat humbling, and definitely elating and exciting, all at the same time!
In the short time I had been in England, I had noted a strong sense of history in general, with its many buildings dating back a thousand years or more; but this was personal - a connection with my own ancestors, going back hundreds of years, which I had not experienced before.
We then went down into the village and visited the parish church. The caretaker let us in and showed us around. He told us that the church had been renovated at some point in the 1900s, but that they had preserved our ancestors' pew as a sample of what the older pews had been like, as the Elmhirst family had attended that church for several centuries and had been very supportive of it. A number of their descendants had been ministers there.
There was an entire red velvet pew, dedicated to this family, with plaques in memory of various family members hanging on the walls above the pew. There was even a family crest in the glass of one of the stained-glass windows! We were amazed - awe-stricken - and delighted to find it!
The Elmhirst Pew in the Worsborough, Yorkshire Church
The following day, we went to the local library, where we located a copy of the family's hand-written pedigree, a sort of family tree which had to be done to prove their lineage when the family was about to be elevated to the peerage. It dated from approximately the 1500s, if I am remembering correctly.
My cousin arranged to buy a life-sized copy of it - more than 5 feet long and 3-4 feet wide. I, on the other hand, not being quite so flush with cash, contented myself with photographs!
A very successful heritage tour!
Later in that same England heritage tour, the man who is now my husband, who was then living in England, served as my 'chauffeur', and he and I visited friends in Norfolk County for a few days, and did a "whirlwind tour" of a number of ancestral villages in Norfolk County, on my father's side of the family. We took a lot of photographs, and spent many hours walking through graveyards looking for tombstones bearing family names. Such a romantic way to get to know one another! ;)
In the village where my great-grandfather and three generations before him had lived, we found only one gravestone of a relative, although it is the only cemetery for that town, and others are sure to have been interred there.
Here I am at the gravestone we found in the Shouldham church yard. I later looked this girl up, as she died in her early 20s, and I wanted to know why. I discovered that she had been cooking at an open hearth, and her floor-length skirt caught fire, and she burned to death. What a horrible way to go!
Across the village green, there is a King's Arms Pub, which, according to the census documents, was in existence in my ancestors' day - and no doubt was frequented by some of my less illustrious kin!
King's Arms Pub, Shouldham, Norfolk
The Shouldham village green from another angle
The village green still contains virtually all of the same buildings that were there in my ancestors' time, and the Anglican church and yard, where many of them were christened, married, and buried, still stands on the hill overlooking the town.
The manor house of their day, inhabited by the Lord of the Manor, is now a "care home".
The school which my great-grandfather attended for four years is still there, and is now a private home and bed and breakfast, called "Chalk and Cheese". I'd love to go and stay there some time!
Here is a side view of the school. It opened in the 1850s, and was enlarged a few years later. I later obtained photos of the school register, which includes my greatgrandfather and many of his cousins.
The Old Shouldham Schoolhouse (Side View)
In a more recent sequel, my mother-in-law, who lives in England and grew up in Norfolk, indicated that she was going to be visiting up there.
She offered to go to Shouldham, the village where my great-grandfather had grown up, and to take photos of the ancestral homes, if I could determine from the census or other documents which houses they were. I jumped at the chance to further my family history research!
At first, I thought that determining the houses they had lived in would be an easy task. However, I soon discovered that the earlier census documents listed no street numbers or names; all streets, other than the main road which ran along the edge of the village green, were identified as "Back Street".
The more recent census documents did identify a few street names, but other than the one or two that can still be seen on a map today, the names have changed.
After several hours pouring over old maps of Shouldham which I found on the internet, looking for "landmarks" in the census documents (such as churches and pubs) which might still be in the same location today, and attempting to determine the route which the census enumerators had taken in each census, I gave her reference points in relation to the three non-conformist churches in the village.
Westgate Street, Shouldham, as it exists today
However, with the passing of time, many of the older houses have been
knocked down to make way for much larger, more modern homes, and it is
difficult to determine how many dwellings were removed in the process.
My mother-in-law later reported that someone in the village had told her that there were no names on the streets, or house numbers, until the 1960s. (Hence the English custom of naming a home.)
She came away with a treasure-trove of photographs of the village, including some possibilities for the houses in which my ancestors had lived, based on the census documents, but it appears that it may be impossible to identify the actual dwellings with any degree of certainty.
One of the advantages of paying for an arranged heritage tour is that the tour operator researches things like dwelling places of your ancestors (if they can be located), and takes you to them.
If I were doing a 'trip of a lifetime' - a one-shot trip for which I wanted to get the absolute most out of the trip - I would make an arrangement with such a heritage tour operator, so that the research is done in advance, and I would get the most for my money.
As previously mentioned, my great-grandfather grew up in Shouldham, Norfolk.
In the 1881 census, he was living and working at a farm in Stradsett, a short distance from home.
He later migrated to Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, where he met and married my grandmother, who was also from Norfolk.
He and his wife came to Canada in 1899 with their family, including my grandfather.
Here is a photo of him in the yard of the farm which he and his sons carved out of the wilderness that was Northern Ontario.
My great-grandfather on his homestead
in Northern Ontario, Canada, early 1930s
This heritage tour added a new dimension to my genealogical research. It made dry statistics of births, marriages, and deaths come alive, rendering them much more meaningful.
To see some of the sights they saw, visit the places they frequented, and find some of their gravestones ... What a thrill it was!
There really is no substitute for visiting those places - places where people whose blood runs through my veins once lived and worked!
Also, for me, this trip was somewhat unique, in that I got to know the man I eventually married a little better. I can truthfully say, I went to England to find my past, and found my future! :)
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