Friday, June 29, 2012

Hello, Old Blog!!

Carl Thomas, Steven Thomas and me at our ancestors'
farm in Herefordshire, England
It's been quite a while since I've been here, and I'm sorry to leave everyone hanging for so long. I see from my last post that I was getting ready to move from San Francisco to Oakland at the end of last August. That was just one of the life changes that was happening with me at that time and, it seems that with everything going on, my heart wasn't really into genealogy for, well, nearly a year.

Lately, I've been digging around in my roots again and I've started to find solving all those family history mysteries interesting again. 

But, you know what I've discovered most recently? Searching for dead people is just part of the process, and not nearly as much fun as finding your living kin! 

I write this while sitting on a plane home from London. I'm fortunate to work for a company that occasionally flies me there for business, and I try to take advantage of the opportunity to stay over and do a little exploring while I'm in the area. This time, I had the bright idea to explore my Welsh roots.

Steven and me, hamming it
up the oldest pub in Cardiff, Wales
Let me back up a bit. About three and half years ago, I was approached on Facebook by a man telling me that he lives in Cardiff, Wales,and he thought we might be related on my Bartram side. He shared his history with me and, lo and behold, we're third cousins once removed. His great great grandmother, Louisa Bartram, was the oldest sister of my great grandfather, Joseph Bartram, who was born just north of Cardiff in 1860 and immigrated to Kansas from the UK in 1883. How exciting to find a living cousin on the Internet, and an international one, to boot! Steven and I became Facebook friends, and have had fun keeping up with each other over the past few years. We discovered that we're close in age, we share similar political and religious views and, more importantly, a love of music, particularly David Bowie and The Clash (which is playing in my earbuds as I type).

Well, when I found out I was going to be in London for a business trip this week, I jumped at the chance to see if Steven would be up for meeting in person. He was! 

So, Wednesday morning, I woke up well before my alarm clock and caught a train from Paddington Station to Cardiff, Wales, to meet Steven and his dad, my third cousin, Carl. Can you imagine my excitement as I walked toward the station exit and saw them waiting for me?? I recognized them immediately from all the Facebook photos we've shared over the years. I think we were all a little bit nervous about meeting for the first time, but our nerves quickly dissolved with the first big hug, and we were soon talking nonstop: about our lives, about our shared family history and about our plans for the next two days!

Steven and his dad, Carl, in front of the keep at Cardiff Castle.
We'd just climbed to the top.
Monmouth, Wales
Steven and Carl graciously indulged me in first doing a little touristy stuff: I couldn't leave without seeing Cardiff Castle! We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting over coffee and taking in a museum exhibit about early Cardiff history. I honestly don't remember anything I saw there because I was having too much fun getting to know my cousins. Steven and I capped off the day with a few pints -- and lots of laughing -- at the oldest pub in Cardiff. It felt as if we were old friends who hadn't seen each other in a long while and had a lot of catching up to do.

The next morning, the three of us met up to start on a real adventure. Carl drove us up to Monmouth in Monmouthshire County, along the Welsh/English border. This was where my great grandfather, Joseph Bartram, father of my beloved Grandpa John, was born in 1860. It's an adorable town that was settled along the Monnow River, and we took a nice stroll up and down it's main street before heading up the road to explore more of our history.

Carl and me at St. Mary's the Virgin
Church in Welsh Newton,
Herefordshire, England
Graveyard at St. Mary's Church 

The next stop along our picturesque drive (think rolling green hills dotted with small villages and farms, and lots of sheep and cattle grazing in the verdant fields) was St. Mary the Virgin church in Welsh Newton, Herefordshire, England -- just a couple of miles over the border from Wales. This is the church where Joseph and Louisa's parents, John Bartram and Esther Meredith, were married in 1846. St. Mary's is an ancient Norman-style church and has the distinction of being one of the few English churches with a saint buried in it's courtyard. Welsh Newton is also the village where John was a publican (pub keeper) when he and Esther were first married.  We thought Esther might have been buried in the graveyard that surrounds the church, so we asked a woman who appeared to be working there. Turns out they are in the midst of conducting a cemetery inventory, and she was happy to show us the records! Well, Esther doesn't appear to be there, but the records show her parents, Joseph and Sarah Meredith, buried in the large plot just in front of the church entrance. Of course, that plot hasn't yet been inventoried, but we were welcome to traipse through the graveyard to see if we could find them. There are a lot of really old graves there, and some of the markers are impossible to read. Sadly, we didn't find the exact spot where Joseph and Sarah are resting. A good genealogist doesn't give up, though, and I'm hoping the church staff will eventually find them in the plot and send us the coordinates (and maybe a photo).

Entry gate at Wern Farm
Our next stop was just a few yards away, in Llanrothal, Herefordshire, England. This is where the Wern Farm sits, and where John and Esther Bartram's family farmed and raised Hereford cattle for a time in the 1870s and 1880s. Steven often drives by the farm during the course of his work, and he had the foresight to ring up the owners to see if they might allow us to come and take a closer look at our ancestors' old home. They very graciously invited us over and, not only did we get a closer look at the outside of the house and out buildings, but we even got to tour the inside of John and Esther's home! What an amazing treat!! The current owner, also named John, and his wife have lovingly remodeled what had been (at least on the inside) a slightly crumbling abode. They moved some walls, doors and stairs around to make the house more livable, but they also restored original oak beams and beautiful brick fireplaces and alcoves that had been hidden for years behind plaster. I can't fully describe the experience of standing in my great great grandparents' home, and the feelings that evoked, but I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

With my third cousin, Carl Thomas, at Wern Farm
After spending a good long time at Wern Farm, we headed back over the hill to enjoy some fish and chips while sitting on a bench on the side of the Monnow River. If you know me at all, you know that it's not a stretch to say that I'm not much of a fish person. You'll still never catch me eating salmon, but I'm now a fan of the fried cod in Monmouth, Wales! Damn, that was good. The beautiful scenery and good company made it even better.

Tintern Abbey
Next up, Steven had the brilliant idea to show me Tintern Abbey, about a 30-minute drive along the Wye River (which meets up with the Monnow River just outside of Monmouth. Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131, but was ultimately surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1536, and fell into ruins over the centuries. It's quite a spectacular site. We got in a little shopping at the gift store, and I think the shopkeeper must have thought he stuck gold when I got to the counter with my large stash. 

After a cup of tea, we wound up our trip with a stop in Chepstow to view the outside of the castle there, and spend a bit more cash in their gift shop. We then made the drive back into Cardiff, which was a little bittersweet for me. I had been having such an amazing time with my family, Steven and Carl, exploring our roots together and really getting to know each other, and I wasn't ready for it to end. When they dropped me off at the hotel after a long and fantastic day, I think we were all a bit sad to leave each other. 

With Cousin Steven, traipsing
through the graves at St. Mary's.
I can't begin to tell you what this trip has meant to me. Yes, I had the opportunity to walk where my Bartram and Meredith ancestors walked and get a small, personal glimpse into their lives. But, more importantly, I got to forge strong bonds with some of my own living family. We may be third (and once removed) cousins, but we are family and I think they'd agree that we immediately felt that tie to one another. There, I'm getting goosebumps again thinking about it... 

So, what's next? Well, I touch down in about five hours, and I can't wait to get home, call my mom and sister, pet my cat and add pictures to all these words so I can share them with you all. I'll also send a Facebook note to Steven to let him know I got home ok and send hugs to him and the rest of my Welsh clan. And, I'll bug him to get his passport in order so he and Carl can come visit me and the rest of their American Bartram cousins soon. Oh, what a family reunion that will be!

Meanwhile, thanks again to Steven and Carl for showing me such hospitality and genuine love. I do plan to go back to Wales to visit them and meet the rest of the family, including Steven's siblings, Simon (aka Sid), Martin and Sarah, his mum and his son, Steve. I can't wait for the next adventure!! (goosebumps...)

My cousins, Carl and Steven, looking
out at the Monnow River in Monmouth, Wales