There was a time previously when my knowledge of Wales and everything Welsh was, lamentably, more or less limited to a colourful exchange between Baldrick and his overlord in the 1980’s English sitcom, “Blackadder.” Baldrick, Blackadder’s minion, who was contemplating deserting his liege for a better life in Wales, was cautioned rhetorically by his astute master about doing it. “Have you ever been to Wales, Baldrick? Well, don’t go. You’ll need half a pint of phlegm just to pronounce the place names.”
While Baldrick (as I recall) stayed put, I myself embarked upon, at the tender age of twenty one, a brief yet fascinating pilgrimage into my family’s past, a voyage that eventually took me to that astonishing land of both tortured toponyms and Dylan Thomas. Being totally new to the curiosity of ancestral reconnoitering, my knowledge of the subject was rudimentary at best. A couple of grandparents were long dead and never known to me while the other two were quite alive in Montreal, one of whom was domiciled virtually next door. As well, aunts, uncles, and cousins were to be found here, there, and a little bit everywhere throughout this precious country of ours.
Respecting the basic rule of genealogical research that a novice should always seek out the oldest family member before entering into time- consuming archival exploration, one fine day all those years ago, I sat my maternal grandmother down and peppered her with a series of more or less conventional ancestry-related questions. “Who were your parents, your grandparents, brothers and sisters?” Furthermore, I remember, with pen and paper in hand, enquiring intently: “Where and when were you all born?”
With a rather sardonic smile on her ageing lips, my gran countered: “Don’t ask too many questions. You might not like some of the answers.” While only much later in life did I come to learn the full meaning of her suggestive reply, at that moment I was quite satisfied with the information which she did provide.
In all events, as it turned out, that although my maternal grandmother was born in Lancashire in northwest England, her parents were from other regions of Her Majesty’s more or less United Kingdom. In fact, her mother was from northern Wales and was a Welsh speaker at that. My grandmother also added that when she was a young child in Bury (a town but a short distance from Manchester) her maternal grandmother lived with her family. My grandma laughed heartily as she recounted how her quite aged, unilingual Welsh-speaking nan would chase her about the kitchen turning the Lancastrian air blue with Welsh expletives dispatched in her direction. My grandmother, who spoke no Welsh, would playfully and teasingly exclaim, “But we’re in England, Grandma. Speak English.”
Afterwards, I took my notations home with me and prepared a close to final draft of them on my old portable typewriter from college days. I later tucked them away in a folder and placed them somewhat listlessly into my file cabinet which was by then crammed full with academic essays and other papers from earlier times. There, while my interest lapsed as I lumbered through my twenties and beyond, they were to remain for many a year.
As it happened, however, after a lengthy period of quiescence, I resumed not that long ago my interest in family history. Of course, my grandmother from Lancashire had long left this world and I thought that, before I should follow her, it might be opportune on my part that I once again examine that now dusty document and, if possible, augment it with some significant contemporary research. This stretch, however, I had no choice but to delve into official records, all of which are now quite familiar to seasoned genealogists. Moreover, for one reason or another, the Welsh connection intrigued me considerably and I decided for that reason I would direct all of my attention to it.
Consequently, last July, my determination to expand on the information I already had would steer me to Wrexham, Wales, a rather prosaic city found close to the English border, and that same red-rose County of Lancaster. Indeed, my grandmother had told many years ago that it was in Wrexham that her mother had been born in the middle of the nineteenth century. Accordingly, combining travelling with familial exploration, it was to be now my turn to drop by this remarkably proud and independent region of Great Britain.
Once alighted at Heathrow Airport, I immediately leased the requisite vehicle, eager to drive myself to the lands of my Welsh forebears. Yet, not desiring to join them precipitously, I had constantly to remind myself throughout the jaunt to keep to the left side of the road! Despite some initial trepidation, I ultimately arrived at my destination safe and sound.
After securing lodging with a Welsh-speaking family in a particularly charming nearby hamlet and conversing briefly with them about our two countries’ comparatively complex linguistic circumstances, my next stop was the local library in Wrexham. There, with the kind assistance of several helpful members of staff, I was able to track down my ancestors in a late nineteenth century census in the village of Overton-on-Dee on the very periphery of the city in which I was doing my fact-finding. Upon learning this, I presently left the library to bring myself yet closer to what remained of the very chronicle of my family in Wales – the village churchyard.
There’s something very special about a parish burial ground in Britain and that of St. Mary’s the Virgin in lovely and quaint Overton-on-Dee was, as I later found out, no exception. As I traipsed soggily about the centuries’ old necropolis in search of ancestors, I marvelled mightily at the possibility of being so close to the remains of that unilingual, Welsh-speaking, great great grandmother, and the physical beauty of the land and people from which she came.
(When all is said and done, perhaps Baldrick should have gone to Wales after all.)