© By Janet and Stuart Wilson
The small sign beside a country lane in Bedfordshire, England pointed to Edworth Farm. Trepidation mingled with anticipation as we steered between fields toward an old stone farmhouse and barn. Any concern about trespassing evaporated when the farmer driving up on his tractor said, "You must be Spencers". He gestured toward his house saying, "The key to the church is hanging on a peg by the back door." A short path led us to the small stone St. George Church of Edworth Parish.
Finding Edworth's Church crowned a family journey on which we guided our niece, Karen, and nephew, Ian, on their first trip to Britain. Karen, age 23, sought to feed her fascination with English history and monarchs. Ian, age 18, wanted to see Scotland, the land of castles, kilts, and his great, great, grandfather's birth, especially the castles. On our sixteen-day trip looping through England and Scotland, and a corner of Wales, we traveled by rental car and railway, staying mostly in small B&B's. We wanted to show the kids what we love about Britain, satisfy their historic curiosity, maybe stoke the fires of travel in the younger generation, and tap into family roots.
Pursuit of roots led us to the former village of Edworth and its redundant church British parlance for a church without parish. We showed Karen this modest 13th-century Norman edifice where some of her maternal grandfather's ancestors were baptized and worshiped. A brass plaque in the church commemorates the family's connection. Karen and Janet (both Spencer descendants) signed the visitor registry and snapped photos. Only some stone foundations remain of the village once standing here. We left a small donation for the Church of England's redundant churches' fund, helping keep the old building in some repair.
Advance arrangements for our trip included an airline ticket package with five nights in a London apartment, a rental car and B&B voucher package, three-day BritRail passes, Globe Theater tickets, and some custom, detailed Ordinance Survey maps we ordered online to help us locate backwater places like Edworth. We'd also completed some family history research. Our trip commenced as a flight to London's Heathrow and a train journey to Bath via London's Paddington Station.
We thought Bath offered a historic yet gentler introduction to Britain than immediately plopping our jet-lagged bodies down in the middle of London. On foot in Bath that afternoon we toured the Roman Baths learning of Aqua Sulis, a wealthy Roman spa town before its rebirth in the late 17th and 18th centuries as a Royal Spa.
Next morning we picked up our rental car, traveling with Ian to nearby Wells and to Stonehenge. Karen, feeling unwell, stayed at home in our B&B with a solicitous landlady. We wandered Wells' tidy streets on market day in the rain, and sheltered in the little town's mighty cathedral. We puzzled over the motivations, but marveled at the engineering embodied in Stonehenge.
A night in the Cotswolds near our favorite village, Chipping Campden, preceded our excursion to North Wales. Near Ruthin, our most memorable B&B came with low-ceilinged sections dating to the 16th century and a lovingly-tended garden. At the nearby traditional White Horse Pub, we savored a contemporary dinner. Ian and Karen used a nearby red phone booth and pre-paid phone cards to make the first of several calls home.
A brief visit in black and white, half-timbered Chester broke up our journey to the Lake District. In Keswick a memorable pudding called Spotted Dick followed traditional pub fare, launching our two-week search for Britain's best pudding.
As we headed for Ballantrae, Scotland, supposed birthplace of great, great grandfather Wilson, we took a serendipitous turn off the highway in search of a picnic spot. Our picnic ended up as sandwiches in the car while sheltering from the rain. Then Karen noticed a castle on the map not far away. We wandered down country lanes and found Caerlaverock Castle, a National Trust owned ruin. Built of stone and brick, added-to and remodeled over the centuries, this fortress-home included battlements, round turrets, a carved stone coat of arms, cavernous fireplaces, moats, even a draw-bridge, maybe the perfect castle ruin, and a big hit with Ian. Welcome to Scotland!
We found several Wilsons buried in Ballantrae's graveyard, and then Ian and Stu climbed through a fence to explore a small ruined castle nearby. Touring the Foreland District, where a baby named John Wilson was living with his parents on a dairy in the 1857 British census, stirred our imaginations. What was life like here 150 years earlier, and what might have motivated a young family to soon sail across the Atlantic.
Oban, a town renown for distilled spirits serves as the jumping-off point for the island of Mull and the tiny adjacent island of Iona. We toured Iona's 6th century Abbey founded by Columba in his mission to bring Christianity to Scotland from Ireland.
A loop through the Highlands revealed no mysterious monsters along the banks of Loch Ness, but dramatically situated Urquhart Castle overlooking the Loch proved a great spot for another picnic lunch. We found plenty of dramatic scenery soaked in bloody history at Glencoe and Culloden.
Edinburgh, surmounted by its iconic castle, served as home for several days. Here we had our laundry washed at a drop-off service, giving us more time for sightseeing. One evening Janet and Stu enjoyed a quiet dinner at a neighborhood Indian restaurant while the kids got take-out and ate in. One morning Karen was so homesick she wanted to go home, but by evening things looked up. Ian shopped for a traditional Scottish tartan, but the price ($500) left him kilt-less. We walked the Royal Mile, toured Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace and strolled Princes Street. A day-trip to Stirling used our last car rental day. We headed south to England by train--first stop York.
Once one of England=s most important cities, centuries of stagnation left York one of its best preserved, its medieval wall largely intact. While we usually rented two rooms, one for the men and one for the women, here we ended up with a tiny family room--a double bed and bunk bed in a space hardly big enough for the double.
We toured the impressive National Railway Museum (for Stu and Ian) followed by afternoon tea with scones and clotted cream at Betty's (for Janet and Karen). Then we all reveled in the experience of sitting in the quire (choir) for Evensong at York Minster, one of Europe's great cathedrals.
A fast train sped us to London for the final five days of our trip. We stayed in our small apartment, shopped at the local super, and fixed our breakfasts plus a couple of dinners, providing a relatively economical way for four of us to visit one of the world's most expensive cities. We took the kids to the British Library, the British Museum and to the Tower of London. Janet secured advance tickets for the 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys where the Yeoman Warder in traditional uniform brings the keys at precisely 9:30 each evening to ritually lock-up the Tower.
One morning we stood in line for admission to Parliament, a first for all of us, and well worth the wait. Security was elaborate and a little intimidating. In the House of Commons we sat behind a glass wall in the public gallery listening to lively debate about a Welsh transport bill, in contrast to the set speeches that typify the U.S. Congress.
One afternoon we split up; Janet and Karen heading for Westminster Abbey, Stu and Ian for Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms. Karen searched for monuments to monarchs, especially Elizabeth I, while Ian imagined himself in the underground rooms during the Blitz. Later, we celebrated Jane'ts birthday dinner in a tiny, exquisite restaurant where the sticky toffee pudding came a close second to Keswick's spotted dick in our best pudding quest.
A trip highlights list must include attending a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theater, a reconstruction in the original South Bank location. We ordered tickets ahead to see A Winter's Tale. It proved to be a magical evening; the kids transfixed by wonderful performances in the perfect setting, audience interaction and spirited Elizabethan Theater. Shakespeare came to life here--the best we've ever seen.
We cruised to Greenwich on a nautical day trip, returning by train. After boarding the Cutty Sark we wandered the Maritime Museum searching for Admiral Duckworth's portrait (Janet's and Karen's family name). Alas, the Admiral had been moved and was not currently on display. Karen settled for a photo of the painting.
The train to Cambridge launched another day-trip. We rented a car and drove to Stotfold, once home to Spencers, where we toured the church and lunched at historic Checkers Pub before commencing our hunt for the vanished village of Edworth, Ordinance Survey map in hand. Finding Edworth's church, and being there, proved a suitable culmination of a family journey about family and history.
Originally published in TravelWorld International Magazine
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