Arnos Vale

Google grave-hunting

Burial sites are about as close as you can get to a dead ancestor. Photos, letters and legends may bring them to life, but nothing beats being in the presence of their dust and ashes, standing before a weather-worn marker of their last resting spot.

I’ve been fantasizing about finding the last stop in the life of my great-great-great-grandfather, Alexander Thomas Emeric Vidal, who died in 1863. He is the most famous of my recent lineage, yet his remains were a bit of an enigma. He settled in Ontario, but died at the age of 70 on a visit to England, his home country. My resilient predecessor in Vidal Family history, the long-passed Charlotte Vidal Nisbet, had made it known that ATEV died and was buried in Clifton Churchyard.  

Driven by the desire to stand before his tomb, I took to Google and found that Clifton isn’t exactly an uncommon town name in the United Kingdom. On a hunch, I pinpointed Clifton to be a neighborhood on the west side of Bristol, a maritime city in England and an apt place for a vice-admiral to keel over. In addition to some other English research destinations, that was enough for me to book a ticket to London while my faithful hosts M&A still resided on that side of the pond.

The problem with any such trips is those necessary evils: Time & Money. I had a sufficient amount of both, even with the terrible dollar-pound exchange rate, yet with a packed, eight-day itinerary and the need to venture beyond London, far from M&A’s futon gratis, grave-hunting in Bristol will be a one shot deal. I have a day, maybe two, to find the Admiral. The question is which cemetery counts as “Clifton churchyard”. If it’s beside a church, there are several Anglican ones to choose from, all in the Clifton area prior to ATEV’s death. Secondly is the discovery that all churchyard burials ended in the 1850s, sending coffins to the large Arnos Vale cemetery on the south side of Bristol. This was a relief since several of the target churches were kindly bombed by the Germans during World War II (Nazis! I hate those guys).

For an armchair genealogist, Arnos Vale is a mess. After decades of neglect, it was kindly restored by an association of concerned citizens, which explained why these Friends charged a hefty fee to look up the location of a subterranean resident. With only a few days until my trip, I emailed the Friends, hoping they could confirm that ATEV was indeed buried there before they charged me for the effort, successful or not.  I'm all for supporting the restoration, but this hobby ain't cheap.

Meanwhile, I had other hope in the Bristol Record Office, my destination as the container of Bristol’s past. I fired off an email to their general address and distracted myself with other investigations, namely why ATEV spent his last days in Clifton. His siblings were long dead, but perhaps he had other relatives lurking about. Or perhaps friends, which will make my shotgun-research all the more difficult. It’s one thing to piece together a bloodline; discovering ancestral friends is a powerful way to shed light on your predecessors, but that means piecing together someone else’s family.  Thanks to the brilliant power of Google Books (and some obsessive keyword queries by yours truly) I discovered the final residence of the Admiral, which happens to be across the park from the remarkable Clifton Suspension Bridge, which was months away from completion when he died.

This morning, the day before my departure, the BRO got back to me. The helpful research assistant said he was buried in the cemetery besides St Andrews, which of course is one of the churches that got bombed. Almost seventy years later, the Nazis were meddling with my research. The politely worded email said that while ATEV was registered in the burial records, there is no guarantee that the grave can be found.

Sweeping through Google Maps, I found the churchyard. Thankfully it isn't near the size of Arnos Vale. That means I can hopefully find him in a matter of hours, if indeed the grave is still there. A large green square dominates the public park – the empty remnants of St Andrews. The bomb destroyed the center of the structure, leaving most of the walls in tact, which means that hopefully the cemetery was unscathed in the deliberate attack on my heritage.

After a quick stroll through Flickr, another glorious website where you can browse other people’s photos based off keywords and maps, I got a preview of the churchyard. Like Arnos Vale, St Andrews was long under disrepair. Having recently been cleaned up by another society of Friends, the grave markers themselves are no longer buried under vegetation. Yet the photos are concerning – some tombstones were completely illegible.

I’ll have to take my chances, show up in Clifton and hope to find my great-great-great-grandfather.

Failure, unfortunately, is an option.