Bristol

The fragility of stone (part two)

Morning arrived and the previous night’s panic had gone the way of dreams. No doubt it really happened, but with the bright sun came the familiar feeling of safety – quite a change from nighttime stillness and my shadowy pursuer. The hotel now buzzed with inhabitants; I strolled down the hall to find the breakfast room a-chatter with Francophones – undoubtedly visitors to the university.

Having a proper English breakfast, I hit the revitalized sidewalks for my long-awaited day at the Bristol Record Office. The only way to know a city is to walk it streets, and in less than half a day of footwork, I had come to know a good portion of Bristol.

With a fresh start, I decided to give St Andrews another chance. It was on the way to the BRO and I would be crazy not to spend another hour giving each and every grave another go. This time, I entered from the opposite side – a narrow pathway arched over by leafless trees. Thin iron fences barricaded the cemetery from the public walkway, with carefree gates left open for a dog out walking its master, or the occasional curious wanderer.

St Andrews walk
Cluster tombs

I had to believe that the Admiral’s stature had influenced his final resting spot. There were numerous graves dated after 1863, therefore the people who laid my great-grandfather to rest had their options.

On a whim, I first revisited the east side of the cemetery. There was a dense matrix of graves whose orderly arrangement stood out from the rest of the haphazardly placed tombstones. I remembered searching it the day before, with stones ranging from tall and ostentatious to modest and flat. There was no real reason why I started there. Just a hunch.

I approached the outermost row of graves, eyes scanning every stone in search of legible words and dates. And there it was -- modest and flat, the stone tinted green but otherwise in pristine condition. It was as if it had been patiently waiting for me all morning:

The Admiral

Serenity passed over me as I knelt to get a closer look. I found him! A man who lived an extraordinary life, hidden forever amongst the growing trees and fading stones of some forgotten corner of the world, far from family, far from home. In my imagination, it was akin to meeting a revered celebrity. My heart raced. I laughed out loud, impervious to the pedestrians who passed along the public pathway. A couple of drunken vagrants loitered nearby; no doubt I seemed madder than they.

While not a monumental challenge, it was a golden ancestral discovery. Here was the final resting spot of a man who went to sea at the age of ten; who mapped the Great Lakes while their neighbors were at war; who circled the African continent, meticulously charting its coasts and capes – a fragment of which still bears his name - as malarian death ravaged his colleagues; who advised a young naturalist before he set off on the Beagle for the Galapagos; who raised two sons as a widower and brought them, along with their British traditions, to the frontiers of Ontario and endured the bucolic days of a half-pay vice admiral, building a border town with his older brother. At the age of sixty-nine, ATEV had long outlived his siblings, his wife, and his eldest son, and collapsed in the care of strangers whose names were hidden from family lore.

This was perhaps a find for the history books, although they were already saturated by accomplished people, long forgotten. Memories are the first casualty of death, followed by flesh, then possessions. By the time those who knew the deceased are deceased themselves, the stonework begins to fade and all that is old and insignificant is washed away with the dust. A spirit is kept alive by those who make efforts to keep it alive.

I could only linger there so long. There was still much more work to do before I caught an evening train back to London. Besides, I was kneeling in a cemetery, muttering to a stone. So I set off for the BRO, determined to find out who was with ATEV during his final days. In less than twenty-four hours, I came to know that world – I now needed to know the people.

Perils of wisdom

This was not supposed to be perilous. Danger and genealogy are clearly not related. They’re not even distant cousins. Yet the fact remained, on the eve of what could be my most significant discovery yet, my fate was in limbo.

I saw the guy at the pub the minute I sat down. It was a Monday night. It wasn’t that crowded; more crowded than the rest of Bristol, but sparse nonetheless. I sat at the bar, nursing a pint and scribbling the day’s events in my notebook. I noticed the shady man in the foyer, babbling on his mobile phone. He looked like a bouncer, bored beyond belief, chatting to his chums. I sat there for an hour, not giving him much more notice than the rest of the joy-seekers in the room.

Last call. The bartend’ress talks me into an extra round. I write some more. The joy-seekers revel some more. At last, I must depart. A big day tomorrow. I set onto the streets. Bristol is dormant – not a soul on the street. I walk the two blocks back to my hotel amidst nothing but silence, and the occasional car. I’m a New Yorker. I’ve long since learned that the presence of lights and other humans makes for a safe environment. Here is dark and still – my guard is up. Yet silence.

I make the turn towards my hotel. There are footsteps behind me. I glance backwards – it’s the guy from the bar, the guy on his mobile. He’s STILL on his mobile. Following me! Following me step-for-step!

Closing in on my hotel, I pick up my already brisk pace. No doubt this guy is following me. Is he a guest? Is this coincidence? The benefit of the doubt inches me closer towards peril. Quickly, I dart around the front hedges and up the hotel’s front steps. He’s right behind. There are two keys on my ring – one for the front door, the other to my room. It’s after-hours and there’s no one at reception. I’m on my own. By the stroke of luck, I pick the right one to the front door. It opens. I slide in, slamming it behind me as my friend ascends. Damn the coincidence! If he’s a guest then he’s on his own. I rush down to my room, unfortunately located in the half-basement. I rush inside, heart pounding, and do not turn on the lights. Not one single light. The room is ground floor. A giant, plate-glass window stands level with the street. No doubt my pursuer would be looking for my destination. I sat still on the bed, heart pounding, waiting, waiting... waiting...

Waiting...

Waiting.

Finally my senses get the best of me and uneasily I fall asleep, presuming safety.

The fragility of stone (part one)

Today, I arrived in Bristol with a limited window of opportunity. After spending the weekend together in Bath, M&A were kind enough to indulge in my ancestral forays, which is good because they brought a crucial element (besides good humor and companionship).

They had a car.

And while getting around England is feasibly done via public transportation, there isn’t a single route that specifically serves the regional circle of cemeteries.

Yet while M&A were more than willing to muck with me amongst the graves, they had to get themselves back to London that night.

The work day beckoned.

In the spirit of spontaneity, my itinerary was not set in stone; I rolled into Bristol without securing a place to rest my head for the night.

This would irk most international travelers, however I was less concerned with comfort than with bagging as much ancestral research as possible.

That meant I had about thirty-six hours to find my great-great-great-grandfather’s grave and raid the public record office.

My remote aerial surveillance (Google maps) paid off ten-fold – we rolled up to St Andrews churchyard with no issue.

It didn’t hurt that M&A had a TomTom GPS unit for their car.

How any human could navigate England’s nonsensical roads without one was beyond baffling.

The cemetery was exactly as I expected: long and narrow with a massive square void on one end – the grassy footprint of the church that once stood there.

With three members in our search party, we could easily scour every grave within an hour.

There was just one glaring complication – half of the graves were illegible, their faces completely stripped by erosion, the fragile stone chipped away by natural forces.

Even if ATEV’s grave was nearby, there was a strong chance we’d never find it.

We systematically read each and every stone, often brushing away wet leaves and peeling off moss. Some tombstones were spread apart from one another; others were packed together, neatly and tightly.

As a Vice Admiral when he died, surely ATEV’s headstone would be a little nicer, perhaps with some military décor.

A few of the nicer, in-tact graves fit this description, yet after an hour of searching each and every grave, from Clifton Hill road to the Fosseway, there was no sign of a Vidal.

To think this grave, so significant to my heritage, would disappear with the fragility of stone was heartbreaking.

Tomb of the unknown

Disappointed but not ready to surrender, hunger hindered my desire to keep searching.

The lunch hour was waning and low blood-sugar was getting the best of us.

Over an unpleasant lunch down by the @Bristol complex, I phoned local hotels in the hopes of finding a well-situated and reasonably-priced inn for the night.

Considering the last-minute, almost desperate nature of my inquiries, I succeeded in finding one near

Clifton and the university, making it feasible to explore the last known whereabouts of the Admiral.

As awkward culinary creations digested in our stomachs, we scurried up to my newfound hotel in

Tyndalls Park, then ventured over Sion Hill in Clifton.

Address in hand, there was no difficulty in finding the Admiral’s last residence.

It vividly fit my expectations – a handsome row of townhouses which faced the short but impressive

Clifton Suspension Bridge, and overlooked the deep Avon Gorge.

Chilly spring air blew across the tree-lined park as history came alive in my mind.

With only a handful of facts, I tried to imagine the old man during his final days.

Had there been more time, I would have fearlessly knocked on the door of 13 Sion Hill in hopes of a tour.

The remaining hours of the day allowed for a sight-seeing jaunt down to Cheddar and Wells, where we snacked on authentic cheese and local beers, respectively.

My chauffeurs had me back in Bristol by evening, with enough time to dine and recline, while they continued on to the capitol city.

As I sit in a pub, scribbling in my Moleskine, reflecting on the day’s events over a pint (or two), I’m not giving up hope that this grave can be found.

Only tomorrow will tell.

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.