cemetery

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.

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.