We’d decided to take a holiday. A strangely indulgent holiday for me. A ‘Finding Myself’ sort of holiday. Not the sort of rickety bus and rucksack on the Andrex trail to Kathmandu Finding Myself type of holiday. This wouldn’t involve kaftans and peace beads and Buddhist temples in the high Himalayas. No no, nothing quite so exotic. We’d be spending a week in a charming little cottage overlooking the sea shore at a place called Nolton Haven in West Wales. Just the three of us. Me, my long suffering wife Lynda and our tiny terrier Alfie who thankfully loves to be anywhere where there are trees. This was to be my family history tour. I’d discovered some years ago that one particular branch of my family tree had lived around Nolton Haven for more than a century. We’d spent hours traipsing through wild and overgrown churchyards looking for strange exotic surnames like Esmond, Rossfer, Devereux alongside the boring run-of-the-mill names such as Smith and Davies. Thankfully, this is a wonderful part of the world. Little did we know, but this would be our final holiday for some time. The world was swiftly heading towards tragedy; one that would affect the whole of humanity. Had I known, I would most certainly have had that extra scone at the garden centre coffee shop.
Finally, the vacation drew to a close, and early on Saturday morning, Lynda packed the car as I took my ‘Let’s empty Alfie’ walk along the shore. The two of us sat a while on our favourite bench, me drinking in the view and the contents of my flask, Alfie drinking from his doggy bowl. As I sat and stared out to sea, listening to the Atlantic rollers and sea-birds, in my mind’s eye, a small ghost came and sat beside me. She meant me no harm. She wore a plaid woollen dress with a pure white lace pinafore. Black leather boots were laced high above her ankle. Over her shoulders she wore a typical Welsh siol bach, neatly folded into a triangle and pinned at her chest with a splinter of hawthorn, taken from the hedgerow near her home.
On her head, she wore a simple black bonnet, with her hair falling down in ringlets at its side. A basket, half full of cockles, rested on her lap. She was young, no more than twelve, yet the time between us would have to be measured in centuries.
Shortly after retiring in 2013 I was asked to help introduce a group of retired folk to the vagaries of modern day technology. I’d spent the latter part of my career involved in the use of computers in education. As soon as this became known at my local U3A group I was swiftly pressed into action. One thing that my group were really interested in was family history. Was it possible to use computers to help them search their family tree? What better way was there to find out than by undertaking my own research. Now, initially I’d known that my parents had owned a corner shop and that both of my grandfathers had been involved in mining. Nothing unusual there, but as I dug deeper, I discovered all sorts and manner of fascinations.
Great great great aunt Hesther:- ran away with the gypsies and received a fine for blocking the main road to Brecon with her horse and caravan.
Great grandfather William:- attacked by a teenager wielding a jar of pickled onions.
There was one name in the family tree though that intrigued me. A name that stood out from the crowd and one that I kept returning to. One that was so different to all of the Jones, Evans and Smiths. Her name was Rebekha Esmond and she’d lived about a two and a half centuries ago, and as I peeled back the pages of time, discovering the facts around her life, a story emerged. A story that reads like an episode from Poldark or a character from a Thomas Hardy novel. A story from the era of quill pens, tall sailing ships, rum, and gunpowder. I was hooked.