On vacation with the ghosts of my Cornish ancestors | Holidays in Cornwall

A a small miner’s house with an old-sounding name occupied an important place during my childhood in the suburbs. My father was born in Bojewyan Stennack (pronounced Bow-jeew-yurn Sten-arrrr-k), a one-up, one-down granite in Cornwall, at the end of WWII. Her mother, Virginia, grew up here, just steps from the foaming Atlantic coast, with her seven siblings and a mother who has spent her life with black widows. I knew from family folklore that Bojewyan’s sash windows hissed to the southwest, and the blackened hearth chimney sang a haunting, almost human note. I knew the ocean fogs, which obscured the feet and the montbretia-strewn hedges and made the lighthouse lamp shine, visible from the back window upstairs, a spectral white.

It was with these inherited memories that I crossed the threshold of Bojewyan, my family’s home for a century until 1946, and now a vacation rental. Several of the cottages on this original 20-unit terrace in Pendeen, just west of Penzance, are now vacation rentals, with wood-burning stoves in the old granite fireplaces and gardens, where the pit boots swayed in the past, have turned into sunny terraces.

Renovated interior of chalet Bojewyan

I discovered the fate of the cottages in 2020 when, like an estimated 250,000 Britons in the grip of a genealogy of containment craze, I set out to research my family history. It was a discovery that sparked mixed feelings: Was it unpleasant that Cornwall’s mining heritage had been turned into a tourist experience? Or was it rather a rare opportunity? What could it add to a blustery coastal walk if my partner and I and our young son could come home to warm our toes by the fireplace where my grandmother was fifth in line for a swim in the tin bath; or if we could drink our morning cuppas in the bright white light of the coast she rose to when she was a young girl?

Brian Donovan, an expert on the online genealogy platform Find My Past, says I’m not the first to have this idea. Living history getaways have grown in popularity in recent years, inspired by genealogy programs that focus on social history across the lives of residents of a house, such as the BBC Two hit A House Through Time, Phil Spencer’s History of Britain in 100 Homes and If The Walls Could Talk: The Story of the House with Lucy Worsley.

Donovan, who specializes in British and Irish archives, often receives inquiries from Brits interested in the family homes of their Irish ancestors, and some are fortunate enough to find a B&B now occupying the 18th century thatched roof of their family. teach in.

Sally Howard and her son in Pendeen, with the lighthouse in the distance
Sally Howard and her son in Pendeen, with the lighthouse in the distance

“People whose ancestors live in rural areas may be disappointed, as simple earthen cottages often don’t survive,” he says, adding that Brits with relatives who migrated to industrial revolution towns like Manchester , with its rows of solid, stone working terraces, are more fortunate.

“The ancient homes of our ancestors may not be the ideal we envision,” warns Melanie Backe-Hansen, co-author of A House Through Time (with David Olusoga). “It could have been workers’ houses with no amenities, or shanty towns that no longer exist. It’s interesting for understanding the past, although it may not make for a dream getaway.

But even if there isn’t a vacation home or B & B that your grown-ups have owned, people are likely to find a pub they could have attended, schools they attended, or churches they attended. were baptized or married, notes Donovan. “It should also be noted that the excellent 19th century directories (especially those by Bassett) also list pubs, schools, churches etc. of a locality, most of which will still be visited and could inspire a holiday. ”

So, while those with the cash to spend might ask a genealogy travel provider to arrange a stay at the homes of former family members that have become vacation properties (the ancestralfootsteps packages. com start at £ 5,000), with a little detective work, many of us can search for properties with links to our ancestors through consumer genealogy sites at a fraction of the cost. In addition to FindMyPast, sites such as ancestry.co.uk are a good place to start, as well as historical maps, National Archives and underrated local archives in the areas where our families come from. FindMyPast has a new feature that allows users to search census records by address, while Ancestry’s app even shows people how close they are to properties with family ties using a GPS map feature. .

Sally Howard's grandmothers, Catherine and Myra Trembath, at Pendeen Cottage, 1943.
Sally Howard’s grandmothers, Catherine and Myra Trembath, at Pendeen Cottage, 1943

Fortunately, the cottage of my Cornish ancestors has retained its original proportions: a two-room accommodation with a central wooden staircase, four windows and an entrance door to the main living space, except for the living room. ‘a modest bathroom at the back and a kitchen extension. Its granite stones are painted white and it is comfortably appointed (with central heating and soft furnishings my grandmother would not have known), but surprisingly tiny for a family of nine.

Where, I wondered, would the bodies have stowed away? Could they have sat down at the same time, even with the male relatives spending daylight hours at Geevor, the village’s vast tin mine? The realization that the lives I had fictionalized as a child must have been exhausting and cold left me feeling a little guilty as I enjoyed a power shower in the morning with a Cornish lavender body scrub made in the morning. hand. “Would you like me to put a bucket toilet in the garden for a real 1880s experience?” My partner Tim proposed, when I brought this up (only half-jokingly).

On our last day in Pendeen, we walked to Portheras, a cove known for its rugged coastal beauty and the return currents that swirl beneath its bay. It was here that my grandmother and her siblings came after school, picking up the rock face in hopes of finding bounties on the wrecked ships off Pendeen Headland. In 1938, I am told, Virginia and her brother Leonard found a shot of bordeaux and buried several bottles in the seagrass above the cove for later Trembaths to find, a harvest of Alexanders (horse parsley) marking the spot.

The Bojewyan chalet
The Bojewyan chalet

On the way back from Portheras, we pass the Radjel – the old miners’ pub where heads still turn at the sight of a visitor from the “hinterland” – an incongruous Portuguese cafe and the village shop , where a local tells me that old Bojewyan cottages were doomed at the end of the 20th century, their gardens overgrown and their windows smashed, making them look like they had gutted eye sockets. They were saved by a historic 1973 England listing and are now selling for the price of an apartment in London. “It’s good that they did something with them,” concludes the local with the pompom hat.

We did not find these Bordeaux bottles buried. My brother suspects that my late father found them when he was a student in the 1960s and sat on the headland, slicing them down through the bottleneck skin. I did however find something precious: a glimpse into the lived reality of my Cornish family – their pettiness, but also their magic. “There is something about the cry of the seagull in the salty breeze,” my grandmother wrote in her 1942 diary, while she was stationed for war work in a nursery for evacuees in London. in East Sussex and homesickness for the Cornish coast. You know what, Virginia, there really are.

A week at Bojewyan Stennack costs £ 385, stennackcottage.co.uk. Findmypast membership from € 8.99 one month, ancestry.co.uk from £ 10.99 per month. House Historian Karen Averby offers simple census searches from £ 450

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