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Connie’s Genealogy Adventure in England, 2011

Day 1 — Dear Family and Friends,

I’m finally in beautiful Chester, England after a wonderful train ride from London on a REALLY fast train. They really understand public transportation here and it couldn’t have gone smoother getting from the airport to the main train station was a breeze because they have people (in uniform) standing around the airport terminal with portable ticket printers. You just walk up to any of them and they print tickets right there. No muss, no fuss, and no wondering around a huge terminal to find the ticket counters.

So this week I’m staying in the Queens Hotel which was built in 1860. It’s everything you would expect in an elaborate, over-the-top Victorian way. It’s complete with Roman ruins recently excavated that were left behind during the Roman occupation of the area in 75 AD. Now THAT’s some history!

The hotel service is great (and they expect NO tips) and the accommodations are very comfortable. I understand, from the general manager, that this hotel is VERY haunted. I wonder what “very” means? I’ll let you know if I see anything.

I took a nice long walk around the city and chose an English Pub called “The Square Bottle” to have dinner. So I’m sitting there with my beer (cold) and fish and chips (naturally) looking across the street at a Tudor building built in 1509! Now just what could be more English? Can you imagine a building made of wood and plaster lasting 500 years? As I was gazing out the window it suddenly hit me that I was actually in the city that I have so longed to be in. It is truly a dream to be here and I will soak up every minute of this experience.

Tomorrow I head for the Cheshire Archives riding a FREE city bus. Can you imagine? This bus will take you anywhere within the city limits – no charge. I expect to spend the next few days sightseeing and studying. I’m still hoping to arrange for a driver for a few hours to take me around the small villages and hamlets that are only 5 to 10 miles away. Most of the time I’ll be taking a local train or bus so transportation is totally not a problem.

So, my friends and family, this ends the first of 8 days I’ll be immersing myself in my family’s British roots – and I’m so excited. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from me again soon!

Love to you all,


 Day 2 —  Hi everyone,

The problem with Disneyland is that when you’re there you know the place is designed specifically to draw you into the “story” and to enchant you in every step – but you always know that it’s not really “real”.  Well it’s hard to describe Chester as anything less than “Disney-like”. At every turn are fantastical buildings, gilding everywhere, Tudor this and Tudor that, and wrought iron signs that are many hundreds of years old and made with great imagination and great artistic skill. And when you look at the numbers on the front of the buildings and they read things like, 1566AD, and you realize that those number ARE NOT addresses, it just adds to the magic.

It’s spring here in England and the weather is beautiful. The sidewalks are filled with people and flowers are blooming everywhere. I spent a good deal of time inside today doing research (and I won’t bore you with that – at least for now!) But I did go out for lunch and walked from one end of the city to the other. The Roman wall that surrounds the city is drawing me to walk it some more this weekend. I can’t wait to see the views from the top of the wall. Susan tells me it’s a “can’t miss” experience.

I’ve been somewhat successful learning some new things about the Pickering family but the best part was to be able to actually hold the original document of our family’s history and see our ancestor’s signatures, marks and seals. The staff was extremely helpful and answered every one of my dumb questions. Of course they’re used to that!

Tomorrow I think I’m going to Frodsham to visit ancestral homes, churches and graves. I can’t wait to walk the streets where my family walked hundreds of years ago. The weather should be terrific and if I haven’t hurt too many of my body parts by walking my feet off it will be a rewarding day. Remember folks, I sit in a chair for 12 hours a day for a living!

Hope you enjoy the photos. Had a few complainers (and you know who you are) that I didn’t send any in my last email. I’ll write again soon.

Cheers! Connie

Day 3 — OK, this will be a long one, folks.

Yesterday was an exciting day (and exhausting) and everything I had hoped for from visiting Frodsham. When I stepped off the train (a 15 minute trip from Chester) I felt like I had stepped into a time machine. So much of the village homes and buildings looked like they had been dipped in resin and preserved forever.

I first visited the local library to see what I could find there and didn’t find much on the history of the town but met some extremely nice people. The librarians were delighted with my project and kept coming up with ideas for me to find things out. Then the visitors of the library chimed in and everyone wanted to see my book (which I printed out before I left). The oohs and aahs were just wonderful.

They all decided that I HAD to have lunch at the Cottage Teashop which was located within the row of the oldest homes in the village on Main Street  – and what a good idea that was! The tea shop was this very tiny place with the sweetest owner who, after a short chat knew I was from the “States” and very proudly told me all about the history of her building. She involved several other people eating there and we just had a great communal lunch conversation. She also gave me a lovely card with a drawing of the teashop so I “wouldn’t forget them”. As if I could.

My journey continued down the street where I located the homes of some of my ancestors and their families. I knew before I left that they were historical landmarks so I knew I would find them easily, but more unexpected surprises were waiting for me to discover. The plaque I am standing beside in two of the photos read that these homes were actually built by two brothers who were famous artisan home builders of their time. If you home was built by a Harrison “boy” you could be sure it would last. Well, these homes were actually built by my 5th great grandfather and his brother! I never expected THAT. These homes are treasured because they are the only standing examples of thatched-roof construction left in the town. The timbers are hand-hewn and the brickwork is just wonderful. The plaque reads “Originally four 17th century oak framed thatched cottages No 89 (inc 87). The oldest is mid C75th. William Harrison a Carpenter added No 85 and his brother Thomas a Joiner added No83”. How cool is that?

So I asked two passing visitors if they would take my picture in front of these buildings and I hit the jackpot! What delightful guys these two were! The one was a bricklayer by trade and he explained the construction of the homes and why they stood so long. They were such fun and as we were laughing and taking photos a young, hip shop owner came by and had a MILLION things to tell us about the town. This town was given a charter by the king and is an ancient market town. The market is every Thursday and it is permitted to set up your business along the sidewalk – but only on the north side of the street – except the row in front of the post office where you had to move to the south side of the street because every time the market blocked the post office it would get robbed because the police couldn’t see it well enough to protect it. My run-on sentence does not do this young lady justice. She just had a great time telling us all so much and was very cute and funny. So when I took their picture she quipped that she reveled in being “the thorn between two roses”. What a hoot! So by the time we all were ready to go on our ways we were all good friends and the men hugged the girls and kissed our cheeks and wished us a good life. Priceless, totally priceless.

My next target was the St. Laurence churchyard to find the graves of our 4th great grandparents. I decided to walk it because I wanted to soak up every minute in the town. The librarians told me about a “shortcut” up a set of stairs off the sidewalk and along the path. This path was used by the town’s people who attended the church. Well, it might have been a short cut but it was all uphill! It was worth the walk through this lovely path where the spring flowers were blooming everywhere. As I reached the back gate to the church I was in love with this area. And I was in for another unexpected experience  – there was a church service just getting started so I walked in and sat in the back of the church facing the most gorgeous stained glass window in this church that was build originally by the Normans 1000 years ago. The window was a donation by our family in memory of a Pickering who died in 1880. Our family helped to reconstruct parts of the church over 150 years ago and are on the rolls as donors.

A woman sitting in the last row in the church made me feel welcome and made sure I had the order of the service and a hymnal. As most of you know, I’m not a very religious person but this religion was the one I was brought up in as a child and I haven’t been to a service in over 45 years. So participating in the service was a collision of emotions. I felt truly connected to my history – knowing that my family sat under this very roof and worshiped nearly 300 years ago. We had tea and sweets after the service where many women welcomed me warmly. The secretary of the church made an appointment with me for next Tuesday to guide me to the graves I want to see. She then drove me back to the train station (a very Dickens-like building) where I was whisked back to the comforts of my hotel and dinner. What a day!

One important thing I learned about myself: I can walk for miles – something I had forgotten I could do.

Cheereo until next time! (they actually say that here), Connie

 Day 4 — Helo again everyone!

Well, the inevitable happened. I got my first blister from all my walking. But, just like a good Girl Scout, I came prepared with three pair of shoes – so I should get through the trip in good shape. The beautiful spring weather ended after only two-and-a-half days. It’s cooler and damp now but dressing in layers is the trick for the climate here. And, once again, I came prepared. You know, with four months to think about this trip I obsessed over every contingency I could imagine – so shame on me if I wasn’t prepared.

Today was a very low-key day since I needed some catch-up time so I just spent about four hours in the town of Chester. This is a very “graphical” city with all the black and white buildings, fancy brickwork and interesting angles. I’m really fascinated by the rooflines and creative brickwork chimneys and how they look against the negative space of the sky. I took dozens of roof-line photos, which I will NOT bore you with – lucky you! But as a graphic artist, this place is just fascinating.

So I focused on the Roman wall for my tour today and loved the views from the top and the sense of ancient history as I walked around. This is Saturday so there were MILLIONS of tourists on the streets. I didn’t actually count them all but, as you can see, there were at least a million. The street scene with its ancient buildings was overlaid with all kinds of music and hawkers and noise everywhere. It’s a bit jarring to hear teens with their electronic keyboards and drums pounding out contemporary music when you would expect to hear bards and their lutes. No. This is still 2011 and the kids are very much of this time!

For a short (very short) description of the city; William The Conqueror (1028 – 1087) wrote of Chester in The Doomsday Book:

“Cestre: Earl Hugh. The city had been devastated, but by 1086 many houses were rebuilt.”

“Walled city, once the Roman camp of Deva. A Roman amphitheatre and part of the original ramparts remain. It has medieval galleried streets, Tudor houses, a cathedral and a castle.”

For those of us who live in a country that is only a few hundred years old it’s hard to wrap your brain around the “massive” amount of time that this country has had a technologically advanced civilization. (“Massive”, by the way is the most popular way to describe anything big or large – I just had to work that word in somewhere.)

The “black and whites” were mostly made using English oak timbers painted with black tar to protect them from the weather. The white paint is a lime wash. I found out why the buildings sport their distinctive small leaded glass windows – because they couldn’t make large glass panes back then. Kinda’ makes sense, doesn’t it? Many of the buildings look Tudor (1600’s) but only a few are genuine, many were built in Victorian (1800’s) times (still very old!) Many are a mixture of different building styles because over the centuries they have been expanded, repaired, restored or rebuilt. The different styles make a rich, visual patchwork of textures and colors that really floats my boat (a pun on the photo of the boat in the window).

So today you only get to see some of my “artistic” pictures – hope you enjoy! More to come soon. Connie

Day 5 — I think I’ve found the antidote to obesity in the U.S.

One word: TRAINS.

I never realized how wonderful it is to have a really good transportation system with so many choices. There isn’t one place I want to go that I can’t get there by walking to a train station, climbing a really steep set of stairs, then getting down another set of steep stairs, then walking from the platforms – mostly down another set of stairs, then walking to my destination, then walking back to the station and reversing the process. Believe it or not I believe I’m losing weight! Walking with a destination in mind is so much better than just walking for the exercise. There’s something psychologically different about it.

Yesterday I went to Wallasey to visit St. Hilary church. God must have a master plan to get me to as many church services as he can squeeze in while I’m on this trip. Yep! I attended another service. This church is where my 2nd and 3rd great grandparents were buried. The setting of the church is magnificently perched on the highest hill on the Wiral peninsula across the River Mersey from Liverpool. The views of the Irish Sea and surrounding vistas were just beautiful and my ancestors had the best of the best views in life and death.

This area was the vacation beaches for those who worked in Liverpool. Huge “cottages” were built here and our family home called “Montebello” was one of them. These cottages were enormous mansions – kinda’ like the “cottages” found in Newport, Rhode Island, if you’ve ever been there. Anyway, Wallasey had a famous boardwalk and lighthouse here, which is now long gone but in its heyday were enormously popular. Unfortunately “Montebello” was destroyed in 1976 but the wall surrounding the grounds and all the servants and livery cottages still exist and people live in them now. I’m lucky to have some fuzzy pictures like this one.

Charles William Harrison Pickering (my GGGrandfather) was a merchant banker and financed the shipping industry between Liverpool, Sidney Australia and the U.S. He and his wife Elizabeth had 11 children who eventually scattered to Australia, New Zealand, Isle of Man, and the U.S., and as merchants traveled as far away as China and Prussia.

In 1911 my GGgrandfather, Alexander and his brother emigrated to the U.S. aboard the famous Lisutania, would you believe!  This was no cargo ship – it was a real luxury liner and one of the finest in its time (it was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915). So the family was considered “well off” in the mid 1800’s. We are fairly recent immigrants to the U.S. and that’s why coming to England was really necessary to get the whole picture of the family.

Here is a view of the Irish Sea from where Montebello once stood.

Unfortunately the battery on my camera died yesterday so no more pictures for you today. I’m trying to figure out how to download my pictures from my phone – so you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow for more photos.

I’m getting ready to board yet, another train to go to two villages called Weversham and Norley in search of ancestors from the 1600-1700’s. It’s foggy today, much as I would expect from England, so I’ll bundle up and be on my way.

Look for more soon!

BTW – thanks to everyone who wrote to tell me you are enjoying my journal – I love hearing from you all! Connie

Day 6 — This was a SPECTACULAR DAY!!

I did it. I saw it. I smelled it. I tasted it. I lived it. This was the day I was waiting for.

OK – just a little over-dramatic, but it was still spectacular. It started out cold and foggy but I enjoyed the different kind of weather – so no problems. Took (another) train to Frodsham (where, by the way I think I could live forever) then hired a cabbie (a young man named Jay – a delightful driving companion) to drive me to every hamlet and town I could think of within about a 20 mile radius of Frodsham. I did have the objective to visit a few churchyards and just experience what the countryside was like. The weather, as the day wore on, became a beautiful, warm spring day – lucky us.

It’s really pretty here with rolling hills, lots of green pastures and the Delemere Forest. The forest is a remnant of the medieval times when it covered over 60 square miles. In this context, “forest” means an area outside the common law and subject to forest law; it means that during about the Norman period, the penalties for killing game without the king’s permission were … you’re not going to believe this … blinding, mutilation or execution. I think those laws have been toned down to huge fines now. I don’t think they’re allowed to mutilate any more.

So Jay and I started at Sutton Mills owned by our family about 1820 or so. I took some pics of one of the old buildings that just fascinated me. It was still foggy and misty when I got there so the atmosphere exactly matched the condition of the building. I just loved it! He then drove me through about 6 or 8 villages where our ancestors lived in the 1500-1700’s and some of the graveyards had relatives from the 1700-1800s. There were probably older graves but time has done its best to erase the chiseled stones with their messages to those of us who would give their right foot to be able to read them! So you all now will suffer through just a few of the gravestone photos I took. (The price you pay for encouraging me to write all this stuff.)

Moving on … we drove around and Jay just stopped anywhere I wanted to and let me wander around all I wanted to. Every time we stopped he turned off the engine and didn’t charge for that time. (Isn’t that nice? Bet a New York cabbie would never do that) There was no doubt that I needed a driver – I would have killed myself on these roads! No matter that everyone drives on the wrong side, but these tiny village lanes would have had me so dizzy that I would still be lost in the forest!

I wanted to have lunch in the village of Norley, the most ancient seat of our family that I can find. Norley was settled in the mid 1400’s and is mostly rolling farmlands very near the forest and a beautiful lake. So we found a very lovely place on the lake (swans and all) to have lunch and the innkeeper had all these really cool photos around his inn of the area during Victorian times. He took me to each one of them and told me a little about the families and some of the buildings still standing. It was interesting to note that Quaker families were common in the area too.

After oohhing and aahhing over every ancient building with thatched roofs (they really were fabulous) and taking photos of every village churchyard along the way, we headed back to Frodsham. I booked Jay to drive me some more tomorrow – we’re going to a really cool place that I’m not going to tell you about until I take the photos and send them tomorrow … can you stand the suspense?

I also have an appointment with the curator of the Frodsham church tomorrow morning and he’s going to show me where at least 25 family members are buried. As a note; the Bishop’s church records are fairly complete and very well documented, so I know who was born and died – but I don’t know the THAT John was married to THAT Mary. So the gravestones connect those dots and the inscriptions are really important for that reason.

Have any of you figured out why all this matters to me? Well, for one thing, no one in the world has compiled this much information on our family. So the sense of first discovery is very potent and the mental exercise of following the clues of who these people who were my family is extremely satisfying. As individuals, they weren’t any more important than most families. But I have always wondered where our contemporary family gets its entrepreneurial and artistic spirit from. Why did we wind up as “merchants,” and business people, and artists, instead of scientists and mathematicians? Who were the people who developed our genes over centuries and then passed them down to us? And what was their life like as they were creating new generations?

I just have the strong sense of wonder about it all. So here I am in England, no closer to the answers, but the journey is so worth it. It is so worth it. Connie

Day 7 — OK folks, I’m back in the saddle and finally have an internet connection.

So Day 7 began with Jay and I hitting the road again to visit an ancient town called Thelwall. For years I felt we had family links there but just couldn’t put my finger on the “how” of it. I’ve known for years that in the village was a pub called “Pickering Arms” but had no idea about its origins. And I’ve known for years that our handed-down family coat of arms matched the sign on this pub. But the connection was still elusive.

Then yesterday, as we were driving around (Jay and I) there came that “Ah Hah” moment I have been waiting for for years. So I today I had Jay head straight for Thelwall so I could see the place for myself. I mistakenly thought that a Pickering owned this ancient pub but I was wrong. A Pickering owned the WHOLE VILLAGE! And the next village, and the next village, and the next village. Now that’s cool.

It seems that Robert Pickering bought Thelwall in 1717 and his family occupied the Hall (which is what the main mansion is called) for about 179 years – until the family went bankrupt. Oh, how the mighty fall.

Anyway, we stopped so I could get a feel of the place and (you know how shy I am) went inside to see if I could talk to the owner. Last year when I “visited” Thelwall through Google Earth I could actually see a “For Sale” sign on the building (can you believe that?) So I was afraid that the pub would be closed – but luckly someone had purchased it and it was a busy little place.

I spoke with a very friendly new owner (Sharon) and asked her about the place and why she bought it. She said that every day when she went to school she walked past the pub and just loved its setting and its warmth. Throughout her career she owned several pubs and after years of hard work decided to get out of the business and move on to something else. She went to work for seven years in the medical field but her jobs became “redundant” (which is the term they use for losing your job because of a bad economy). Her friend encouraged her to get back in the pub business and she said that if she did it would work only if she owned Pickering Arms. So it was up for sale and she bought her childhood dream business. Isn’t that neat?

By the way, check out the date on the end of the building. That’s when the town was settled and a small part of the original pub, built in 1011 can be seen inside (it’s the men’s room now – kind of an ignoble ending for something that has lasted a thousand years).

Well, bottom line. This family IS connected to ours – but that’s another story.

So on our way back to Frodsham I had Jay investigate the Sutton Mills a little more and I hit another bonanza! Bear with me here; I’m going to quote a little bit from the diary of the brother of my 3rd Great Grandfather to put this in perspective:

“At the time that I was born the 23rd of August 1785, my Parents John and Mary Pickering, lived at Bridge Hous one mile from Frodsham in Cheshire but, as I was the youngest child of my parents viz, seven sons and four daughters, and my oldest Brother Thomas, having been born the 23rd August 1765. he was exactly twenty years older than I was, and old enough to establish himself; My Father resolved to Rent a Manufactory; the largest of its kind in Great Britian; which was then being in the Process of being built; but the Dwelling Hous of said Manufactory, not yet habitable; my Parents were obliged to live in the Ware House of said Manufactory until such time, as the Dwelling house became habitable; and, consequently I was born in said Warehouse; and as my Father was the first and original Renter of said Manufactory; so; it remains Rented in my Parents Family up to the present period from the time it was built. …”

Well, the ruins of these buildings still exist and parts of them are still in use – don’t know what kinds of businesses are in them but the buildings are in pretty sad shape. But the photo of the front door of the white house is the actual house our 4th great grandparents owned and my 3rd great grandfather, William, lived in while growing up. I identified the house and the little row of houses from a book I found in a library here where they actually captioned the photos.

… aahhh the success of another connection is so sweet.

So I’ll leave you now. I’m getting ready to get to the airport so I can get back to the 21st century over the weekend. But I still have stuff to tell you – hopefully you’ll still be interested. Can’t wait to tell you about visiting the College of Arms (where they study heraldry) yesterday and spent 8 hours at the Society of Genealogists in London. Met some very “colorful” people.

Until then, I’m signing off from London. Connie