Yesterday's Magazette

14 – A Very English Christmas

By Jean Johnson

I like a road that leads away to prospects bright and fair.

— Charles Hanison Towse.

On a trip from Greece to England, we flew over the Alps. As the plane dipped with heavy air currents, all I could do was marvel at the magic in my life. Randy and I would spend Christmas in England! When I turned to look at my husband, he was watching me.  Never flustered by unexpected air turbulence (or much else for that matter), he gave me a Cheshire cat half-grin and asked, “Excited are we?”

I put my arm under his and asked, for the tenth time, “Where exactly are we going?”

“I told you we’re having a Dickens’s Christmas.”

YM:EnglishXmas:Johnson1

I sighed and looked down at the snowy Alps. Oh, well, it really didn’t matter where in England. Randy knew I’d be happy sitting under the London Bridge with a tarp on my head, because I love England. I am an Anglophile. I blame my high school English teacher, Miss Castle.  She gave me a few tattered books for summer reading between freshman and sophomore year: Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist.  All that summer I was lost in the heather of the Yorkshire moors with the desperate Heathcliff and Catherine. I walked hand in hand with David and Oliver, through sooty, sinister 19th Century London and its by-ways, so many times I lost count.

As an adult, I was not really surprised when I found my English ancestors. My first genealogical discovery was Vicar George Ely, a vicar from 1571 to 1615 in the town of Tenterden, in the southern County of Kent. So, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled when Randy finally held up our Destination card, and I saw TENTERDEN in big, bold letters.

It was wet and foggy as we drove out of London. While Randy maneuvered roundabouts, and watched road signs, I watched for little lost boys walking the fields alone. The Tenterden road sign snapped me out of my Copperfield reverie, and I realized that tomorrow I would walk

the same village streets as my ancestors had 400 years before.  As Randy drove up to The White Lion Inn, I held back tears. What a surprise my wonderful husband had pulled off. He’d secretly planned a stay at this 16th Century Coaching Inn that had been around in my ancestors’ time! As we walked to our room, a Christmas tree twinkled in the dining room, and I wondered: Had George stood in this hallway during another Christmas week a long time ago?

The next morning as we sat at our window seats eating breakfast, I gazed out onto High Street and saw a pretty gray-stone church. Its blue-faced clock stared back, and ancient tombstones peeked between the buildings. “There are 12 churches in this town.” I sighed and Randy read my mind: There was no time for research during this quiet Christmas week.  Oh well, I thought, what was the chance that George’s church was still standing anyway?

After breakfast we walked High Street, and wandered over to St. Mildred’s, which sadly, was locked. I photographed mossy green tombstones and old stone walls. Obligingly, the sun came out, and I got a pretty picture of the bell tower and clock.  In the coming days, we visited the coastal town of Rye, and the beautiful Leeds Castle. (Interestingly, since visiting this castle where Henry VIII lived for a short time, I have discovered a Welsh ancestor who was Henry’s bodyguard, so, unwittingly, I may have walked where yet another distant ancestor walked.)

We spent our rainy week in front of cozy pub fireplaces trimmed in holly. We ate by another Christmas tree at The Eight Bells, named for the eight bells of St. Mildred’s steeple. In a marvelous thatched cottage/pub, Peace and Plenty, I luxuriated over what was certainly the best ginger pudding in the world. And, on Christmas Day, we ate Christmas pudding in a restaurant next to St. Mildred’s. (A warning: this pudding is a meal, and should never, ever be eaten after a complete Christmas dinner that includes wine.)

Our last full day in Tenterden happened to be Boxing Day, and people had congregated at the Inn to catch the beginning of the running of the hounds. Chatting away next to us were two little old ladies. One looked up and mentioned how lovely St. Mildred’s was inside, and had we seen it?  “You know, it’s the oldest church in town,” the lady with the gray hair and twinkling eyes said. “In fact, there’s been a church on that site since the 11th century.” YM:EnglishXmas:Johnson2

In an instant my heart flip-flopped. She told us the church was locked for the day, but tomorrow was Sunday, so we still had a chance to see it. Sunday dawned chilly and rainy. Our plane would leave in a few hours. We scurried to pack, and I made Randy run out in the rain to get another throw-away camera. I had dropped our good camera earlier in the week, and it wasn’t working. We hovered outside the church, waiting for Sunday service to be over. Finally, people began streaming out. As soon as I stepped inside, I knew this was it. I didn’t need proof. But, then, I saw a colorful banner. A banner that had the name of every vicar that had ever served St. Mildred’s! As my eyes scanned it, I knew what I would find. George Ely was among the names, names that went back to the 11th century. I reached for my camera, but didn’t have any more film. I stood there thinking about George’s grandson. It was Nathaniel who left Tenterden in 1632. He wouldn’t be a vicar like his father, or his grandfather. He would be a founding father of Hartford, Connecticut, and help settle Norwalk, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts. His descendants’ lives would mirror countless others’ in America.

I wondered how many had stood, like me, honored to be looking back through their history.

Vol. 37 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter- 2010/11

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