Tag Archives: landscape

People and Places: a shift in focus

17 Oct

I am not quite sure how and when it happened but recently I have found myself more and more interested in the landscape of my ancestors as opposed to my ancestors themselves.

Deep down I have always been interested in the surrounding landscape, but I suppose now I am not only looking further afield, but also in a historical context as well. Also it isn’t really limited to places connected to my ancestors, but pretty much anywhere I look these days I find myself questioning what I see. It could be in the fields and hedgerows or urban streets, but I always seem to be finding things that warrant (in my mind) further investigation.

For instance, the other day I mentioned the River Lavant at West Dean, which is a dried up stream for much of the year, but springs into life in the winter months. Admittedly there is a tenuous connection with my ancestors because it runs through the ancestral villages of Singleton and West Dean, but it really has nothing to do with family history.

However I am intrigued by its presence and want to find out more. I have purchased a book on the river and have spent some time studying old maps, trying to trace its course and studying current maps wondering whether it would be feasible to walk the course of the river, or at least close by it. However unless I happen to find that one of my ancestors worked in one of the mills along the river or one of my relatives drowned in the river it is unlikely that it is ever going to be part of my family history.

Then there is my obsession with the county boundary of Sussex, again more significance to me researching my ancestors now than my ancestors themselves as you need to know where to look to find records, but now I find myself studying closely the path of boundary, in fact studying it much closer than is really necessary. I find myself wondering whether there are any markers that show the course of the boundary and of course I plan to walk the Sussex Border Path next year when I can find the time.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am supposed to be working on my family history and that should mean focusing on the people as well as the places, but these days the places seem to be getting all the attention. I know I shouldn’t fight it, but I do feel a little guilty for neglecting my ancestors.

The Weald and it’s possible influence on my ancestors

6 May

Since starting to walk the High Weald Landscape Trail last weekend I have been thinking about where my ancestors came from, not on a village or parish level or even a county level but on a much broader geographical level.

A large chunk of the South-East of England is described as the Weald, broadly speaking it is the area of land that lies between the North Downs and the South Downs. It stretches from the edge Hampshire in the west, through West and East Sussex, and into Kent in the east.

A relatively large percentage of my ancestors were inhabitants of the Weald. Broadly speaking the two other types of terrain in Sussex are downland and coastal, neither of which seemed to be favoured by my ancestors, until more recent years when larger towns grew up on the coast offering employment and other opportunities.

For the genealogist there are no specific records for the Weald and no official boundaries. It seems to have been more defined by the landscape and this in turn defined the type of industry/employment that was possible.

I have often laughingly remarked that the South Downs have formed a boundary that stopped my ancestors falling into the sea, but now I wonder if there is some truth to this. Have the South Downs, and for that matter the North Downs, provided boundaries to the migration of my ancestors?

Perhaps not physical boundaries, the South Downs have several valleys running through them and tracks passing over them, but maybe psychological boundaries. Was it too bold a step to swap the clay of the Weald for the chalk of the Downs? I think it would be interesting to look closer at the movement of some of my ancestors and see if there are any patterns in their movement.

It is also interesting to consider the cases of my ancestors that slipped across the border from Kent to Sussex and vice versa. For them there probably was no border, it was all part of the Weald. The landscape and way of life would have been familiar to them and their ancestors regardless of which side of the border they were on.

I certainly need to do some more research on the Weald. Perhaps it is not going to directly affect my family history, but it is where my personal roots belong as well as those of many of my ancestors. I certainly owe it to them to find out more about where they lived in a much broader sense.

Copyright © 2011 John Gasson.

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