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Fleeting glimpses, lasting impressions

20 Apr

I used to think that my journeys to and from work were pretty dull and to be frank a bit of a waste of my time, but over the last few weeks my perception has changed, as I start to notice more and more interesting things going on in the world around me.

I should clarify that they are interesting to me, the rest of you reading this may not find them particularly interesting, but to me they are helping make my journeys more bearable.

I probably all started when the clocks went forward with the start of British Summer Time last month, and it became light enough in the mornings to see beyond the windows of the bus.

This morning the “interesting thing” happened before I even got to the bus stop. Walking up the High Street I spotted a heron landing on the ridge of the old Post Office roof, this in itself was quite unusual as although the bird is not particularly rare I have seldom seen it anywhere other than the side of a pond or stream.

What was really incredible was the group of seagulls that began to mob the heron as it perched on the roof top. There was one particularly aggressive one that kept diving in close, accompanied by a screeching cry. It didn’t take many “attacks” for the heron to decide it had had enough and to take to the air and head off to the south-east out of sight, but still being pursued by the seagulls.

All this at just after six o’clock in the morning, the whole thing probably lasted less than a minute, but I felt incredibly privileged to have been witness to this spectacle.

Sometimes it is something on a much bigger scale, like the sun rising through the mists, an experience which lasts for most of the bus journey on a good day. With glimpses of the sun visible in the mist at various intervals as we race through the Sussex countryside.

Last night as I made my way home on the train one half of the sky was full of very dark grey (almost black) cloud stretching down to the trees on the horizon. Meanwhile the sun was still shining over the other side of the train, this caused me to notice  a satellite dish slowly rotating on the horizon, the sun’s rays picking it out against the dark cloud.

A few seconds later I noticed what appeared to be the burst of a firework, specks of silver glittering against the dark cloud. Unlike a firework it just hung in the air not moving, when I had time to process the image I realised it was a radio/mobile phone mast, something else I had failed to notice despite making the same journey five days a week for the past couple of years. A truly unique combination of weather conditions had made them visible to me for the first time.

Sometimes it is something natural, like the buzzard I saw last week (at least I think it was a buzzard), standing on the ground pulling at something it had probably just killed. Two rooks looked on from a few feet away, presumably hoping that it would leave something behind for them to nibble on.

Sometimes it is something unexpected, like a couple of days ago when I stepped out the office door and into the street to witness two Apache helicopters passing overhead. I have long admired these machines and the men who fly them, but had never seen one for real.

I couldn’t believe my luck, a minute earlier or later and I would have missed them completely. Like the heron this morning, this flight only lasted a minute or so before they were out of sight, but it was still incredibly satisfying to have been there to witness them in that instant.

They nearly all have one thing in common, they are usually just brief encounters. Usually from a bus or train window, blink and you miss it, look the other way and you miss it. Too fleeting to consider taking a photo, but just long enough to leave a lasting impression.

Copyright © 2012 John Gasson.
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British Summer Time begins…

25 Mar

…and so does the lawn mowing season.

Although there is no direct causal link between the two, they both happen about the same time every year, marking the start of a period of many months spending several hours each weekend either sitting on or walking behind a lawn mower.

For the next six months or so the weekend weather forecast takes on a greater importance, wet weather means the grass will be too wet to cut and I can take a day off. However it encourages the grass to grow even more. Prolonged dry weather means the grass slows down and the mower collects more dust than grass.

Such has been the case for more years than I can remember. I am not sure when it started, when my dad first put me at the controls of a mower. It was definitely when I was at school, but I can’t remember which year it would have been.

I remember in my GCSE French lesson being asked what I did at the weekend, couper l’herbe was the answer I was looking for or so my French teacher told me. That is one of the few bits of my French lessons that I do remember. That would have been some when in the late 1980s.

During my school days I would earn my pocket money mowing other people’s lawns as well as that at home. When school finished and full-time employment began lawn mowing was reduced to just that at home.

Then I moved into my own home and had my own patch of grass to take care of, it is only a small patch, but it is mine (or ours if I am being truly accurate). I was then released from lawn mowing duties at home. As my father’s health deteriorated I was once again called upon to mow my parent’s lawn and today for the first time this year I was there mowing my mum’s lawn.

There is something extremely satisfying about a well mown lawn, with perfectly straight stripes of alternating dark and light green. And of course there is the smell of freshly cut grass as well. Not to mention it is great exercise throwing a mower around and following it up and down the lawn, I know my muscles will ache for a while until I get back into the swing of things again.

It is also great for the mind. The noise of the mower drowns out just about any other noise and I find myself slipping into auto-pilot, and just following the mower for stripe after stripe, letting my brain take whichever course it wants, usually up some branch of my family tree.

Copyright © 2012 John Gasson.
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The Christmas Gift

5 Jan

On Christmas Eve I received what could possibly be the most unorthodox Christmas gift I have ever received, but it probably rate as one of the most important gifts I have ever received.

It was wasn’t a Christmas gift in the traditional sense of the word, there was nothing to unwrap, for this was a gift of information.

To most people the information hastily scribbled on the back of an envelope would seem insignificant, even if they knew what it was they probably wouldn’t get excited about it, but I could instantly see that the information would help solve one of the long-standing mysteries in my family tree.

The information consisted of four names and addresses from an old address book, revealing where my grandmother’s “adopted” sister Minnie had lived in Hampshire after she had married. Minnie’s full name and background had remained a mystery for years and without my grandmother to ask it seemed unlikely that it was going to be discovered any time soon, but all that changed this Christmas.

The week before Christmas I had been given the surname COLLINS, this in itself was a major breakthrough and given time might have enabled me to find out Minnie’s identity, but the extra information made that discovery a certainty. Within a couple of days I had begun to unravel the intriguing story of Minnie and her parents, establishing her relationship to my grandmother and raising no end of questions about their lives.

So whilst this information has set me on the path of solving one particular mystery it has also been a much greater gift. It was the spark that has re-ignited my passion for family history. Until then I had struggled to find any enthusiasm for my research but that changed almost overnight.

My free time has been filled with thoughts of little else as I put together plans to visit record offices, trying to work out where else I can find out information that is going to add to this story and gathering together all the information so far in preparation for making contact with a possible descendant of Minnie.

It is hard to put into words the impact of those few words, it reaches far beyond just the story of Minnie because I can now see the branches of my family tree starting to come to life again and urging me to explore them once more. Probably the best gift I could have wished for.

Copyright © 2012 John Gasson.
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New Year – New Research

4 Jan

Last year wasn’t particularly ground breaking in terms of my family history. It is hard to bring to mind any major discoveries, I’m sure there were a few mysteries solved and gaps filled in but nothing memorable stands out.

This year I don’t expect a lot to change, time is still going to be a limiting factor and I suspect money will become more of an issue this year as well, so in general it needs to be a case of making the most of the resources I have already available to me.

I do want to get out to more archives and record offices this year and in light of the previous paragraph, I need to be making the most of these opportunities by making sure I am more organised about what I want to achieve.

I don’t actually see myself growing my family tree to any great extent this year, but rather adding to what I already have. Specifically I have become more interested in recent generations (my grandparents and great-grandparents) and feel I should be learning more about these generations whilst those that knew them are still around.

There is always plenty of housekeeping to be done on my family history, generally I consider my database to be in pretty good order, but there is always something that needs doing (like attaching photos to my family tree) and one big task this year will be to update all my 1911 census images with the unredacted versions and note any disabilities that come to light on my database.

There should hopefully be a couple of new collections coming out this year from Ancestry and Findmypast which will prove interesting and helpful for my research and should give me something to look forward to. Talking of things to look forward to there is of course Who Do You Think You Are Live in a couple of months, which I really ought to be preparing for now.

Copyright © 2012 John Gasson.
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New Year – New Wandering

3 Jan

I didn’t achieve as much walking as I would have liked in 2011, although I did manage to complete most of the shorter walks that I had hoped to do.

I did walk the South Downs Way again last year, although not in one go as I had intended but instead over several months and accompanied by my wife. This year I aim to walk it all in one go (over the course of a week) and I will probably be doing it on my own this time.

I have to admit that my most enjoyable walks last year were those where I was on my own. I have never been one for walking in groups and can’t see that changing any time soon, but you never know.

Apart from the western end of the South Downs Way I think all of last year’s walks were in Sussex, and this year I still want to focus mostly on Sussex as there are still plenty of places I have yet to visit within my own metaphorical “backyard”.

I realised towards the end of the year that trying to complete longer named routes like the North Downs Way and the High Weald Landscape Trail is just not practical and doesn’t make the most of my limited time. Sticking slavishly to a route that entails multiple bus and train journeys is just not economical in terms of time and money.

Instead I intend to focus on shorter more convenient routes (with the exception of the South Downs Way) mostly of my own making that suit public transport connections available to the non-driver like me. I have lots of ideas floating around my head and I need to start planning so that when the weather improves and days start getting longer I can start taking advantage of them.

Wandering on West Beach, Littlehampton, West Sussex (31st December 2011)

Copyright © 2012 John Gasson.
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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.

Following in my ancestors brush strokes

31 Jul

I spent a large part of Saturday with a paintbrush in my hand. It has been quite a while since I had to do any decorating and I had forgotten just how satisfying it can be. It wasn’t actually paint on the brush this time but wood preservative for our new garden shed, but regardless of that I still found it quite rewarding and even therapeutic.

It is especially satisfying when I consider how many of my ancestors have earned their living with a paintbrush. Both my father and grandfather were painters and decorators and until a few years ago that was as far as my decorating ancestry extended.

Then I discovered the name of my illegitimate grandfather’s father and his occupation. I was surprised to discover that my great-grandfather had also been a decorator (and a sign-writer), this shared occupation made perfect sense, although I can’t say for certain that there was any connection between the fact that my grandfather shared the same occupation as his father. I don’t even know if there was ever any connection between the two.

With a new branch of my family tree to explore there were many new discoveries to be made, but the biggest surprise was the discovery that not only was my newly discovered great-grandfather a decorator but so was his father, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather. My father recalled that he was once jokingly told at school that painting was in his blood, little did he know then how true that really was.

I don’t recall any painting lessons but I am sure some of the skill was probably picked up from my father, as he probably learnt from his father as a youngster. Beyond that it is impossible to say whether the skill was passed down from father to son, but when I stand with a paintbrush in my hand I know I really am following in my ancestor’s footsteps or at least their brush strokes.

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