We look out the window at the English Channel – clear proof that we’ve arrived at the south coast town of Hastings. People don’t walk quite as fast here and are not so often dressed in suits. We’ve come to search for my better half’s ancestor and for me to reunite with another cousin after 30 years of corresponding across a continent and the Atlantic. Our bed and breakfast window allows us a bird’s eye view of the seashore and promenade, where we see locals strolling, walking their dogs and riding their bikes in the warm sun.
Ruins are everywhere in this country and, as we walk on the promenade, we look up to see what is left of a castle tower on a hill in the distance. It, of course, is ancient and overlooks the 20-some miles of sea between England and France, where so many battles and invasions have taken place during centuries past. I am surprised to learn that the battle of 1066, often referred to as the Battle of Hastings – or locally simply as The Conquest – actually took place some miles inland at a place called, not surprisingly, Battle. It is in this area that my husband’s great-great-great grandfather, William Davis, lived, worked and died.
My better half has done yeoman’s work researching William’s whereabouts and after a search of the first census in the area, learns that William was buried in the parish church of a little hamlet called Whatlington, near Battle. We take a cab and are glad we did because the driver, a local, can barely find the church even with his knowledge and a GPS system. Finally, down a road barely wide enough for one vehicle, we see a small wooden sign for the church at the foot of a lane leading up a small hill. The cab driver asks us more than once if we are in the right place and we assure him that we are. We hop out and read a posting that explains the church is closed due to a fire in 2010. We also learn that a church has stood in this location since before The Conquest. Walking up the small lane, we meet a neighbor, a gardener and a church warden (deacon). Not bad for a closed church! My husband explains his quest to the warden, who is kind enough to take us inside the current church building, which was constructed in the Middle Ages and renovated during Victorian times. (!) It is so moving to see a lovely old building being carefully restored with period materials, right down to the lime plaster on the ceiling, which is mixed with horsehair. (!)
Outside, the church is surrounded by graves. Many have not weathered the years in legible condition. One section houses stones that date from the mid-1800s. William died in 1843 at the age of 66 and we think he is buried in this section, but cannot see his name or initials on any of the legible stones. It still is very meaningful to walk through the churchyard, thinking about this ancestor, whose son emigrated to America and began a branch of the family that continues and thrives today. We look out over pastures and feel a cool breeze waft by. No one is in a hurry here. On the way out, my better half meets a neighbor who knows a member of the parish who has a map and history of the graveyard. This is a terrific lead and we’ll follow up to see if we can confirm William’s resting place, here in a quiet corner of England, surrounded by layers of history.