Today I’d like to talk about ancestral pilgrimage and some of our experiences in England when we were there in May. When you hear that term ‘ancestral pilgrimage’ you might think of someone striding over a grassy hill, staff in hand, looking out over the distance to a village and knowing that it was the place of the ancestors or perhaps visiting then old houses, or churchyards to see gravestones, or exploring museums and historical monuments to imagine what their lives were like? Well, I tell you this kind of experience is well worth exploring, and it’s one that many Australians will undertake if they are interested in Druidry and have more distant ancestors from places like the British Isles, but when you were born there like I was, and your ancestors are still alive and living in those places; when you have visited many times since you were a child, the sense of pilgrimage is much less of an historical adventure and much more one of ritually repeated action to maintain connections. In addition to exploring the worlds of distant ancestors through history and culture, there’s also the relationship with the ancestors of the present to take our pilgrimage to.
After our visit to Stonehenge and to see my teacher Morgan in Glastonbury, we headed to Devon to see some family members whose definition in relation to me can be difficult to explain. Families are a bit like that sometimes. Not everything is neat and tidy; a perfect tree with nuclear family units traced back through time like some kind of fractal map of humanity. No. Instead, family trees have a tendency to sprawl and tangle, with the branches sometimes not in the right places, and sometimes big chunks are missing or inaccessible. Families are together sometimes and rebuilt n new ways at other times. Children are adopted, marriages fail, people remarry, or there are children born outside of marriage and not recorded. There are many complexities that might not even come to the surface. So, though my family members are beloved, I never quite know whether Pauline is my aunty or my cousin. My father and his brother lost both their parents to illnesses when they were very young and were adopted by their older half brother by their father’s first wife. So there became a blending of the layers of the generations. The brother was the father, so when their half brother had two children of his own were they brother and sister to my father and his brother? Or were they niece and nephew? And then when my own brother and I came along many years later, were those children of my father’s half-brother then my aunt and uncle or my cousins? Families are complicated and there’s no better way to understand them than to meet the family who remain and listen to the stories and memories of the generations that have passed.
Of course, it’s not the names and titles of our family members that connect us, it’s our relationships. This family of mine were there for me when I was living in England last time and to see them again if only for a day was a wonderful reunion. We enjoyed the afternoon sun and ate a delicious meal together and caught up on life in our distant parts of the world, as well as sharing some stories about family. We then moved on to see other family in Yorkshire where my mother grew up; where my grandparents lived when I visited as a child; where my mother and father were married; and where in a few days my cousin would also be married. My cousin and her husband were married in the very same church that my parents were married. It was also the place where my grandparents had their funerals, and where some of our more distant relatives have been buried with their names still marked on the tombstones in the churchyard. Coming from Australia where my family’s ties to the land are ever so transient, in an area of Sydney that has changed in the last couple of decades to be almost unrecognisable as the place I grew up in, this sense of continuity seems incredibly special.
The house that my uncle (my mother’s brother) lives in was the same house my grandparents lived in, and was built by my great grandfather in 1912. It cost £280, 3 shillings and 2 pence. We know this because we still have the receipt! My uncle wrote a small book about the house in 2012 to celebrate the family living there continuously for 100 years. It’s lovely to have this little piece of our family’s history. It has old photos of the property when the whole area was farmland, with a horse drawn cart full of hay moving past the front drive. Now, many years later, a suburb full of new houses has
been built up around it. Here too, of course, there has been a lot of change and development, but because of our family’s connection with these older places, there’s something much more constant holding us to the place under the surface of all that.
Another part of the area that holds us to the place is the locations where we scattered the ashes of my grandparents. I was there in 2003 to scatter my grandfathers ashes over the top of the White Horse of Kilburn in the cold of winter with my mum and my uncle. We remembered his wicked sense of humour, his mighty belly laugh, the way he would laugh when he rubbed his stubble on your face during a hug… he was a trickster…and his dedication to the family too. He worked really hard for us all. Returning there this year, I noticed the
gorse bushes that grew alongside the area, all in yellow flower and full of prickly spikes. It was one of the ogham I had been contemplating and I realised how fitting a spot it was for my grandfather to be here in the gorse. He had quite a prickly personality.
We also went to Scarborough beach where my grandmother’s ashes were scattered. Being there with my parents, my husband and son, and my brother, his wife and their two boys was quite special. Hearing mum’s stories of Granny and what summer holidays were like there. It was her favourite place and my mum has many fond memories there too. Perhaps one day I will pass on those stories of special places and encourage future generations to do the same.
After our trip to England we also went to visit Canada and spent time with my husband’s family there in the Maritimes, and that is another story I’d like to share with you sometime. Family is all about storytelling, and there is so much to share.
Our families are people, and they are connections with those people’s stories and the places that were special to them too. Family connections are found through maintaining these connections and stories though repeated activities and knowing our history; through seeing the generations span back through a place over lengths of time. That’s a connection with England that I have that will take many generations to evolve for my family in Australia. I know many people, and of course, those with Aboriginal heritage already have that, but for my family, our stories are not just in one place, they are spread across the globe, and sometimes, that pilgrimage travel back to those places is an important one for the soul, not just because of the distant ancestors, but because of the maintenance of our connection with those who are much more recent.