In December of 2019 I was in England and had a day between scheduled activities. I took the opportunity to visit a village that some of my ancestors came from. I recently realized that this experience was among the very last of my travels before the pandemic put an end to most travel. December 2019, represents for me the last time I traveled to the old world.
The world of our ancestors is an old world. Some date the modern world to 1914 and the collapse of Western Civilization into uncivilized warfare; some point to the 1960s as the watershed decade in which the world came of age. History, layered upon itself, retells its own story with each passing generation, generously allowing a reinterpretation even though each is allowed a lens only seventy or so years in length.
The world of our recent ancestors is a distant world, handed down in old photographs, retold stories, and vague memories … of other’s memories. It is a world of black and white, and sepia tint, unless, from among those of means it bursts from the wall in coloured portraiture and landscape. For the poorest it is non-existent unless found in a faded inscription on a lichen-covered stone, leaning sideways in a crumbling churchyard.
The world of our ancient ancestors is a silent world. Nothing remains. There were no cameras, and artistry was for the aristocracy. The illiterate left no memoirs and the ignorant saw no point to posterity. Even so, that world can be found in the weathered walls and thatched rooves, the church towers and the manored halls of sleepy picture postcard villages. What names those structures could speak of; what events they could retell if their windows could but reflect on a time delay.
In December of 2019 I visited the old world. The English village of Ixworth, Suffolk, where my great-great-grandparents kept shop was where I landed. It is the community, according to the 1881 census, where my widowed grandmother together with her daughter, the widow Fuller, and in turn my grandfather’s mother, lived at number sixteen along the High Street.
The house still stands; one in a quaintly colorful row of road-front cottages. One is white, another pale blue, while yellow and pink complete the palette. Today the windows are double-paned, the door is of vinyl panels and a satellite dish sprouts from the long-disused chimney. Where once the roof was stepped with straw, slate is now the substitute. The ridge-line slopes slightly as subsidence skews the one house toward its neighbour.
I walk along the road and visit the old Co-operative store, now a general grocery recently combined with the Post Office. The stone in the gable above states “Bury St. Edmunds Cooperative Society 1923”. It is far too young to have been around for my forebears, and I wonder where they served the community and what they served them with. In vain I ask the proprietor if she knows any Caudwells in the village.
Farther along the High Street is the old Post Office, now a curry house. Not, I should add, an Indian restaurant, but a store hosted by two very English ladies selling their own blends of very Indian spices against a backdrop of colorful costumes and cooking implements they had sourced from the sub-continent.
Opposite is the Pykkerell, the village public house and restaurant that also provides accommodation. Named for the baby pike that grow to be fished across the county, this establishment was the coaching inn when my family lived here. Today with its decorative wrought iron railings, flowery window-boxes and wide-arched entryway to the stable-yard, I imagine it much the same as in their day.
The world of my ancestors was a close-knit community of country-folk. Blacksmiths and bricklayers, carpenters and coopers; drapers and druggists, milliners and mongers. All determined by a trade handed down from father to son. Lives were born; they laboured, loved, and laughed. They traveled little because they had nowhere to travel to. They cycled together through the seasons with comforting familiarity, each with its rites of passage for the next generation. They lived, through to death, within very small spheres of influence. Stones were raised in churchyards, within stones’ throw of where the deceased had entered the world, and where everyone could freely stand and mourn.
I wander up a little lane that leads me to that place of interment. St. Mary’s is a much older building than the village inn. Over six centuries it has witnessed the rise and ruin of dwellings all around. The shopkeeper, Edward Caudwell, appears in the 1830 edition of Pigot’s Directory more than half a century before his widow was living on the High Street. His name is there, but I search in vain for it among the ancient memorials and burial mounds.
The old world may not be well-known, but it was a world unveiled; a world of intimacy; a world of being known within a small compass. I turn and head back to my car in the gathering gloom of a damp December afternoon. December 2019 was the last time I visited the old world … where neither mask anonymized, nor distance encroached.