Mark Williamson: The past is all around us and we now have more time to explore and enjoy

Littleham Church

Littleham Church - Credit: Archant

In his latest column, East Devon alderman Mark Williamson writes of his recent visit to Littleham Churchyard

Since the start of lockdown in March there’s been an explosion of interest in family history.

Despite problems with filming in the middle of a pandemic Who Do You Think You Are? has just started series 17!

When it started critics said people weren’t interested in genealogy. How wrong could they be.

There are many web sites to help you, like Ancestry UK, but many of us prefer to turn our searches into a pastime.

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On a Paddington-Exeter train I met a couple from Yorkshire whose roots were in Devon. They combined their researches with holidays. They were off to check a parish register in a village near Crediton.

Registers of births, marriages and deaths are invaluable as are County Record Offices where staff are unfailingly helpful as well as enthusiastic. The Devon Heritage Centre at Sowton could not be bettered.

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Exmouth has grown so much in recent years that its own past can be all too easily airbushed out by urban sprawl.

For those wanting a more immediate experience of the past one alternative to the time-consuming if ultimately rewarding search through archives is to do what I did the other day on a crisp but sunny afternoon.

I finally gave myself a long-postponed treat and spent two hours meandering in Littleham churchyard.

It’s huge, said to be one of the largest in the South West. Over 600 years older than the landmark Holy Trinity, it was at Littleham where Exmothians were christened, tied the knot and were buried.

Imagine how many burial carts trundled from the growing settlement of Exmouth, up Boarden Barn and Long Causeway, down Long Lane or ‘Watery Lane’ as locals still call it until the final stretch of Meetways and Elm Lanes ending finally at the church.

There is so much in that churchyard to take in. Exmouth’s history is all there – whole families who succumbed to earlier pandemics, mariners who perished at sea, the names of well-known Exmouth families. And, of course, the rather splendid tomb of Horatio Nelson’s abandoned wife, Frances.

And because it’s a wildlife haven, you might even spot a late autumn butterfly. I even found a black cat slumbering contentedly in the thick grass.

I will return and I hope you will pay a visit. The past is all there. There to just enjoy. Thank you Littleham church.

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