Family history … digging up graves!

Firstly, may I just warn you if you are highly religious or not very forgiving, you may not want to read this, it does involve a church, giggles and total ignorance on my part. I apologise in advance, please don’t judge me, we are who we are!
Many years ago I started researching my family tree and even if I do say so myself, I’ve done a pretty good job to date. The family tree has been put on hold for the last couple of years but I was thinking about one of my (not so) fine moments as a Genealogical sleuth!

I never knew my mother’s brother, he died before I was born. He lived and died in London and as I was living in Surrey at the time, I decided to take a trip into London and have search for the house, where my grandparents lived with my mother and her brother when they first came to England from France. I had pored over the old, creased, black and white photographs of the house hundreds of times, and by now felt I knew it.

My friend,  agreed that this sounded like the perfect adventure and decided to join me on my quest and we’d stop for a delicious, lunch in the city. We set off at approximately 11:00, it was a lovely, sunny, bright morning and my spirits were high…off to find 84, Archway Road in Highgate, London. What would we find? Would it be as I imagined? Would I be able to peer over a wall and glimpse the long garden at the back of the house; where I had seen a photo of grandpa posing with a smooth-coated, terrier back in the 1930s?

The journey itself was pretty impressive…not having previously driven in London City traffic, it was a baptism of fire! Nerves were taut, the sheer volume of traffic had me twitching to say the least! I was driving my lovely, new car and was delighted to arrive without a scratch or being hooted at by one of the locals.

I was so excited as I realised we had arrived at Archway Road, my eyes darting from side to side to catch a glimpse of the house numbers; 425, 316, 215 and so it continued. Houses interspersed by small parades of shops, newsagents, corner shops, dry cleaners.

We went under the huge arch over the road, beautifully ornate with the date in gold at the centre ‘1896’, It must have been a magnificent scene back in Victorian times it had since been demolished and replaced. I did read somewhere that it had been nicknamed suicide bridge, not quite so appealing!





There! A sign 80-88 Archway Road to the left, we continued for a while and found somewhere to park the car. Great, Bank Holidays – Free parking!

We were both hungry and being ladies desperately needed the loo but decided to walk up to find the house and then we would have some lunch.

I was full of anticipation as we left the car and set off up the hill in search of the house. There it was sitting high on the right hand side of the road (imagine on the top of the brick wall in foreground of the above photo) but it was no longer a beautiful, old, Victorian house. Obviously, someone in their wisdom had decided to knock it down and build a Scandinavian style chalet and turn it into flats!!

To the right of the house was an upward, sloping pathway, overgrown with ivy and at the end was a beautiful, ornate, rusty wrought-iron gate leading into the garden of the house behind, a real hide away…this was number 88 and in it’s true, original splendour. This is what number 84 would have looked like. What a shame! I stood with my back to the front of the house and looked out on the most magnificent view of London including the dome of St Paul’s cathedral.

We decided to continue up Archway Road to the Church of St Augustine, we could have lunch later. Surely if my uncle had been living here at the time of his death this may well have been the church that the family would have visited, I could maybe have a search in the graveyard. Who knows what I would find?


At the entrance, there was a huge archway with two smoked-glass, rather modern doors, my friend pushed and then pulled the doors to enter the church, it was locked. I decided to have a try, surely it would be open, I grabbed the cold metal handles and pushed and shoved, the doors rattling on their hinges, but no, they were locked. The church was closed. Damn!

Disappointment turned to hope when a small man beckoned to us from another door on the side of the building. He greeted us with a big smile, flashing the most perfect set of white teeth. ‘Come in’ he said kindly. I explained that I was looking for the grave of my uncle. He informed us that there was no graveyard as such but there was a cemetery over the road. He invited us in, explaining that there were some members of the congregation who had been going to this church for many, many years and they would be more than happy to help with my search.

So in we went, light hearted and full of hope. What a kind man! What a beautiful church! We followed our guide into the church. I had no sooner placed my foot through the door than I realised a service or mass was in session, of course it was Good Friday! The man showed us to a pew and handed us the service booklet, turned and went and sat in an adjacent pew.
It was packed, so many people! We joined in, we sang a few hymns and listened intently. Following instructions, ‘Kneel and pause a moment’, so down I went, as I got to my knees I noticed my friend, who was a lady of, shall we say, a larger size, was struggling to get down onto her knees, making a loud thudding noise as she landed, no sooner had she made herself comfortable in the cramped area between the two rows of pews than the rest of the congregation stood up again, bless her, she grabbed the pew in front of her and hoiked herself back onto her feet. This happened twice and in quick succession!

The priest and some of his colleagues then launched into the equivalent of a play. The story of the betrayal of Jesus and the crucifixion, one man narrating, the priest speaking the words of Jesus, and we the congregation speaking the words of the crowd…’Jesus of Nazarene’ ‘He is the king of the Jews’ we called…. We went through the whole thing!! You do remember that we both needed the loo, don’t you?

Then a man stood and gave a reading. It was at this stage I looked through the booklet and saw the order of service … we wouldn’t be out before it was dark…there was the cross to bring in, the reverence of the wood, the reverence prayers, of which I think there were about 27, then there was communion to be taken in the Chapel next door! Oh what had we done?

I gestured to my friend and she wasn’t amused she just muttered…’it’s as thick as a novel!’ At this stage, in true Michelle tradition when faced with any serious situation, I was engulfed by a fit of the giggles, my back was shaking, I had tears in my eyes and I soon realised I was grunting! Albeit quietly, but grunting nonetheless, my companion gave me a sharp dig in the ribs and gave me the same look my Mum used to give me when I was a child!

How were we going to get out of this? I certainly didn’t want to show any disrespect but I was now needing the loo more and more desperately! There were so many people and we’d already made a show of ourselves, firstly by rattling and banging the glass doors, well how was I to know that I was visible from the inside? Then we’d entered in the middle of the service and it wasn’t a service that I was familiar with and I could only see exiting as a choice.

I decided damage limitation was the only option, I crept over to the man and explained in a hushed voice that we needed to get back for the children! We placed our booklets down and made a quiet exit. What children?

I don’t know what the congregation must have thought of those two strange ladies that turned up for their Good Friday mass. Sometimes, I feel so guilty for my immaturity but I have to tell you we laughed all the way home! How on earth do I get myself into such ridiculous situations.

Needless to say we never got to the graveyard, never found the grave, never had lunch and we didn’t find a loo until it was nearly too late! To this day, finding the grave is still on my ‘To Do List’ but I think I’ll wait a few more years until I attempt that one again and never on an Easter weekend!

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