It was in mid-1985 that I first became interested in genealogy.  My mother had recently died and I realised then how little I knew of my ancestry.

My father was of no help in getting me started on my research; he said that he knew no more than I did.  He left home when he was 16 and it is quite probable that his parents never told him some of the less-than-flattering facts about some of their numerous siblings, facts than I subsequently encountered.  His parents were a very Victorian couple.  For many people of that era, illegitimacy, unmarried cohabitation, and divorce were scandalous and best not spoken of.

Both my parents were only-children, so I had no uncles or aunts to turn to for their possible input.  I had to start from scratch.

In 1985, family research was both time-consuming and relatively expensive, compared to recent years.  There were no computers, no databases, no software and no internet.  Research was carried out on the original documents and charts of ancestry were drawn by hand.  One wall of my study was eventually covered with a huge chart holding 2+4+8+16+32=62 ancestors for each of my parents.

As the records for Ulster were held in Belfast and I was living south-west of London, I started my research with my father’s ancestry.

He was born in Norfolk, as were both of his parents.  The records for English births, marriages, deaths and census returns, dating back to 1837, were held in London, and over many months and numerous visits, the chart on my study wall began to fill up.  And as far back as 1837 I found that all my father’s parent’s ancestors were also born in Norfolk.

To go back before 1837, one had to visit the relevant county record archives, which in my case meant a long drive to Norwich and an overnight stay.  Once having obtained a reader’s permit, one could submit a request to have access to the original documents of a given parish and 20-30 minutes later, they would arrive from the archives and  research could begin.

Initially I concentrated on the Blackwood line and after a couple of visits I found that four generations of my father’s ancestors had lived in the two adjoining parishes of Hethel and Wreningham.  The oldest event that I found was the marriage of my great (x4) grandfather, Robert Blackwood, in Hethel in 1756.

To this day, I have not been able to locate his birth.  Every line on an ancestral chart eventually ends in a brick wall, and breaking one down inevitably leads to two more.

Hethel was a small parish with no village as such, just an ancient 11th century church, and a handful of farms.  In 1841 there were 211 inhabitants, but by 1901 the population had dropped to 153.  In 1841 there were 15 Blackwoods living there, but by 1881 there was only one, my great great grandmother. She died in 1889.

An airfield was built there during WW2, after which it was closed. Today it houses Lotus Cars.  Hethel is also known for having an ancient thorn tree, reputed to be more than 800 years old, the oldest on record.

Hethel is about 10 km south-west of Norwich and it was on a beautiful summer day in 1986 that I first went there.  It is not on a main road, and is only accessible down narrow country lanes.  When the trees and hedgerows are in full leaf, it is easy to miss the turning.

I parked beside the church gate and went in.  The graveyard was largely uncared for, the grass was long, and there were several large clumps of nettles.  I had a very strange feeling that I had been in that graveyard before, but of course that was impossible. It was probably just the nervous anticipation of finding evidence of my ancestors.

I did not start looking at the nearby gravestones, but went straight into a clump of nettles away to the left of the entrance, and with my foot trod them aside, to fully reveal two adjacent gravestones.  They were the graves of my great great grandparents, Robert Blackwood (1809-1867) and Susanna Ringwood (1811-1889).

Of course, most people would say that it was just a coincidence that I went straight to those graves, but I am not so sure.  I clearly remember feeling as if I was being led directly to them.

I have been back to Hethel twice since then, the last time in an overnight snowfall, just before Christmas.  There was a strong easterly wind blowing and it was bitterly cold.

All Saints Church, Hethel

There were no leaves on the trees and of course no nettles.  The graves of my great great grandparents were clearly visible, leaning to one another, as if she had moved closer to him for warmth, sleeping on his shoulder.

The graves of Robert Blackwood and Susanna Ringwood

The inscriptions on the gravestones are now very eroded and difficult to read.  One day in the not distant future they will be completely illegible.

Neither of my great great grandparents could write; they signed their name in the parish registers with a mark, an ‘X´.  They were undoubtedly poor – he was an agricultural labourer, and he died at the age of 59, whereas she lived for another 22 years.

It was possibly their son, my great grandfather, William Blackwood (1847-1927), who had the gravestones erected.  He was the first of the Blackwoods to be able to write and he worked as a miller, with his own mill in Harleston, 18 km south on the Essex border.

Harleston Mill


I once came across a beautiful expression in a book I was reading:

Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerde (We exist as long as someone remembers us)

If I ever succeed in publishing, in some form, my series of articles,  perhaps one of my descendants will one day read this, and be motivated to visit the churchyard in Hethel, as I first did, now more than 30 years ago.

And in so doing, our family links with the past will be refreshed, and some of those who came before us will be remembered.


I grew up on a farm in Ireland and from the age of crawling, I was exposed to shit.

There was cow shit, horse shit, chicken shit, pig shit, sheep shit, goose, duck, goat, dog and cat shit, and other shit that I have trod on, but not noticed.  And more than once a passing bird has evacuated its bowels on my head, which Irish logic would explain why I have been exceptionally lucky all my life.

And there was the manure heap, with the daily contents of the piggeries and the chicken houses, together with the remains of dead animals and birds.  It was a veritable soup of bacteria, constantly stirred by an army of rats.

Of course, we kept ourselves pristine clean: my mother made me have a bath once a week, but only if I really needed it.  Now to some of you that may sound a little extreme, but one should remember that we had no running water until I was eight or nine years old, and then no heating.

The only times I ever had to take a precautionary medical measure, was when, on occasions I cut myself and went to the doctor to have a tetanus injection.  And of course, there was the ringworm infection that I had on my forehead, probably from wiping my sweaty brow on a warm day.  It started to spread towards my hair and I had to have treatment.

I still have most of my hair, albeit not as lush as formerly

When I migrated to Canada, I first heard of allergies.  It was a new word for me.  If it existed in Ireland, I had never heard of it before. So many people in Canada seemed to be allergic to something.  And there was the modern infliction of stomach ulcers and haemorrhoids.  As an innocent Irish immigrant, I was on a steep learning curve.

Some years later, on one of my last nights in Lagos, with some of my friends, I went to my favourite little French bistro in the city.  It rained heavily while we ate and when we emerged, the streets were flooded, and the parking lot, where I had left the car – I was driving, was a lake.  The sewers had regurgitated their contents, and the water was putrid.

I took off my shoes and socks –  I was already in shorts, and waded to the car and managed to start the engine and exit the car park.  When my friends got in, they were nauseated by the smell that rose from my legs.  When we got back to my apartment, to my amusement, one of the girls (a very city girl) insisted on dousing my legs with disinfectant, despite that I had already showered.

Once in Chamonix in recent years, with Lotta and some of my sons, just about to start dinner, Andrew mentioned that the toilet in his room was blocked.  ‘Leave it to me’, I said, and I leapt into action.  Sure enough, it the  toilet was filled to the brim and solidly blocked.  I plunged my arm up to the elbow, pulled and pushed at the blockage, and with an enormous sucking noise, it all disappeared.

Was I treated as a ‘hero’ for my heroic action?  Not at all.  ‘Yuk’, ‘OMG’, ‘how could you do that? etc.  And once again I was doused with all sorts of disinfectants. And dinner was a rather subdued affair.

Sometimes being Irish is no fun… 😦

When it comes to gardening, I can understand women wanting to protect and keeping their ‘hands soft and smooth´, but I have never understood why men wear gloves.  To me, gardening in gloves is comparable to sex with a condom:  to feel and assess the moisture content and the texture of the soil, one has to get one’s hands dirty.  I could never imagine my father or his workers ever wearing gloves in their work.

I remain totally convinced that exposure to germs, bacteria or whatever they are called, from a young age, helps to build a resistance that lasts a lifetime.

I appreciate that my view is diametrically opposed to that of the product propaganda of the cleansing and pharmaceutical companies and most city people.

But then, what do I know?



Caracas, 1978

Until I moved to Caracas in 1978, I had never lived anywhere within easy access to mountains.

The landscape around where I grew up on the north coast of Ulster, could be described as ‘gently undulating’, and it would be an exaggeration to describe the ‘mountains’ in the north of Ireland as anything more than ‘cuddly little hills’.

Likewise, Toronto and London are as vertically challenged as a slightly creased table cloth.  There are small mountains inland from Sydney, but they are at least a two-hour drive away.  On a rare day, clear of smog, from Los Angeles, with binoculars one can sometimes see the Rockies, but again a long drive.  And Lagos is on the vast delta of the river Niger.

So, on that morning in November 1978, when I was shown to my new office on the seventh floor of Maraven, in Caracas, and I looked across the adjacent city airport and saw that massive green wall rising from the northern suburbs, I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to be there.

Pico Oriental (2640 m), with the city aitport in the foreground (from internet)


The mountain at which I was looking, was the western end of El Parque Nacional El Ávila, that stretches for 80 km along the north coast, and is about 16 km wide.  The highest point is Pico Naiguatá at 2765 m, with Caracas at about 1000 m.

For quite a while, the mountains were ever present in my mind, but by necessity they were in the background; I was busy settling in, getting my bearings, coping with the challenges of a new job, and above all, wrestling with the Spanish language.

But eventually the urge to climb that mountain and walk along the ridge was irresistible.  I asked around the office, but nobody seemed to have ever climbed the mountain, nor did they seem to know anything about the access paths.

It was my new friend and eventually my constant companion, Ivonne, who inquired at an information office somewhere in the city, and obtained some documentation.  So, one Saturday morning we set off to climb Pico Oriental.

There was nothing technically challenging about the climb; it was like going up steep stairs for 2-3 hours.  And it was a very warm day.  But the views from the top were incredible, with Caracas on one side, and the Caribbean far below on the other.  And we could see planes flying below, and landing at the city airport, and on the other side, at the international airport of Maiquetía.

Over the next year on several weekends, we explored most of the paths on the mountain, accompanied by various permutations of Ivonne’s younger sisters – Maureen, Vilma and Dayra, and two of our colleagues from Maraven – Aiden Lehane and Laín Burgos-Lovece.

We went along the ridge as far as the Humbolt Hotel, at 2015 m, then deserted and decayed.  It had been built in 1956, with a cable car climbing from Caracas in the valley and then down the other side to Macuto, at the coast.  It was shut down in the early 1970’s, due to operational and technical issues with the cable car system.  It was reopened in the late 1980’s as a School of Tourism.

Hotel Humbold at 2015 m


Kaare & Lonny Plesner (Danish friends), with the author and Ivonne Garban, in 1979

Ivonne somehow obtained a faded copy of a document that gave the history of the ascent of Naiguatá, so one weekend we set off from Petare, in the eastern suburbs of Caracas.

The front page of an old 8-page document about Pico de Naiguatá


And a map showing some of the possible ascents to Naiguatá


Once more there was nothing technical about the climb, it was just long, and in the valley, the weather was hot that day.  And once again the views were stunning.

View of Naiguatá from the western ridge
Anfiteatro Pico Naiguata, Fila Maestra y Pico Oriental
Looking west from Naiguatá, with Caracas on the left, and the Caribbean on the right


Although there were several paths up the south side of Ávila, I never found one descending from the ridge on the north side, down to the Caribbean.  The north side was reputed to be a naturalist’s paradise, with many different species of flora and fauna.

There was no road along the coast for the length of the park.  The road ended at a beach club on the western end of the park, and just outside Higuerote on the eastern end.  In between, there was about 50 km of a rough track, only suitable for a 4-wheel drive.

One day I decided that I was going to run and walk the 50 km. Ivonne drove me to Higuerote, and I started out just after the sunrise.  We agreed to meet at the other end at 18:00, around sunset.

As crazy as it may seem today, I took nothing with me: no pack, no food, no water.  I had just my running gear.  And of course there were no mobile phones in those days.

But the distance for me, was a little more than that of a marathon, of which I had already done several.  And a few weeks earlier I had run and walked 80 km in training in Caracas, so I was not in awe of the distance.

The going was rough in parts, particularly in the middle third, and it was hot and very humid in the sun.  I drank from streams and surprisingly, I found several banana plants, with ripe fruit, possible descended from a long-vanished subsistence plot.

I had no concept of distance covered, but I had calculated on it taking no more than ten hours.  When ten hours had elapsed and there was still no sign of civilisation, I started to feel a little uneasy, especially when it looked like it would not be long until the sun set.  I began to regret the time had spent on those idyllic breaks that I had taken, sitting on the beach, or cooling my feet in the streams.

It was quite dark when I finally emerged from the bushes to find myself in the car park of the club at Naiguata.  And there was Ivonne with one of her sisters, patiently waiting for me in my car.

Mission accomplished.

Since Caracas, I have had several opportunities to live close to mountains, and I have never lost my fascination for them.

But my memories of Ávila stand out above all others.


Over the last few years, Valencia has become one of my favourite cities.  Indeed, I have even been considering settling down there, although I confess that I am not yet quite ready for that big step.  For me, it is not easy to blow the full-time whistle on more than 50 years of my nomadic life-style.  That day will come, but not just yet.

Valencia has much of what I enjoy.

First and foremost, it has a wonderful subtropical climate, with a summer season lasting from April to November, mild winters, and an annual average of seven hours of sunshine per day.  That is almost double the average for northern Europe.  And only a precipitation average of 44 days in the year.

Then there is the glorious heart to the city, with its cathedral and its buildings, its history and the maze of narrow streets and alleyways.  And the multitude of inexpensive restaurants and bars.  The city throbs with life, day and night.  The typical Valenciano lives in the street.

And the beach is a short bus ride away.

But for me, the jewel of Valencia is El Jardín del Turia.

In October, 1957, the river Turia overflowed yet again, causing a lot of devastation and many deaths.  The authorities finally decided to divert the river, avoiding the heart of Valencia. In subsequent years, the bed of the river was converted to a sunken park, which was inaugurated in 1986.

Today, the park extends over 9 km of former riverbed, from Cabecera Park to the City of Arts and Sciences, and includes 18 bridges.


It is a relative paradise for a runner, with a marker every 100 m.


At the down-river end of the park, there is the group of futuristic buildings that comprise the City of Arts and Sciences.

The Opera House
The Science museum, in the shape of the skeleton of a whale
The Ágora, for special events

Throughout the length of the park there several bars and restaurants.


One of the unique features of the park is the Gulliver Park for children and the not-so-young.  Only from the air can one appreciate the size of the sculpture and the ant-like people.



The Palau de la Música, that houses the Valencia orchestra. In the foreground, the spectacular fountains are undergoing a complete restauration.


And if one forgets that one is on the bed of a river, there is the Puente del Mar to remind one that it was first built on the site in 1425.


For the sports minded, there are facilities for football, rugby, tennis, baseball, hockey, athletics than others that I have forgotten.

Yup, Valencia is my kind of place… 🙂

The Itinerant Sailor

Today finds me in Alicante, in southern Spain.  While most of northern Europe is shivering in near, or below freezing temperatures, I am in shorts and light shirt, basking in 25°c.  It’s not very hard being me.

Give or take a week, it was about this time of the year, forty-eight years ago in 1968, that I first was in Alicante.  And the weather was like today.

I was on my way south to Gibraltar.  As a child, I had read of the history of Gibraltar, a tiny enclave of Britain, at the tip of Spain and separated by a short distance from Africa.  It had fascinated me.

Gibraltar was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but unfortunately, there was no map of the boundaries, nor any detail of what was entailed.  Unsurprisingly, to this day Gibraltar has continually been subject to differing interpretations.

I have no recollect of how I reached the Gibraltar border from nearby Algeciras, probably by bus, but when I did, I found the border was not open.  It had been closed on June 8 of the same year, by General Franco, the Spanish dictator, and it remained closed until February 1985.

The border between Spain and Gibraltar, as it is in modern times (photo from internet)


I spent the night close to the border, in La Línea, in a pension, in the dampest bed in which I have ever slept.  The room felt as if it had not been occupied since the Treaty of Utrecht.

The next day I went back to Algeciras, and caught a ferry across the bay to Gibraltar.  That access was surprisingly still open.

On the ferry, I met one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered.  He was a retired English sailor.  From early teenage, he had worked all his life on boats, all over the world.  He was a small thin wiry man with scarcely any hair, with a deeply weathered and tanned face.

He told me that when he was forced to retire, he tried to settle in England, but he could not fit in.  He had no family, no relatives, no real friends.  He was too restless to live in one place, so he had taken all his possessions in a small backpack and set off to follow his nose.

In the next four years, he had traveled all over the world, in all the continents, sometimes working his passage across the oceans.  He ended up back in England, but did not stay long.  When I met him, he was on his way back south.  He said he was not going back to England again.

I asked him where he was going after Gibraltar.  He said that he was going to catch a ferry to Ceuta and then overland to South Africa.

And what if got ill?  He said that he would be treated like the local people, wherever he was.  And when he died, he said that they could have his few possessions to pay for his burial.

He did not seem to be lonely.  In fact, he appeared to be very content with his life.  In some ways, the old sailor reminded me of the legend of the itinerant Jew, although, in the end, the latter just wanted to die.

The last I saw of him, he was heading to the offices of the ferry companies, to get a passage to Africa, and I headed to the town.

Since then, I have often wondered whatever happened to the old sailor.

The Ash Tree

My mother loved her garden.  Apart from a few essentials for herself, every spare penny she could save was invested in scrubs and plants.

When we moved into the new house in 1952, the site was covered in rubble, ashes from the burned out Irish cottage, that previously stood in one corner, weeds and nettles.  There was little or no topsoil.  It looked as if nothing would ever grow there.

Yet a few years later, it was a virtual ‘Garden of Eden’, with a variety of flowering shrubs, roses, various plants and bulbs.  My mother had a proverbial ‘green thumb’, and visitors to the farm used to marvel at the profusion of year-round colour.

In a secluded corner of the garden, where there was a small ash tree, my mother had one of the workers construct a seat under the tree, using a sheet of corrugated iron, backed with soil and topped with a layer of grass.

It was never a success.  It was too shaded, too damp and within a year the iron retainer started to rust.  Nobody ever sat there.

But I liked it, for it enabled me to climb onto the lower branch of the tree, and standing on the branch, I felt as if I was on a ship.  I used to spend many hours in that corner of the garden.  It does not take a lot to stir the fertile imagination of an eight-year-old.

On Friday, February 07, 1958, the BBC morning news announced that a plane carrying the Manchester United football team had crashed the previous evening, when attempting to take-off from Munich airport, and that 20 of the 44 passengers had been killed.  Later three more died of their injuries.

The team had been returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade and had landed at Munich to refuel.  The pilot had aborted take-off twice in a snow storm, due to poor runway conditions.  On the third attempt, the plane hit a thick layer of slush, careered off the runway through a fence, and one wing hit a house.

BEA Flight 609

One of the undoubted heroes on the night was Irish goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, from my home area.  He managed to carry and drag several of the injured from the burning plane, including Bobby Charlton, Jackie Blanchflower, Dennis Violett, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her daughter, and his manager, Sir Matt Busby, who was twice given last rites, but survived.

Harry Gregg in his playing days


And at the 50-year memorial, with a candle for each of the victims


Like a great many people, I was very shaken by the news.  I went down to my secluded corner, climbed into the ash tree, and with my penknife I carved ‘Man U 1958‘ in the bark.

Several years later, when I returned on a visit, I could still vaguely make out the carving.

The garden has now long gone, but perhaps the ash tree is still there.


Moon Landing

It was on October 04, 1957, that Russia successfully launched the first Sputnik into orbit. It was the first artificial Earth satellite and it weighed 84 kg, with a diameter of 58 cm.

The Sputnik took about 100 minutes to complete an orbit, and with favourable conditions, was reportedly visible with the naked eye.  I never saw it, nor did I ever know anyone who had seen it, although I did go out one night to try to spot it.  Having a clear sky on the north coast of Ireland can be a relatively rare event.


The launch of the Sputnik was the starting pistol for the space race between Russia and the United States.

Less than four years later, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gargarin became the first human in space.  He was a small man, only 1.57 m in height, and was probably chosen for the mission because of his stature and weight.  He died six years later in a plane crash.


Most people can remember what they were doing on Monday, July 21, 1969.  It was at 02:56 UTC that the first human set foot on the moon.  I was fast asleep at the time in a hotel room in Frankfurt.

What was I doing in Frankfurt in July 1969?

At that time, I was employed as a junior programmer with Singer Sewing Machines.  I was based in London, in a team developing an inventory control system for Singer’s European companies.  We were writing programs using the COBOL language.  Input, instructions or data, was via punched cards and punched tape, for an IBM 360 model 30.

In the photograph below, one can see a typical computer room, housing an IBM 360 30, like that we used in Frankfurt.


Also in the photo one can see disc drives, tape drive, central processor and printer, with the operator sitting at the system console.  Not only can one observe how bulky everything was, but the system had to be housed in a cold air-conditioned room, with a raised floor to accommodate the plethora of cables connecting the equipment.

And the power and capability of such a system was miniscule, when compared to the most basic smart phone of today.

The same basic smart phone has infinitely more capability than the computer systems that managed ground control, the different stages of the rockets and the landing module of the moon landing in 1969.

Of course, comparing the computer systems of 1967 to the smart phone of today is like comparing the plane of the Wright brothers to the Boeing Dreamliner.  Both fly, but that is about the limit of the comparison.

I am, however, constantly amazed that man could progress from launching the first satellite in 1957 to landing men on the moon less than 12 years later.

It was an amazing feat.