The Time I Went Grave Digging in Wales

It was 2011, and I was wrapping up a 3-month tour through the Middle East with a stop in Europe. One of the main motivations behind my decision to visit Wales was that of searching for and uncovering my Welsh roots. At the time, I had no idea how close I would come to literally “unearthing” my ancestors.

My quest to trace my family back through the generations to our origins in Wales began with a single name. It was the name of a distant relative with whom my family had exchanged yearly Christmas cards for the past several decades but whom nobody had ever actually met. He was a character shrouded in mystery and seemed to exist only in the intriguing snowy cottage scenes pictured on his annual greeting cards. Later, looking at a family tree, I figured that his great grandfather is my great-great-great grandfather. Or something like that. For the purposes of this story, I will call him my cousin.

We met for the first time a small town train station in England. Seeing my cousin for the first time gave me the strangest feeling, like meeting a stranger who I felt I’d possibly met in another life.

We spent the next week wandering through the villages and countryside of  NW Wales.  After spending the past three months in the Middle East, the sheer amount of green grass blanketing the hillsides astounded and fascinated me.

One sunny afternoon took us to the doorstep of the small cottage where our great relative had once lived. This was where he had lived at the time that all but one of his sons, like many others, left to follow the American Dream on the other side of the Atlantic.

My cousin showed me the spot, now barely visible, where my great-great- grandfather had carved his initials and the date into a crumbling stone wall nearby the cottage. The date read “1911,” the same fateful year that he and his brothers had left their lives and family behind for the New World.

During the next few hours, my cousin and I toured a nearby cottage-turned-museum that illustrated what life was like for the people who lived here just 100 years ago. It was a cottage much like ours, consisting of only one room with a kitchen, bedroom and living space all rolled into one. All 5 kids had shared a single bed. And the specialty of the house? Limpet stew.


If you’ve ever seen a limpet you would understand my sarcasm.

It was now that it began to hit me. I have no claim to fame. My ancestors were no kings or dukes or barons or even middle-class well-to-do. As my cousin put it eloquently, we are from “poor stock.” That made me laugh hysterically.

Next we were off to visit the churchyard where our great relative was buried. Though my cousin didn’t live far away, he had not visited the church in years and thus could not remember the exact location of the grave. All he could recall was that the gravestone was lying parallel to the ground and that it was partially overgrown by turf. Now this was not a large graveyard by any means, but it certainly was unkempt. Over half of the graves appeared to be lost under inches of dirt and grass, with only a corner of the gravestones exposed, or none at all. This was understandable. Most of these people had passed away decades ago and, being poor, could not afford the luxury of a standing tombstone.

We set out to the task of scouring the graves one by one for the name we were looking for. We tackled first the stones which were obviously exposed and readable. After about an hour of diligent searching, we came up empty handed.

My cousin then suggested that maybe we should give up. But I would have none of that. I was determined not to rest until I paid my respects to my long departed relative.

That’s when I got down and dirty. In an act of desperation, we started ripping grass away and pulling back the turf in order to expose the names written on the gravestones. During breaks, we looked around warily, having the distinct feeling that someone might burst out of the church and throw us off the property at any minute.

After another long period of searching, we still had nothing. I was becoming frustrated but determined as ever to find what I was looking for.

That’s when I had an idea. My father had been in Wales nearly 20 years back, and had visited this same graveyard. Perhaps he had an idea of what the stone looked like or what the location of it was? That’s when I stood in the middle of this remote Welsh hillside in front of a quaint old chapel, picked up my cellphone and called America.

B-ring b-ring. My father picked up the phone. “Hey dad….well um… I am in Wales and we’re in this graveyard and yeah….can you tell me where the heck this gravestone is??” When my dad took a breath and answered, all the blood in my body rushed to my head.

There it was. Standing about 5 feet from me.  It was the one stone we hadn’t thought to look at. It stood about 5 feet tall, and was probably the largest stone in the entire graveyard.

I felt a tad embarrassed, but more than that relieved. I looked out over the verdant hillside and down to the sparkling ocean below. That’s when I started to understand.

The inscription on the stone read in Welsh:

Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. –Psalms 71:20

Yeah, that’s right. We may not have been dukes, we may have lived in a one-room cottage, we may have had to eat slimy soup for lunch every day, but we sure do have a pimpin’ gravestone with one heck of a view.

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About Hannah

As a self-professed travel junkie, I have found that the only remedy to my addiction is travel itself. I am in the stages of launching an indefinite journey around the world with no goal other than to explore this small planet called Earth.

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2 Responses to “The Time I Went Grave Digging in Wales”

  1. Sarah Tooley Says:

    This story, though light-hearted, impacted me deeply. You may come from poor stock in the qualifications of this world, but your dear ancestor seemed to have a faith that overwhelmed his circumstances. We know that the Welsh have not often been a people of prosperity or peace. To save up a small fortune to leave a message of triumph and hope means that you valued unseen aspects of this world, deeper than the temporal. What a heritage….


    • admin Says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      It may be cliche, but it is true what they say that riches won’t bring you happiness. I’m not disappointed that my ancestors weren’t wealthy – the poor often value things higher than wealth or money. And eating crumpets and tea all day certainly isn’t as interesting as limpet stew! I certainly took away a lot from my experience in Wales, and if anything I came out of it with more pride for my heritage than ever before.


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