Home! Where my Berry ancestors once lived.
Researching family history is a minefield for the novice and the unprepared. This lesson was quickly learned with my first foray into searching the archives in the hope of finding clues to my lately discovered Welsh ancestry.
To contact any Public Records Office or similar repository and merely state you are researching the Smith family will get you nowhere in a long time. However, there is every prospect of achieving a result by saying you are tracing the marriage of a John Smith from such and such a parish around about 1815.
Names, places and dates are vital signposts. Old handwritten documents will be speedily produced, and you will be directed where next to look in your research.
It was a huge step into the unknown (think Cook in Botany Bay, Fawcett in the Amazon) when I ventured into the Pembrokeshire Record Office, secreted in the serene and ancient surrounds of the walls of Haverfordwest Castle.
It took the best part of a day to come to grips with what was available, how to access it, ways of recording it (pencils only for written notes, cameras within reason, fees for copying) and settling into the overall rhythm of this storehouse of treasured information.
By the second day, thanks to a patient and helpful staff who enjoy unravelling mysteries as much as those of who present them, we were almost old hands. Our two mornings had produced marriage certificates, two wills made in the 1780s, details of family donations to a village school, an invaluable map and the revelation of a coroner’s report into a family member’s death of which we had no previous knowledge.
The coroner’s report provided evidence that my family had lived at an address in Pembroke Dock some thirty years earlier than previously thought. We were off and running like foxhounds finding a new scent. There were streets to explore, houses to find and mysteries to solve.
Chief among the latter was the whereabouts of the village of Coombs where I now knew my great-great-grandparents had lived at least from the time of the first official census in 1841. Although records showed Coombs had existed at least since the medieval era, at some time over the past hundred years or so it seemed to have been wiped off the map.
It definitely existed in the censuses of 1841 and 1851 when William John Berry, his wife Ann and their ten children were recorded as living ‘in the last house in the village of Coombs’.
It was a community of fewer than fifty people living within the parish of Steynton, a strip of land six miles from north to south and no more than two miles from east to west yet, in the 1830s, it was home to some 3000 people.
Many of these, however, lived in the borough of Milford, the seaport and market town on the shores of Milford Haven, which formed the parish’s southern boundary. A tidal inlet, the Hubbertson Pill, provided access to Coombs at high tide for small craft. Although largely agricultural, the parish also contained deposits of culm that were extracted at a mine on Lord Kensington’s estate and provided the district’s needs for cheap fuel.
Coombs was still there in 1880, according to a map of Pembrokeshire (sheet XXXIII.14) produced by archivists in the Public Record Office. But not even their willing determination could produce any references more recent than that.
After a painstaking trawl through the archives all hopes seemed dashed of retracing my forebears’ footsteps among the farmhouses and cottages of Coombs.
Searches proved the village once existed along the creeks flowing inland from the vast waterway that is Milford Harbour. Now it is no more: vanished, gone without a trace. Neither the intensely detailed Ordnance Survey maps nor the usually reliable Google maps recognised its existence.
Then, two days into a tour of the area, came one of those Eureka moments that keep family historians plugging away. In a tourist guide to Milford Haven, picked up when rifling through a rack of brochures in the hotel foyer, was that elusive name: Coombs – surely its only inclusion on a modern map.
And it was precisely where I believed it should have been. However, it was simply a word in an otherwise blank space, unconnected to any roads, as if the artist felt the need to put something there.
All roads may very well lead to Rome, but I had found none that led to Coombs. As if in testimony to the past there was, however, a Coombs Road turning off the main route from the medieval community of Steynton (where my folks later lived) to the modern harbour port of Milford Haven that later subsumed it.
Coombs Road turned out to be little more than a country lane. It plunges and twists its way down to the muddy and tidal Pill Creek before hair-pinning up the other side to Venn Farm and Castle Hall, which were both prominent on maps of John Berry’s time.
A minor industrial estate now stands where a vineyard once struggled for existence in a climate hardly conducive to viticulture. A quarry and lime kilns have become nothing more than landmarks on old maps.
A few clicks of the milometer past Venn Farm one of those ubiquitous walking man signs indicated a footpath heading off to the left in the direction of the woods and Pill Creek. To this seeker of the past, however, this was no ordinary sign. It was, in the fullest, almost biblical, sense a pointer to our holy grail.
Left: The path to ‘home’
A rough narrow trail between fenced-off farm meadows, descended gradually towards the thickly wooded slopes bordering the creek. On either side were the remnants of solidly thick stone walls barely discernible beneath masses of brambles and undergrowth. Someone once lived here.
The final few metres sloped steeply down then broadened out to a gravelly creek bed. A lively stream flowed from dense woods climbing the hill on the right, rippling over a ford and on into the creek. The view to the left opened out, the creek widening into a broad expanse of mudflats and minor streams rimmed by wooded hillsides.
I was home! This was where my direct ancestors came from; where great-great-grandfather John Berry and his family lived, as the 1841 census described it, ‘in the last house in the village.’ This was the wellspring and source of the many Berrys that followed.
Somewhere up to the right, among the tree-covered slopes and overlooking the bend in the creek, was as far back as I could trace my existence.
A light breeze ruffled the branches. A weak September sun dappled the water. It was such a peaceful and almost hidden corner of this troubled and angry world. I stood there in total silence, close to tears.
The emotion-fuelled walk back to Coombs Road set me on the next stage of long and winding trail that eventually resulted in the publication of From Paupers to iPads, a semi-fictional history of the Berry family.
Since then, with the explosion of family history resources on the internet, I have learnt there is so much more to be unveiled about my hitherto unknown Welsh heritage.
Among them is a connection between the vanished Welsh community of Coombs and very recently discovered Celtic kinfolk in that other ancient land embraced by wild ocean shores – Cornwall.
And so a greatly revised and expanded sequel to Paupers is now a work very much in progress … provided I don’t get distracted and lost among the now thick foliage of the family tree.