Sheldon has a rich and interesting family history that he knows a lot about, and I could seriously listen to him talk about ancestry, and history in general for hours on end. When it comes to my own family history, I collect snippets of information based on things my parents and grandparents once told me, and a lot of these things are confusing or don’t seem to make an awful lot of sense when I think back on them. In my family, it also largely depends on who you listen to.
For example, my Dad remembers his dad, my Grandpa, telling him that our ancestors were chased out of Wales for stealing sheep. He isn’t sure when this was supposed to have occurred. However, I have a vague memory of another version of the story – Grandpa wrote me a letter while I was at University, outlining how he had been looking up our family tree and our ancestors were ‘house stealers’ from Carmarthenshire. I took this to mean that they were squatters. He might not have written that at all – his handwriting was rather terrible, and unfortunately I no longer have the letter so I cannot check.
I often wish I had asked more questions about my family history when my grandparents were alive. One of the more mysterious aspects of death is the family secrets, stories and legacies that die along with the person. When it comes to these odd Owen family tales, all that seems really certain is that I am descended from criminals and scallywags. An idea I am actually quite fond of.
Searching a bit closer to my own day and age yields more results. My Dad can tell me all about the life of my Grandpa, because of course, he was there. My Grandpa Owen was an Anglican and member of the clergy – he was the Rector of the parish of Elmdon and vicar of the parish of Bickenhill – two adjoining parishes in the metropolitan borough of Solihull, West Midlands. There is a distinct difference between ‘vicar’ and ‘rector’ and you can read a bit about that here.
While my Dad is unsure about exact dates, he believes that the family moved to Bickenhill by 1960, just after Grandpa was ordained, and he remained in the posts mentioned above until his retirement, which is unusual for the Church of England, which prefers usually to move it’s clergy around more frequently. During this time, the family lived in a rectory at Elmdon that had just been built. Indeed, when they first moved in, it was not yet complete, and Dad remembers the garden resembling a building site. There was a vicarage in the village of Bickenhill, and this was occupied by a series of curates, who moved on as they got promoted.
During his time in charge of both these parishes, my Grandpa managed to get three new church halls built in the area, as well as an extension to Elmdon church. I am told that two of those church halls now operate as churches in their own right.
The parishes of Elmdon and Bickenhill both have their own particular charms and their own rich histories (both were mentioned in the Domesday book for example) but it is Bickenhill that interests me most. Perhaps because I was christened in Bickenhill church and apparently there was at one point (and perhaps still is) a hymn book dedicated to me at the church (as well as one for each of my cousins).
St Peters Church in Bickenhill has both Saxon and Norman architecture. It’s other distinguishing feature is that, because of it’s proximity to the landing path of Birmingham Airport, it has 4 flashing red lights at the top of the tower, where the spire begins, to warn pilots not to hit it.
I haven’t been back to Bickenhill since I was a teenager but my lasting memory of it is of a small, quaint country church situated in a village that didn’t have a lot else in it, surrounded by fields and with a view of Birmingham International Airport across the rolling landscape, through the trees. The sound of low flying aircraft was rife. There was never anyone about. My Maternal Grandad is buried there – I believe there is a plaque with his name on in the graveyard.
Incidentally, my Grandpa was also at one point the airport chaplain and was appointed the Queen’s Chaplain too – when the Queen opened the airport, Grandpa took the service that occurred there.
He retired in 1986. Just before this, he was made a Canon of Birmingham Cathedral. This meant that my brother, who was born in 1987, got to be christened in the Cathedral, something that I was jealous of at the time. I had been christened in the tiny country church at Bickenhill, a fact that has meant little to me for most of my life. However, thinking back on it – I’m glad I was, and I’m glad that this quaint little church is part of my history. Perhaps I’ll go back to Bickenhill one of these days and have a look around.
Sheep photograph by Tim Wood.
Grandpa Owen photograph by Stuart Owen