Berwickshire graveyard pilgrimage inspires book

A visit to an ancestor’s grave on a hilltop in a Berwickshire village inspired one man’s emotional and literary pilgrimage.

By Paul Kelly
Monday, 11th April 2022, 11:52 am
Updated Monday, 11th April 2022, 11:52 am
George Bell's grave in Whitsome cemetery.
George Bell's grave in Whitsome cemetery.

More than a decade ago Godfrey Bell was on holiday in Scotland and was passing through the Borders.

On something of a whim he took a detour to Whitsome, as he was aware that his great-great grandfather George Bell, who died in 1833 at the age of 44, was buried there alongside his wife Elizabeth and their children.

After a long search he found the grave, which was in a dilapidated state, and decided to pay for its restoration.

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Standing there at the graveside proved a poignant experience and it inspired him to research and seek out the resting places of other ancestors in the UK and across the globe.

That has led to him writing a book capturing his search for his ‘lost family’, ‘Unloved Graves – Finding Forsaken Forebearers’, which is available now.

Godfrey said: “I was always interested in genealogy and family history and I started building my family tree on the internet. I found out that my great-great grandfather had lived in the Borders and we were travelling through, just for a holiday, and I said ‘let’s go see if we can find this cemetery’.

“We found the cemetery and then we found his grave, which took a lot of doing. That’s when it started because I stood on his grave and you could hardly read the inscription, it was eroded.

“It was a funny feeling standing beside his grave and looking at his tombstone, which was lopsided and about to fall over. It was awful looking at this grave that everyone seems to have forgotten for generations.

“I thought I’d fix it up. So I tracked down a local stonemason and he went to the cemetery and suggested what he could do. He could give it a new plinth so it wouldn’t fall over and clean it up and it was very satisfying when he did that.

“That’s how it started and I wondered where my other ancestors were. The oldest one I found was my great-great-great-great grandfather, which was amazing. That was in Yorkshire and I completely restored that too. Then I found one in America and one or two in New Zealand, where I’m from originally, and in Australia and I turned it into a project. It became a passion for me.

“Some of the searches were a complete failure because the graveyards had been wiped out by new motorways or something and it was quite upsetting sometimes because I found that were completely unmarked graves and one great-great grandparent was in a common grave.”

Godfrey, a retired entrepreneur now living in Gloucestershire, added: “I told someone about it when I’d done up several graves and she said ‘that’s fascinating’ and said I should write about it.”

When the restoration of the Whitsome grave was carried out a dedication plaque was added explaining that it had been restored by Godfrey.

As a result a distant descendant tracked him down.

“She found me on the internet and it was a distant cousin. We didn’t know we existed,” he said.

Both poignant and uplifting, Unloved Graves is available in hardcover for £20 from www.abebooks.com/book-search/author/godfrey-bell.