Wounded Otters and Maltese Birds 16 november 2012

Geoff has just finished reading a book on the Black Death, the plague that hit Britain in the fourteenth century. Not the usual holiday reading but it did help him put his persistent cough in perspective.

We are now in Malta, enjoying the warmish weather, the cast-off London buses, the picturesque creamy limestone landscapes and the balcony-decorated houses built from the same creamy stone. It is good place for lazy recuperation.

This is the view, not only from the bottom of our street, but also from the Marks & Spencer balcony cafe. The best value for a cup of department store coffee I have come across. The tower in the foreground is of the Anglican cathedral funded by Queen Adelaide

Malta is well known for being steeped in history and for the place that many Australian immigrants come from, including the grandmother of our niece, Anna. Even though we do not share a drop of their family blood, Anna’s relatives made us very welcome and introduced us to Mdina, the former capital until 1530 when Malta was ceded to the Order of St John and the knights established themselves near the harbour area.

Malta is not so well known as a birdwatching place. Indeed it is more popular to shoot birds with a gun than a camera here but, with a bit of effort and no help from the guidebook, we did manage to find a small nature reserve, a lovely woodlands and a spectacular cliff-top national park, all of them almost bereft of tourists. I got a tantalising glimpse of what might have been a Blue Rock Thrush, Malta’s national bird, and saw lots of Spanish Sparrows.

We found this group of local retirees in the Buskett Woodland, playing bingo. They were about the only other people we met. But what do you make of the cat? Did they bring him with them, or only the cushion? There are a lot of stray cats in Malta

There are a lot of older British folk here, some visitors like us, others who have moved here to work or retire. Two of our bus rides had free commentary provided by two such people, one a voluble bus driver and the other a retired Scottish tourist, both of whom were singing Malta’s praises. As well as taking us to the nature spots, buses have taken us to a fishing village and Valetta (the capital) via narrow streets winding through towns, villages and rocky farmland. Only one bus mirror has been ripped off so far as it tried to squeeze past another bus and a parked car in a street built originally for donkeys. Some streets are dotted with failed and closed businesses so we get the impression that the economy is struggling here.

Colourful fishing boats at Marsaxlokk. We ate Lampuka fish pie one night. Lampuka breeds in the Meditteranean and then travels around the world. We also ate rabbit, pastizzi, Maltese sausages, and ‘November bones’ (a sweet made in the shape of a bone for the autumnal festival for remembering ancestors)

Now, last time I wrote, I promised to tell you a story about a musical box, a Welsh castle, an otter, fortunes lost and gained, Doctor Who and a prayer book. So here is the draft version while I continue to research the definitive one.

My two sisters, my brother and I are the proud owners of a nineteenth-century Swiss musical box about the size of a chest. It was left to us by the Homfray family. Canon Edward Homfray was my mother’s godfather and his two sisters, Florence and Lucy, were also family friends. Lucy was nanny to mum and her brother and sister in Sydney. The children called her Lucy ‘Baa’ for her habit of reciting ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. Indeed Lucy, who was deaf, was a poet in her own right. As well as publishing war poetry and writing hymns, she wrote poems for the children in her care. Here is an unfinished one, written about my mother:

Dorothy Jean went to the cupboard. / She crept along softly, making no sound. / And soon all the salt, and the butter and sugar, / We’re out of the cupboard, and scattered around.

She then saw a big tin of honey, and grabbed it, / And pulling the lid off, she emptied it out, / Right over her frock, and her shoes and her pinny, / And in that sweet mixture she wriggled about.

Lodged in the memory of my big sister Helen was the information that the musical box came from Penllyn Castle and that Florence’s house in Katoomba was called Penllyn. With a bit more googling when we were in Edinburgh about five years ago, I found the castle, dating back to the 1100s, was in South Wales (not Scotland as we had thought) near a village called Penllyn and that there were Homfrays living in the vicinity. I also learnt that the castle’s most recent claim to fame was that it had been used as the set for an episode of Doctor Who in which the Doctor and Rose meet Queen Victoria (http://www.doctorwholocations.net/locations/penllyncastle). A phone call later to a Homfray picked from the phone book and Geoff and I found ourselves invited by John and Jo Homfray to visit ‘one day’. They confirmed that John’s ancestors did indeed once own Penllyn Castle but had sold it in the 1960s and moved to Penllyn Court, nearby.

The cliffs of this national park in Malta are scented with wild thyme. They are also littered with the spent cartridges of hunters, some of whom shoot protected birds. We saw one man with a rifle slung over his shoulder

Fast forward to August 2012 and a function at St Marks National Theological Centre in Canberra to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I stand up to talk about the prayer book inscribed and given to my mother by her godfather, Canon Homfray, and mention the musical box and Penllyn. A member of the audience, John Richards, excitedly comes to talk to me over pudding as he had recently traced his family tree to Penllyn. He subsequently puts me in touch with a local Penllyn historian, Liz, who also issues an invitation to visit.

Finally, it was all lined up for us to visit Penllyn this October. Sadly, there was a last-minute development when Jo Homfray needed to hospitalised while travelling and so she and John would not be at home in Penllyn in time to meet us. They kindly arranged for their gardener, Gareth, to meet and host us instead. Liz, the local historian, stepped in as our tour guide with her husband, Bryan.

We gathered around the table at Penllyn Court with Gareth, Liz and Bryan to swap notes and go through family documents

So, in the space of 24 hours, Geoff and I stayed in the comfortable grandeur of Penllyn Court, set on its own historic estate, were given a recently published history of Penllyn by Liz in which the Homfrays’ prominent role is documented, poured over historical documents brought down from the attic by Gareth and visited the castle itself. There we were greeted by Rhiannon (who herself has Homfray ancestry), the daughter of the current owner and who lives in the castle. She showed us the old family Bible from the castle and her own family history research, helping us locate ‘our Homfrays’ in the family tree. Yes, the grandfather of our Homfrays was a first cousin of the Homfray who bought Penllyn Castle in the early 1800s.

How/if the musical box, now entertaining my great-nieces and great-nephews in Queensland, came to Australia is still the subject of conjecture. The Penllyn history talks of the castle being decorated by a French designer soon after the Paris Exhibition held in 1867. Was it imported from the continent at that time and subsequently sent to Australia as a wedding present? Watch this space.

And there are other twists and turns. The Homfray who bought the castle did so after marrying a rich heiress from the Richards family after his own father had been declared bankrupt. (Remember John Richards I met at he prayer book event?) The Homfray and Richards families intertwine through history. There are more threads to follow.

And what about the otter, you ask? The Homfray family crest features an otter with a spear in its shoulder and the words, Vulneratur Non Vincitur (wounded but not vanquished). Which raises another question, why a wounded otter?

The wounded otter graces the Homfray family crest and flies on the castle’s weather vane. Wounded but not vanquished—what is the story there, I wonder?

So there you are. Family history, even someone else’s family, is just as addictive as birdwatching and sits just as easily with travel.

When we returned to London after Wales, complete with Geoff’s cough, we participated in another family’s history being made. We went to the baptism of little Silas, the grandson of Daniel who, as a young Burmese theological student, was welcomed by my parents into the family when I was a youngster. That was about the same time as the musical box turned up on the doorstep. If only the musical box could speak. What stories it could tell!

We wend our way home next week via our Haarlem base, where our luggage is breeding, and Singapore. Talking of luggage, we made a successful return Eurostar journey from London to Amsterdam via Brussels a little while ago. We staked out the chocolate shop where Geoff had his bag stolen and clinically observed people letting go of their bags to examine chocolate bars or answer mobile phones. So be warned.

Thank you for following our journey with its ups and downs. May you find interesting places that connect you with the worldwide family and their stories.

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