The Future of Tourism?

News reports today covered the fact that traditional tourist attractions in England have had a particularly bad summer. 

Fears that the London 2012 Olympic Games would reduce ticket sales to London attractions seem to have been realised and this coupled with poor weather over the summer months has lead the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions to describe the consequences as ‘quite dramatic’.

Whilst visitors to the Olympic Games may not have been going to the ‘leading visitor attractions’, they may of course have been taking the opportunity to go to smaller, more personal ones. 

For the ancestral tourist, every city centre terraced house or rural farm workers cottage can be seen as a tourist attraction.  The draw of visiting the places their ancestors lived is extremely strong and we know that the visit itself generally includes traditional tourism spending from a pub lunch to an overnight stay.

Visit Britain knows that heritage is a significant draw for overseas visitors, but this doesn’t yet include an understanding of the nationwide economic impact of ancestral tourists. Visit Scotland recently expressed their wish to encourage new ancestral tourists and support repeat visits with new products and events and we will watch how this is translated into actions, with interest. 

Meanwhile, to add your voice to the growing number who want decision and policy makers to understand the importance of ancestral tourism, sign up to the Ancestral Tourism Alliance

Creating a collective voice

Our personal heritage is a huge part of who we are.

In an ever more complicated world, when the family unit itself is acquiring an increasingly rich and diverse identity, more and more people find the urge to seek answers to the present in the past.

This journey involves discovery, anxiety, curiosity, knowledge gained, new skills developed, and the telling of fascinating stories. For some this involves travelling within the country where they were born, but for others it can mean ‘going home’ to the land where they or their ancestors came from.

As ancestral tourists we know that a joined up approach by the organisations supporting our quest will make the discoveries quicker, more enjoyable and more enriching for the places and communities we visit.

Hence we have established the Ancestral Tourism Alliance. Our collective voice can help to ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds have the opportunity to find a connection with their lives and experiences.

The ancestral tourist will be recognised as a significant force in the worlds of learning, tourism, and well-being and as a group whose needs deserve greater attention. 

By speaking with one voice and working together, the Ancestral Tourism Alliance can realise the shared ambition of ensuring that ancestral tourists’ discovery of their heritage is a rewarding and satisfying experience.

To show your commitment to ancestral tourism just complete the sign up form at

Finding fairies and other frustrations…….

It’s great when the paths of teenagers and parents coincide on a matter of mutual interest. So when my daughter wanted to gain inspiration for some art work from the locations and history connected to the Cottingley Fairies, I volunteered to take her to Yorkshire. This was the episode around the end of WW1 when two girls managed to convince the world that they had taken photographs of fairies beside Cottingley Beck behind their house. In later life they admitted that the photos were fakes but not before the episode entered the quirky chapter of our history. It connects with my family’s history because a great-grandfather was the person who lent the girls the camera for the 2nd batch of photos, and who got Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involved.

It was easy to plan a day where we went to Bradford, visited the National Media Museum (where the cameras are on the display), bought some lunch, and then went to Cottingley. At which point the trail went cold. There was nothing in the village that I could see to even hint at the only thing that happened there to give it international fame – leading to two feature films, a TV play, books and numerous feature articles. Not a plaque, not a leaflet, and not even a signpost. A keen eye would spot a development of new houses nearby with road names drawn from Shakespearean fairies – Titania Drive, Oberon Close etc. There are a couple of village websites which are helpful but, to find the beck and the house where they lived, we had to find our own way. We couldn’t hope to pin down exact locations and who knows what other relevant sites and stories we missed completely.

My guess is that local folk have had it up to here with curious visitors invading their space, and I have every sympathy with them, but this is the kind of opportunity where personal heritage can extend unobtrusively into a wider market. Most villages and towns have somebody who has become an expert in local history. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way of finding out who they are quickly and easily and for them to be available for a short informal historical tour (always subject to mutual convenience, and a reasonable cost)? That is the sort of thing that would convert the bare facts into a real experience.

Nick Barratt at the Ancestral Tourism Partnership seminar on the celebrity stage at Who Do You Think You Are Live.

Nick Barratt at the Ancestral Tourism Partnership seminar on the celebrity stage at Who Do You Think You Are Live.

Brian Ashley (left) and Nick Barratt at Who Do You Think You Are Live, Olympia, 25 February 2012.  

Brian Ashley (left) and Nick Barratt at Who Do You Think You Are Live, Olympia, 25 February 2012.  

News From Far-flung Places

One of the furthest places I must visit on my ancestral tour is the Chinese city of Guangzhou where my great great grandparents lived. 

I had always known some of the story of their lives, starting with the fact that my great grandmother had been born in China – quite an exotic thought for a girl growing up in Northamptonshire in 1970s.

This week, quite unexpectedly, I received more of the story when a newsletter from the Methodist Church of Hong Kong arrived through my letterbox.  They were celebrating the arrival of the first Methodist missionaries in Hong Kong, one of whom was my great great grandfather. 

The feature included photographs and details that I had not known before and the publication, being for a largely Chinese audience, also included a comic strip  - the life of my ancestor from birth to death in 21 captioned drawings!

So, I now have a new location to visit and another piece of the puzzle completed thanks to the archives of the Methodist Church of Hong Kong.

The experience of reading small details of his life and seeing new photographs published for all to see was a very strange one, but the small pieces of Chinese silverware that I have, now feel like a physical connection with someone I know better.


A number of years ago, I was working on my husband’s family, made more difficult by the fact that his grandfather had been married three times, and had children with each wife. My husband’s father’s oldest half-brother had been born in 1888 in Illinois but moved to Valentine, Nebraska, where he…

Random Thoughts From Around the Christmas Tree

We all know that Christmas time is when families gather and memories are re-kindled (and that doesn’t mean ‘downloaded!’). No doubt you spotted that it was defined that way this year by enterprising data providers. Leaving aside the fascinating tales gleaned from a much-loved aunt (fascinating to me anyway), it’s been clear to me on returning to work that many others have been thinking in similar terms.

One colleague returned from a Colorado Christmas with tales of how her American relatives would be up for paying to join their UK based and ageing mother on a journey back to her (and their) roots. The only trouble was that they had no idea where to start and didn’t want to just give themselves up to a specialist. Who turn to?

Someone else was given the Family + Local History Handbook (v13)* and pointed out the piece by Anne Batchelor. It’s one of several I’ve seen recently in which a writer has noted how the computer reared generation of ancestor hunters can miss out on that vivid sense of connection that comes from walking in their ancestors’ footprints. She goes on to describe her own journey and the way she bought flowers from a local shop to put on an ancestor’s grave.

Yet a third acquaintance has started exploring the potential of the newly launched newspapers digital archive and was so struck by an account of an inquest describing the death of an ancestor when her horse + gig ran out of control that she was almost jumping up and down with frustration at not being able to identify where it had happened unless she went there herself. It was too far for a day trip so I bet she could be tempted by a convenient B&B.

All of this prompted a memory of how I couldn’t fathom out why one of ‘my’ families had moved freely between from one place to another when the natural journey was blocked by a river and there was no evidence of a bridge. But a few Christmases ago I was able to stop by the spot and as I stood shivering my eyes were drawn to a nice warm looking pub - called the Ferry. Doh!! The otherwise friendly landlord had no inclination to help me find more information…….so I didn’t buy a drink or a meal which I might have done if he was more ancestor-aware.

*Available from: 

A sense of belonging

It is very easy to think of ancestral tourism as an activity which is a pleasant pastime for the well-heeled, recently-retired, middle classes.  Something with which they can idle away some summer days in between visits to tea shops. 

However, a recent letter in the Guardian (A letter to …  My Irish birth mother – Family section 31.12.11  p.7) reminded me that access to the places with which a person has an ancestral connection, can affect emotional and mental health.  The letter-writer comments:

“The problem is that I have always felt displaced … I have felt a painful sense of exile”

Facilitating these journeys of discovery therefore is about much more than supporting a hobby and bringing visitors to your part of the country, it is about fostering a sense of belonging that a person may have been searching for all their lives.  The writer continues:

“When I visit your country now, I still yearn to belong and know that I never will.”

The ability of an activity to add to a public sense of well-being may be harder to measure than the number of bed-nights it generates but it is surely of equal importance.

The ancestral connections of John Penrose

One of the key factors that will put ancestral tourism on the map is a committed advocate in central government. The Minister for Heritage and Tourism is John Penrose, so I thought it would be an interesting diversion to see whether he had any interesting relatives in his family tree; an hour later, I was astonished at the diversity of places where he could claim to have ancestral roots, more than enough to fill an episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

Locations included Liverpool (Lancashire), Newcastle upon Tyne (Northumberland), Chertsey (Surrey), Abbots Roswell (Devonshire), Swansea (Glamorgan), Kendal (Westmorland) and Chelsea (London). There were also more farther-flung relatives from ‘parts of Ireland unspecified’, as well as the US and from there, back into Scotland via an eighteenth century settler. As for occupations – some varied lines of work indeed! The commercial sector was well represented, with a sub-agent for the Bank of England descended from a merchant for the East India Company, alongside an insurance broker. There were plenty of clergymen too, ranging from a Seventh Day Adventist minister to a high-ranking member of the Church of England who ended up Principal of St Mark’s College, a man named Derwent Coleridge – the third son of the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Penrose’s four-times great grandfather.

Usually, a connection like this is a story sufficient to dine out on for years, but there’s another amazing tale hidden in the Penrose family tree. John’s three-times great grandfather was an American named Samuel Stillman Gair or Gaire, who ended up the managing partner of the Liverpool branch of Barings Bank and moved to Britain, before becoming naturalised and buying Penketh Hall as his home. His wife was Elizabeth Wainwright, granddaughter of Benjamin Greene junior who was a Boston merchant. After the infamous ‘tea party’ in the city, Greene was one of the signatories of the address to Governor Hutchinson in 1774 offering to make necessary restitution for the losses incurred; clearly a loyalist to the Crown.

And all this was found from a cursory investigation, taking roughly one hour using the internet. Just think how much more rich, personal information remains to be uncovered!

John Penrose clearly has a rich personal heritage. It remains to be seen whether we can encourage his department to help create an opportunity, via ancestral tourism networks, to allow the rest of us to discover our roots and then engage with the culture and heritage they represent.