Sometimes your family history research can take you on an unexpectedly romantic journey.
This was the case for Marc Orton and Robin Snyder Orton from Virginia, USA. Three years ago, the couple began researching their family history, uncovering a number of interesting discoveries including a lineage tracing back to England’s Midlands.
For their 40th wedding anniversary, Marc and Robin decided to celebrate with a trip to Ireland and the United Kingdom. Armed with a camera and Robin’s snap-happy hands, the couple were eager to explore and photograph the area where Marc’s ancestors had come from. Their exploration lead them to a church in Austrey where the couple then took a trip of a different kind – back down the aisle of their ancestor’s church to renew their vows.
We caught up with Marc to learn more about his and Robin’s romantic journey into their family history.
Tell us a little bit about your family’s connections to the UK.
My ancestors lived in the Midlands – Leicestershire and Warwickshire areas before they sailed for the Connecticut Colony in 1637. They lived in villages around Twycross, Tamworth, and Austrey. I suppose they might have been Puritans. The earliest ancestor I was able to find was Richard Orton from the late 1300’s.
Through Ancestry, I was able to look up relatives and connect the dots. All of my American family ancestors settled in New England: Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts. To get earlier information, I upgraded my account to access to English records. That’s when it got interesting. I looked at mostly church records for birthdates, marriages, and death records to enlarge my family tree.
Why did you decide to travel to the UK to see these places for yourself?
To celebrate our 40th anniversary (October 2, 1976) we decided to visit the area where my ancestors came from. We both love history, stories of how families lived back then, and were curious to see what the area looks like and meet the people from the area. My wife is a photographer, so taking a lot of images was part of the plan.
When did you decide the trip might be a nice opportunity to renew your vows?
After going on Ancestry and investigating where my ancestors were married we were startled to find that a number of the churches were still standing and active. In fact, they all had websites that provided information about their histories. We decided to see if we could renew our vows in one of those churches.
Tell us a bit about your journey to the UK.
We left Virginia Beach, Virginia on September 24. We first visited Ireland, and then enjoyed time in Liverpool. We then moved on to a small village, Congerstone, where we stayed at the Old Ivy House B&B.
One funny thing happened while we were there is that we noticed how many places and buildings and squares had the name ‘Orton’ on them. Orton Lodge, Orton Square in Leicester, Little Orton, Orton-on-the-Hill. The GPS was filled with them.
Being fond of history, I thought it was interesting to look at the area from a 1590 lens. In other words, Queen Elizabeth I was the monarch at the time and had ownership of nearby Warwick Castle. Also Shakespeare was 26, living fairly close by and writing Richard III at the time. After Congerstone, we went on to Bath and were amazed at the age of the Roman Baths, and then really impressed by the oldest of them all, Stonehenge.
The day before our anniversary, Saturday, we visited four churches to see which one to pick. These included St. Edith’s of Polesworth Church (Orton-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire), Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulph (Breedon on the Hill, Leicester), St. Mary and All Saints Church (Fillongley, Warwickshire) and St. Nicholas Church (Austrey, Warwickshire). It was rainy but we had a chance to go inside three of the four churches and were amazed at the age of the structures as well as the burial grounds. One church, Breedon on the Hill, was built in 676!
And then the big day came! Which church did you decide to renew your vows in?
When we visited one church in Austrey, and met a few friendly parishioners, we both decided this is where we wanted to renew our vows.
The next day, the day of our anniversary, a Sunday, we went to the family service and decided after the service we would go up to the very same altar my ancestors, Nicholas Orton and Elnor Wylks took their vows on May 5, 1590 – 426 years earlier. Of course the congregation were curious and when we told them what we were up to, they stood around and helped take pictures. It was a tearful and happy moment that we will never forget. Afterwards, the Vicar showed us around and told us about the structure and history of the old church.
How did it feel to be renewing your vows in the same church your ancestors were married in?
My wife and I both experienced, what can best be called, an ‘out of body experience.’ It was both surrealistic in that it felt like we were at home in a foreign country. A country that, even though we didn’t know it well, felt ‘right.’ In that little space on the altar, where we knelt next to one another, among family and memories long forgotten, we renewed our vows. It was truly overwhelming and uplifting at the same time. Both of us were so emotional. I, for one, could barely get a word out. I was literally speechless.
How did it feel to experience your family history in a physical way?
Ancestry does a great job of allowing you access to the data – census, birth records, and the like. You can see addresses, dates, and names.
The ability to see those places in person, however, makes that data come alive and helped us connect with our past in a way we couldn’t have imagined.
I have never known or even read about anyone who has done what we did. Every person we share our adventure with seems to think it was a unique and romantic idea.
What would you say to people who are thinking of travelling to the places of their ancestors?
Do your research. It may be a good idea to contact the churches ahead of time, so they can expect your arrival. Use the internet – it is an amazing resource.
Set aside time on your trip to see and experience the area and meet the people. My wife and I had a number of meals in pubs that were around when our ancestors lived. That was pretty neat.
Finally, don’t keep it a secret from the locals. Many ask to hear stories about your ancestors and are fascinated to learn about your journey.
Are there any other places from your family history that are on your list to visit?
For our 45th, we may follow my wife’s ancestry path, which I believe is mostly German.