Thursday, 30 July 2015

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 12-14: Copenhagen and homeward bound

The final three days of our adventure on the Unlock the Past Baltic cruise ( saw a visit to the Danish capital of Copenhagen, and then a final two day conference at sea as we made our way back to Portsmouth.

There's been quite a lot of discussion about Scandinavian politics in Scotland over the last two years, with groups such as Nordic Horizons promoting links between the two regions - indeed, until the 15th century a part of Caithness, Orkney and Shetland in Scotland were in fact under the rule of Norway, so there is a long established link. I have absolutely no idea why, but Copenhagen was somewhere in particular that I have long wanted to visit, so this was going to be a real treat. My first glimpse was a bit tenuous, but at 1.30am in the morning we sailed under the bridge that connects Denmark to Sweden, and so I went on deck to take a few pics in the dark, being the immense optimist that I am. I managed to actually get something, but with only a few metres clearance between the bridge and our boat it was a hairy experience, and we were travelling at a rate of knots! Having docked in the city just after 6am, my original intention for the day was to do a hop on hop off bus trip around the city, but on learning of a military fort close to the boat, I changed my mind and decided to go in on foot instead.


The preserved five pointed fort, dating from 1626 and still in use today as a military base, was the Kastellet (Citadellet Frederikshavn), located about a five minute walk from the boat, and surrounded by a moat. It was involved in the Napoleonic Wars Battle of Copenhagen against the British in 1807, with the British attacking it to try to neutralise the Danish fleet, and reminded me immensely of a fort in Holland that I visited when a student some twenty years ago (at Naarden), though much larger in size. It was later captured by the Germans in 1940. Amongst the buildings in the fort were a windmill, barracks for soldiers, and a war memorial, although I spent most of my time there walking around the ramparts and taking in the views. Another impressive war memorial to the memory of those who fell in Danish and Allied service guarded the exit on the far side of the fort as I departed.

I made my way past the Geifion Fountain, depicting the Norse goddess Gefjun driving four bulls ahead of her. These were her four sons who had been turned into bulls to allow her to plough as much land in a single night as she could, with the land ploughed falling into the Danish sea to create several islands (which were then granted to her), with the hole left in the ground becoming a huge lake. The Danes have their own version of Fionn MacCumhaill, who, as everyone knows, created the Isle of Man after scooping out soil from what later became Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland! Located behind the fountain was an Anglican church, St Alban's, providing a dramatic backdrop.

Unfortunately, the one museum I really wanted to visit, The Museum of Danish Resistance, was an impossibility to see, it having burned down in 2013, though thankfully the artefacts inside were saved. The museum is to be rebuilt in due course, with more on that at It was interesting to note a street named after Churchill in the area, but with nothing else to view I found myself wandering towards yet another royal palace. Europe loves its royals. Upon arrival, I discovered that the changing of the guard was about to happen, so stood and watched a bit more troop trooping. After it was complete I stood outside the museum and leeched onto the free wifi for a bit, at which point I was shouted at by a soldier! He shouted at me in English "Hey, you, get away from the wall". Weighing up the options, I decided that because he had a huge rifle and I had only a measly iPad, he was likely to win if I stood up to him, so I duly got away from the wall and avoided a minor diplomatic incident.

This was followed by a visit into the large Frederiks Kirke just up the street, which was yet another impressive domed church structure, but I was rather beginning to get a bit churched out on the trip by this point, so I left after a few minutes, and briefly bumped into several Unlock the Past team members who were enjoying the day via a hop on hop off boat ride. After a quick coffee, I made my way to the Kongens Have (King's Garden), Copenhagen's oldest national palace garden, established in the reign of Christian IV. I then made my way to a large canal and started to backtrack towards the area where the boat was docked.

The find of the day was undoubtedly a quiet wee kirkyard called Holmens Kirkegard. The genie in me couldn't help himself, and so in I went for a wander. Wow! One thing the Danes certainly know how to do is to look after their dead with respect. The cemetery was absolutely meticulous, landscaped, clean, tranquil and respectful. There seems to be a tradition that many grave-owners follow of maintaining a small low cut hedge around the boundaries of their plots, and the effect was just stunning. The following are some of the views of the graves I encountered.

With time running out I had two key things still to do, now back in tourist mode. The first was to visit the Little Mermaid statue, because that's what tourists do in Copenhagen, whilst the second was to have a beer, to complete my tally of lagers and beers tasted in foreign ports.

The statue, surrounded by tourists, commemorates the fairytale story by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1837, and is one of the most iconic symbols of modern day Copenhagen. After snapping the requisite pics and buying the requisite fridge-magnet (my mind goes beyond the taste barrier), I then had my lager, drinking - what else - but a pint (OK, the boring EU equivalent) of Carlsberg. It was an amazing drink - probably the finest lager in the world - but as I was unsure, and as it was very, VERY hot, I had a second for scientific purposes. In chatting to one of the waiters he told me that Copenhagen was a great place to live, but very expensive compared to the rest of Denmark, even more expensive than life in London. Crikey, there's somewhere on Earth more expensive than London? Travel certainly does broaden the mind...!

Back on board, I had some dinner and then attended Paul Milner's excellent talk on occupations and guild records, providing an overview on how to locate records of our ancestors' employment, and then turned in for the night after a nightcap.

On day 13 we were once again back to full blown conference mode, with Paul up bright and early to do the first session, on First World War military records. Although I was familiar with all of the resources he discussed, he did provide some very useful steers on the basics behind decoding medal index cards. For the rest of the morning I attended talks by Janet Few on migration from the UK, and another by Paul on English census records. Lunch was followed by Cyndi Ingle discussing the advice to lower expectations on the internet to raise research potential, followed by another research help zone, and another packed line up awaiting advice on Irish and Scottish brick wall issues! I then attended a further writing session with Carol Baxter looking at genealogical truth, including an interesting case where she had to get the lawyers in over a book she had written, when her research overturned 'conventional wisdom' about the descendants of some of the First Fleet settlers in Australia, based on older research which simply didn't stack up. Some people do get proprietorial about their research and their conclusions, but it doesn't necessarily make them right if they simply shout louder and stamp their feet on the ground in the absence of documented proof!

After dinner I was then up, with my talk on Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, based on my recent book of the same title. In this I sought to demonstrate the range of records that were recorded in families' desperate times, covering everything from church records, courts and crime, bankruptcy, poor law records, medical records and more. Clearly I could not cover everything, but it did provide a flavour of what else might be out there beyond the vital records and censuses. Janet Few kindly took a few pics of me doing my talk but then told me I walked around so much that they were all blurred. I actually gave my first talk that night in the quantum range of dimensional reality, but happy to put it down to my incapable camera! :)

The final day then saw us get under way with another session by me, although clearly my journey into alternative quantum dimensions had upset my internal chronometer, or rather, that of my iPad. We had a clock change heading back to England, so I set my iPad back an hour, but unbeknownst to me, my iPad for some very bizarre reason had set it to an hour before in GMT, rather than British Summer Time, with the net effect that it actually set itself back by two hours, instead of one. Muggins dutifully woke up thinking I had an hour until I was due to give my talk, only to find the door being knocked and the information conveyed that a room full of people was awaiting me! I leapt down to the venue and got underway just ten minutes late, thankfully having remembered to get dressed first.

After breakfast I attended Caroline Gurney's useful session on manorial records and parochial records, which turned out to be a fantastic piece of scheduling, as it meant that my later talk on Irish land records could refer back to Caroline's session in discussing the same manorial set up that was established in Ireland. Before that however, I had lunch and then attended Janet Few's excellent session on coffers, clysters, comfrey and coifs: the lives of our 17th century ancestors, once again in her period guise of 'Mistress Agnes' and ably assisted by Master Christopher and a helpless volunteer/victim from the audience!

My Irish land records talk then went ahead, again, based on a new book written for Unlock the Past and delivered just a week before we set sail. I discussed boundaries (coincidentally paralleling what Caroline and Paul and had done in similar talks for England), and then discussed records of ownership, estate records, and valuation, as well as my current investigations into a particular brick wall problem in Islandmagee, County Antrim, for which land records have been a godsend. After this I attended two final talks by Paul Milner (British Isles maps and gazetteers) and Cyndi Ingle (building a digital research plan), and with that the conference programme was all but done.

With one exception! After dinner, Paul's wife Carol Becker offered a hilarious session by way of payback for years of suffering as the partner of a historical manic obsessive (i.e. a genealogist), entitled "So you are married to a genealogist?". This one was for the spouses...! Clearly partners of genealogists are under some kind of delusion that graveyards should not be attended, that offices should be permanently clean, that there are other programmes broadcast apart from Who Do You Think You Are, and that they should receive some kind of consideration when being dragged along to archives or museums. It's a strange world amongst the non-genealogist fraternity - I hope they can find inner peace soon!

And with that, it was a wrap! We said our goodbyes, took our requisite selfies, and then prepared for the early departures the following morning from Southampton. The conference was an incredible success, with a packed and vibrant itinerary, and an excellent vessel on which to hold it. We had a few issues along the way, as all cruises do, and occasional changes to programme, but we survived!


If you have read my blog posts this week and wish to learn more about the cruises organised by Unlock the Past, please visit, where you will find details of several forthcoming adventures around Australia and a river cruise in Europe amongst the highlights.

You may also be interested to read the recollections of other bloggers on board, including Alona Tester (, Helen Smith (, and Janet Few (

Happy cruising!

(With thanks to Alan Phillips, the Unlock the Past team, my fellow speakers, and all of my fellow conference delegates/cruisers, for a fun two weeks!)

Earlier Baltic cruise based blog posts:

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 1 to 3: From Southampton to Bruges

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 4 to 6: Germany and Estonia

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 7-8: Russia

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 9-11: Helsinki and Stockholm


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit

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