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Where George Washington's Ancestors Slept : The first President never visited England, but his English roots run deep.

February 16, 1992|DAVID VEASEY | Veasey is a free-lance writer living in Morris Plains, N.J. and

WASHINGTON, England — George Washington has been aptly described as the last Englishman and the first American. Washington's English roots were deeper than even he realized or cared about; he always professed a disdain for genealogy. But despite Gen. Washington's lack of interest in his forebears, a number of well-documented Washington family sites have been preserved in widely scattered parts of England, ranging from the Borders region to the Midlands to quaint towns near the English Channel in Essex County.

Although George never visited England, there are Washingtons in both England and America, living links between the two countries.

American travelers with an interest in the English heritage of our first President can put together a self-guided tour of Washington Country. All they need is a good British road atlas and rental car; several of the sites are beyond the reach of public transportation.

The Washington chronology begins in the north of England at Washington Old Hall, the oldest extant building associated with George Washington's direct descendants. About 10 miles southeast of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, near the A1 highway, this small manor house has been a National Trust property open to the public since 1957.

The Washington family lineage can be traced back in an unbroken line to the 12th Century. Originally known as the de Hertburn family of the Borders region, the family emerges out of the fog of the early Middle Ages as de Wessyngton (or de Washington). In an age before surnames, they took the name of their adopted home, the town of Washington in the former County Durham, now part of County Tyne and Wear.

The family homestead, occupied in about 1180, is in the old village section of Washington New Town, a planned community that spreads into the industrial and mining regions between the Tyne and Wear rivers. The small, two-story sandstone manor house, set back from a tree-lined road on several acres, dates mostly from the 17th Century, but the house's foundation, west wall and parts of the kitchen date to its medieval period.

Visitors enter the house through a ground-floor lobby, passing a wax bust and some pictures of George Washington, before entering the Great Hall, a communal dining area furnished mostly with 17th-Century antiques. On the north wall is a John Singleton Copley oil painting of Gen. Washington mounted on a white horse, painted during the 1770s. Two fieldstone arches from the original house separate the Great Hall from the kitchen, with its large open fireplace used for cooking. On the other end of the ground floor is a large family room, the "withdrawing room."

The second-floor bedroom, normally closed because that floor is used as a community center, displays a colored print of Mt. Vernon presented on May 6, 1977, by President Jimmy Carter to commemorate his visit and that of British Prime Minister James Callaghan to Washington Old Hall. .

Behind the manor house are attractive gardens, a tribute to Anglo-American relations funded by prominent citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, including Walter Annenberg, former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

During the five generations that Washington's direct ancestors lived here, they were linked politically and economically with the powerful Bishops of Durham, who held secular and religious authority in the region. Two more Williams and a Walter lived at Old Hall before William III's son, Robert, married into the wealthy Strickland family and moved to Warton in Lancashire about 1300.

John Washington was the last direct ancestor to live in Lancashire, and it was through his marriage to Margaret Kitson that George Washington was a distant relative of Winston Churchill. John's son, Lawrence, moved to Northamptonshire about 1530 to work for fellow Lancashireman Sir William Parr, who had large land holdings in both counties. Lawrence soon grew prosperous in the wool business and became mayor of Northampton in 1532. By 1539, he owned the property of Sulgrave Manor, and completed construction of the house about 1560.

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