Day 11 of my Mary Stewart Advent Calendar. In yesterday’s post I shared photos of St Saviour’s church in Shotton Colliery, where Mary and her family moved to from Trimdon when she was eight years old – but what about the vicarage that they lived in? By 2014 when the post of vicar lay vacant, the vicarage was described as ‘of modern construction’. Had the vicarage that Mary and her family lived in been knocked down?
I don’t think so. Just to the west of the church is ‘The Old Vicarage’, now in use by Stonham Housing Association, with the present-day vicarage – I’d guess – being tucked away within the grounds. If I am right, then this is where Mary lived from autumn 1924. Do you think it looks old enough? Perhaps it is a revamped roof that makes the building look fairly young to my inexpert eye.
Looking at Thornyhold again (see my 6 December post), it is possible to guess at what Shotton Colliery vicarage was like in the 1920s – or at any rate to surmise Mary’s feelings about it. Given that Mary Stewart acknowledged that the memories her character Gilly has are broadly those of Mary herself (in the case of Trimdon), it would seem that Shotton Colliery was rather like this:
‘We lived in a bleak, ugly colliery village in the north of England. Our house was well built, but hideous, far too big, and very cold. The water was limestone-hard, and always icy… the vicarage and church got their electricity free, so in my small, arctic room at the top of the house I was sometimes allowed a single-bar electric fire…
‘The vicarage lay at one end of the village, isolated beyond the church in its own large garden… On one side of our grounds ran the main road; on the other three sides were graveyards… I never remember being troubled by the thought of all the bodies buried so near at hand, and our normal short cut to the village lay through the oldest field of graves. But it was a grim place for a solitary child…’ From Thornyhold – pages 8 and 9 of the Hodder & Stoughton first edition (1988).
We don’t have to rely only on what Thornyhold tells us. The biographical booklet ‘About Mary Stewart’ (1973), succinctly tells the same story: ‘When I was seven we moved to Shotton Colliery, an ugly mining village still in Durham County. The Vicarage was huge, isolated, and bitterly cold. My room was two storeys up, in the attic, but I did not mind this; I was by choice a solitary child.’
So Mary Stewart’s Thornyhold appears to hold significant autobiographical information. It would be wrong to assume that everything in the novel is a record of Mary Stewart’s own childhood – but there are, indisputably, areas where the story tallies with the writer’s accounts of her own childhood.
Thornyhold is a lovely novel. If you have never read it before (or even if you have), I would urge you to read it. And please – visit this blog afterwards to let me know what you think of it!