Travel to South Yorkshire and Silvermoor with Tracy Rees
The inspiration behind Yorkshire’s Silvermoor
Author Tracy Rees has written some really interesting books. She has taken readers on a literary treasure trail in Amy Snow, to rural Cornwall in Florence Grace, Pembrokeshire in The Hour Glass and now Yorkshire in The House at Silvermoor. This house is a very special one as you shall soon see…..it has more than one story to tell…
The spark for The House at Silvermoor was lit when my agent sent me a copy of Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey, a non-fiction book about The Fitzwilliams of Wentworth were a coal-owning family, just like the Sedgewicks of Silvermoor, and the history of Wentworth is full of extraordinary misfortunes and secrets. Combined with the fact that my maternal grandfather was a coal-miner in South Wales, this all drew my imagination irresistibly.
South Yorkshire wasn’t an area I knew well, but I knew at once that the broad horizons and sweeping skies would provide the perfect backdrop to the claustrophobic village lives of my characters Tommy and Josie. I had once lived in York for year, so that was my starting point. It’s always wonderful to go back to a favourite place, to see old friends and revisit old haunts. With the added agenda of garnering inspiration for a new novel, my research trips became truly magical. Although only a small part of the novel is set in York it was a to describe Josie falling in love with the city, with the chocolate shops, the city walls, the Minster bells and the apple-green Knavesmire, just as I had done in real life.
The most important setting in the novel is the mines themselves. At the National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield, I had the opportunity to venture down a deep mine, to step into the cage and descend 140m, to walk through the tunnels and learn about mining through the ages. It brought home the realities that my characters would have experienced; the strange, damp cold, the absolute, uncompromising darkness, the awareness of all that earth above. What could be more different from my own life? I immediately knew I would write about someone who worked underground. My hero Tommy reluctantly works at Crooked Ash, which is one of those deep mines.
But of course miners had family lives too, so I needed to learn about those. At the Museum of Living History at Beamish, I could walk through a mining village, see the school, stables and shops, and imagine what daily life was like not just for the miners but for their families. I could picture Tommy’s large family in that small, one-up, two-down cottage, Ma weary with the endless round of laundry, the small prides taken in a home with little scope for luxury. I could see Josie’s mother pounding dough with all her pent-up bitterness… For me, research is at its best when it births stories and characters.
Of course, I was also longing to see Wentworth but at the time of my visit it was closed to the public. When I asked in the village, no one seemed to know why; the mysterious history was still unfolding! However the glimpses I had of massive gardens full of jewel-coloured rhododendrons were tantalising. All in all, I came home with enough inspiration to write seven books!
Although my initial idea was to write about a mysterious house, by the time I was sitting down at home with my notebooks and my laptop, I found it had separated into two properties in my mind. Beautiful, Palladian Silvermoor is home to the benevolent Sedgewick family. This epitomises everything that Tommy wants out of life but can’t have. Heston, the Jacobean manor abandoned by the cruel Barridges, is dark, forbidden and full of secrets.
Once I had the houses, the atmosphere of the story created itself. The world in the story is one of hard manual labour, deprivation, and cast-iron tradition. All of this is beyond the reach of ordinary children like Tommy and Josie. Their seemingly hopeless dreams, the danger in which their daily lives are played out, created a tension that made the book really hard to write at times!
When I reached the part where Tommy gets stuck underground, I struggled to finish that scene for a couple of weeks! The story also references larger disasters, inspired by the powerful, heartbreaking monument to the Oaks Colliery disaster in Barnsley. This is a sculpture that I visited two autumns ago and it still haunts me. Writing The House at Silvermoor wasn’t easy, but it certainly was an adventure!
Thank you so much Tracy for this amazing insight into your wonderful book!