H ... Her-Story at Hartland

Hartland Abbey
 © Copyright Roger Cornfoot and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

             A-Z of Devon Places and Devon Women Writers

Her-Story at Hartland

       My choice of Hartland for 'H' in this A-Z of Devon places associated with Devon women writers is twofold; I have two 'Devon' women in mind. They lived centuries apart and, for different reasons, both of their lives and specific connections with Hartland are swathed in mystery. They are Elizabeth Stucley Northmore, who was a C20 writer and the very much earlier Gytha, the C11 Danish noblewoman who spent part of her life in Devon, and became mother of kings and queens. 

        Not much appears to be known about either Gytha or Elizabeth; but they share certain characteristics, especially their upper-class ancestries.

        Fifteen or so years before she escaped from Exeter down the river Exe and from thence more or less out of his or herstory, Gytha mother of King Harold, is said to have founded Hartland's first collegiate church: 
The history of the area is obscure, however the first recorded building here was a collegiate church served by twelve secular canons founded ca. 1050 by Gytha, Countess of Wessex (mother of King Harold). Traditionally the church was founded in thanksgiving for the preservation of her husband's life in a storm at sea; a better tradition associates her husband Godwin, Earl of Wessex and holder of the royal manor of Harton, with the foundation.(Wikipedia)
         A stained glass window at St Nectan's church at Hartland depicts Gytha, but her Devon links are more directly associated with Exeter and her dramatic escape from the city during the Norman conquest. And no, I can not tell you that Gytha was an C11 writer; neither can I state that she was a Devonshire woman. And sadly, there is nothing else I can add about her connections with Hartland. But, I have written about Gytha in the chapter I have called Pastscapes, in Writing Women on the Devon Land, in which I have attempted to narrate a chronology of women who wrote (or may have written) texts in the county during the early hazy centuries of the pre-Medieval age. Approaching the years coming up to the Norman Conquest Gytha held a pre-eminent presence in Devon; she is referred to in many contemporary documents. Like her royal predecessors and followers who also had strong Devon connections - Elfrida, Emma and Edith - Gytha, owner of massive and spread-eagled acreages of Devon land, came from within the heart of networks of richly literary minded people. I picture her with a circle of kinswomen who were in one way or other actively engaged in contemporary literary activity, such as the reading circle gathered around the Exeter Book's texts.

        I have not had a chance to re-visit Hartland or the abbey in recent years, so this blog piece does not include any scans of my own recent photos. However,  I did once, many years ago, have the honour of being invited to tea there with the then owner and his wife. (And no, if you have already come upon the piece for Castle Hill at Filleigh in this blog and read about my tea-visit there many years ago, I did not and do not make a habit of being entertained at Devon's most prestigious places). But both of these visits were directly or indirectly due to locally born author Elizabeth Stucley, who during the mid 1960's, became a part-time neighbour, and consequent 'friend' of my family after she bought and renovated a derelict cottage in Cheldon, the Devon hamlet/village where we then lived. 

Around Cheldon in 1960s

  One of the Stucley family's main residences, at Affeton castle, was, and is just east along the lanes from Cheldon. Sir Dennis, Elizabeth's younger brother was gifted Affeton in 1947 and I wonder now if the cottage his sister restored was one from his extended estate:
In 1947 he was given by his father the estate of Affeton, when it comprised the manor and parish of West Worlington, with the exception of the glebe land, Burridge Farm and woods in Chawleigh parish with further land in the parishes of Chulmleigh, Cheldon and Meshaw. He made substantial improvements to the tenanted farms to which he brought mains electricity and piped water supply, with "modern amenities" for every house on the estate see Affeton

      Back at Cheldon, the letting cottage restored by Elizabeth the writer, Bull's Mead, became the holiday haunt of a panoply of people, all of whom lit up our rural idyll, bringing life, fun and games to what was then a predominantly reclusive neighbourhood. The eye-opening swinging sixties events just had not begun to infiltrate the place. Well, not until Elizabeth marched in with her motley crew.  Street View from Cheldon shows the cottage the author renovated, just left on the road past the church heading toward Chawleigh.

Cover and first page of Elizabeth Stucley's popular
children's novel Magnolia Street

        Elizabeth Stucley herself was one of those larger than life gregarious, eccentric characters. You never knew what she was going to say, do, or plan next. She'd turn up out the blue, trousered, tousled greying hair, in her Citroen (memory says it was green, but I'm not sure I can depend on that), with her adopted son, or/and other hangers-on, including his girl-friends. Her image and persona perfectly matched that of the exotic adventures described in her various books. Inevitably, once the party had settled in someone from the cottage would pop down to us in the Barton house below to ask some favour: could they have a bath? a bottle of milk, loaf of bread? a lift to Chulmleigh? Elizabeth took to dropping in for coffee and chat with my mother. 
        When one day she discovered I was keen on English literature, but had reached that stage when I did not know what to read for pleasure - on the cusp, but not ready for adult books, too old for children's, she took it on herself to write (or perhaps scribble) me a reading-list on some note-paper. I treasured that list for many years - it spread over several pages - and intended digging it out of the old drawers to scan for this blog. But no, sadly. the list seems to have gone! 
        Elizabeth knew that we could not afford to buy many books and it was the zenith of the period when the Mobile Library van's fortnightly visits to our remote parish was one of the highlights of our life. Between us, in the little hamlet community, every month we piled up a veritable tower of books. Anyway, Elizabeth's suggestions for me took account of the mobile library's stock and I followed her directive on the shelves toward Mazo de la Roche's Jalna series, which soon had me in thrall. I had no idea  - until now, as I do a  little light research for this blog - that de la Roche herself lived in Devon for some years and set her novels in the county - and now, knowing that fact, am beginning to wonder if, although the two women were thirty years or so apart in age, Elizabeth may have even known her. 
        Many of the literary fictional classics were on the list as well -'You need to read widely and have a broad sweep of books in your head' - Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Jeeves, Gone With the Wind. There were books by  Dickens, Brontes, Winston Graham, Daphne du Maurier. Both of the latter writers were of the same age as Elizabeth Stucley, all born between 1907- 1908; I don't know if she had met either of them. Our visiting author (steering well clear of Enid Blyton) did tell me about her own children's books. Out of curiosity, I read Magnolia Buildings. But I was fast growing out of that stage and soon returned to Mazo de la Roche and Winston Graham. My favourite of Stucley's books now as I remember those days is her travel memoir, A Hebridean Journey; With Johnson and Boswell, written in 1956, which follows in the steps of Johnson's and Boswell's famous tour of 1773.

Page from Elizabeth Stucley's A Hebridean Journey
Photo Julie Sampson

          Elizabeth treated my mother to a couple of weekends in her home at Bath, and me to day-trips with her and her various entourage.  It was on one of these that we went to tea with her brother at Hartland Abbey. On the way, we called in to her old family home in Bideford, Moreton House. Here is part of what Wikipedia says about the house: 
The now "Stucley" family, which had inherited other substantial residences at Hartland Abbey, Affeton and North Molton, sold Moreton House in 1956, after which it was occupied by Grenville College, a private school, which vacated the site in 2009. The house is a fine example of Georgian architecture and had at one time ornate gardens with two lakes, fountains, waterfalls and formal herbaceous borders. The house with five acres of land was offered for sale in 2014 for the surprisingly low price of £500,000 and reached national prominence when the Daily Mail newspaper pointed out that a small one car garage in Kensington, West London, was at that time for sale at the same price as the 28-bedroom Moreton House. The estate agent explained the low price by saying that the house was "too big" (34,250 sq ft., 28 bedrooms, 19 reception rooms, a ballroom and eight bathrooms).[b] The house's former name is memorialised by an industrial estate called "Daddon Court" a short distance to the south of the house.

         When we visited back in the distant 1960s, it was the summer holiday, so the place was more or less vacant.  This was a period when, a teenager, I was not especially aware of or bothered about local history and families and places; I'm not sure I had a clue what Moreton must have meant to Stucley herself who behaved as though she were my 'mother', or 'teacher' surrogate. I see now how she considered me to be yet another ingénue, a protégé, who she needed to bring out and educate in the ways of the world.  Now I realise that Moreton must have been the author's home from the age of six or so, in 1913, when her father moved there: 
Hugh Nicholas Granville Stucley, 4th Baronet (1873–1956), eldest half-brother, son of Louisa Granville. He had moved to Moreton House in 1913 and made substantial alterations.[19] Sir Hugh served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy. He was elected to the Bideford Town Council and served as Mayor of the Borough. It was the thirty-seventh time that a member of his family had served the Borough as Mayor. He was also elected to Devon County Council in 1906 and was a county alderman in 1908. His main interests were County Finance and Education. His personal interests were fishing, shooting and landscape gardening. It was he who designed the beautiful gardens which Moreton House was formerly well known for. From 1939 to 1945 during World War II Moreton House became the temporary home of King's Mead Preparatory School, which moved from its premises in Seaford in Sussex. Sir Hugh moved to the lodge house and looked after those boys who were too young to be boarders at the school.[20]

          Although my memory of the day at Moreton and Hartland is at least, hazy, I do remember the exuberant pleasure that Elizabeth took in re-visiting her childhood home, conducting us on a tour round its gardens and accessible rooms as though she indeed still belonged there and had every right to assume ownership.
        And so on, or back, to Hartland Abbey, where this reminiscing feature is supposed to be focused, the place where I imagine Elizabeth was either born or spent much of her early childhood. Although she may as a young girl, alternatively, have lived, like her brother Dennis, at Pillhead, East-the-Water, Bideford; but if so, I'm sure the children would have had ample opportunity to visit the family's main ancestral estate. 
       In my head, I have a photo I took of the abbey with my then Kodak cresta camera. It sits in an old photo album beside a black and white image of a young teenage girl and her mother, close and cuddling one another, sweaters on, faces wreathed in laughter and bodies swathed in scarves. They, and we are on a north Devon beach somewhere. We have probably stopped for lunch, They are friends of Elizabeth Stucley and they must be with us on this day trip. I do not recall the woman or girl's name. I can not even find either of the photos. Just as the reading-list presented to me by the author, over the course of time the paraphernalia have dispersed, who knows where. Possibly they are still somewhere here in my now-home, shut inside a book in a drawer or box. One day they may come to light again and if so I will restore them to this blog.
         So ... the afternoon tea at the abbey? That's all it is. A static memory. Crystallised. There is, I'm rather ashamed to admit, no detail. I was no doubt tongue-tied. Mesmerised. Terrified of dropping the china; scared I'd make a terrible faux-pax. No doubt Sir Dennis (Elizabeth's brother) and his wife Sheila were charming. I think they would have been well-used to their sister turning up uninvited, with her latest cohort. 
         I wonder now, with hindsight, if author Elizabeth was an acquaintance or indeed friend of the Stucley family's cousin-in-law, also writer, Winifred Fortescue, who I wrote about in one of the earlier of these pieces. Winifred is said to have loved Hartland Abbey and decamped there several times. The two women were some twenty years apart in age, but given that Winifred's time at Hartland was during the years of the Second World War, it is possible that the two crossed paths, quite likely more than once. From what I have read about Winifred and what I remember about Elizabeth, the two women shared similar temperaments, an idiosyncratic joie de vivre.
        If you have come upon this feature having googled for Elizabeth Stucley the author, then you may think you have been cheated as you won't have discovered much about her. I have tried to note down a miscellany of my memories about her from the years in which she was an occasional part of our village community. I wish I still had my diary of those days; I wish I'd written down what my mother told me of Elizabeth; even her mementoes of her Bath holidays spent with the writer. But I didn't. I don't. When Elizabeth Stucley died, in 1974, the ones I'd left behind in my family were just about to take their leave of Cheldon for a new home across the valley. I'm not sure when they last saw her. My own time in the parish had finished several years before.
        (Incidentally to this blog-piece, I dwell on how my generation - the last of the pre-digital era - retain the old-fashioned artifacts of time's passing, and think how, with all the negatives aspects of our brave new lives, at least our new digital devices should have their up-side, as they ensure the preservation of our memories, for posterity). 
       So, except in passing, as a name, due to lack of space, author Elizabeth Stucley does not make an appearance in my own book. I wish I could include her. Like many other women authors, she is missing from the Devon literary canon, almost without trace; but that is the reason I wanted to re-memorialise and reinstate her here. 
is the best I've found.

See From the Devon Ridge where a Book Began


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