Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire

I visited Newstead Abbey last year when I did a Heritage Bus Tour, and Helen our tutor has mentioned it to Julie as a place she ought to visit as she writes about literary links – Newstead was the home of the poet Byron. We went on Saturday 21 July 2018. It is at SK 542537, and has a website.

The Priory of St Mary was founded by Henry II between 1164 and 1174. It was the Augustinians, the Black Canons. It was dissolved in 1540 and handed to Sir John Byron of Colwick. He dismantled the church and re-used the stone, but his new house followed the layout of the old – the cloister is still the cloister.

The family were on the Royalist side in the Civil War, and later followed Charles II into exile in France – Pepys hints that Eleanor, Lady Byron, was one of the King’s mistresses. The second Lord Byron worked hard to get all the family properties back and rebuild them, the fifth poured his wife’s fortune into the place – they staged full naval battles on the lake (to say nothing of orgies elsewhere). By 1778 everything had been sold to pay his debts, and he spent his final decades living in the kitchen, the only dry room in the house.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Lord, inherited the place as a boy in 1798 – “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. I can’t say I know anything about his poetry. He sold it in 1817 to Thomas Wildman. They had been boyhood friends at Harrow, and Wildman had later gained his fortune from the slave trade. He reclaimed the gardens, and created a series of room interiors inspired by the Age of Chivalry. When he died the house was sold to William Webb, who continued to make improvements. In 1864 the Chapel was redecorated, using designs taken from illuminated manuscripts of Henry II, glass by Hardman of Birmingham.

It eventually came into care of Nottingham Corporation in 1931, and they seem to be continuing with its care in a much better way than most cash-strapped local authorities would manage. There is a step into the shop and ticket office, but we were directed to a ramped access at one side. This bought us to the cloister – you can walk round, but not in.

We had a look at the Chapel. Sadly it isn’t open, so I could only photo through the open door. The guide said they have a regular service, but there was no indication of when this was.

I left Julie exploring the ground floor, while I did a quick circuit around upstairs. Some rather lovely glass and carving. It needs a much slower explore.

We had a good explore of their ground floor exhibition, and watched the video Helen’s group has produced about the slavery links – Colonel Wiseman, who purchased the Hall off Byron, made his money from sugar. The film they have produced is thought-provoking – make time to watch it here.

Interesting guidebook, information about David Livingstone (who visited) and the original seal of the Abbey.

Lots of smashing activities for children, and nice volunteers to chat to.

I went for a walk round the park and the gardens. Julie sat and read a book. Some lovely bits of garden, and the original abbey ruins. Then I took Julie for a spin round too – I walked 5 miles in all today. We had had a good explore – just a shame so much of the house is inaccessible.


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