18 March 2016: Volunteers, Writing and Grand Impressions

It’s been a fabulous couple of weeks at Newstead. As well as officially having the best workplace in the world, I led a creative writing workshop with Newstead’s award-winning volunteers and the house Steward, Diane. This was the first stage in putting together our poetry map of the house and grounds, which will be launched at the Poetry Party and Family Fun Day on July 10th. What I want the poetry map to do is to give visitors a glimpse of what an incredibly special place Newstead is, so that in the spirit of Byron, they can explore the house and grounds as an adventure. Of course, this doesn’t have to be swash-buckling, but it can be if you want it to be – the Byrons are very good at buckling their swash.

Like the staff, the volunteers are tireless in their work to support the house, acting as human encyclopaedia, working in the gardens, sewing for the dressing-up room, and showing their affection for the house and its contents through careful and respectful cleaning. The volunteers are a crucial part of capturing and expressing the excitement and adventure of Newstead. It is a serene place, and there is a beautiful tranquillity about it, but it also has an eccentric quirkiness in the way it’s been added to and extended by the various owners. Every member of staff, including the fabulous guides David, Trish and Amanda, has tremendous stories to tell about the ‘vast and venerable pile,’ as Byron calls it.

So, although not quite knowing what was going to happen to them, and sustained by the excellent coffee in the café, Diane and the volunteers, and Melissa the Community Programmes Officer  turned up at my creative writing workshop. It’s always a pleasure spending time with people and seeing them express themselves in writing, but this was a very special experience for me. We did a variety of writing exercises and games based on our favourite parts of Newstead, starting with describing them without naming them, for the rest of the group to guess. The volunteers wrote wonderful descriptions, of light streaming into the cloisters, of intrigue in the kitchen and of the lapis lazuli Florentine table in the Salon. This is now officially referred to as Carole’s table, and her description of the ‘creepy crawlies’ and other creatures on the table top revealed exactly how much she loves and has absorbed it.  Next, we wrote letters to a friend or relation telling them about the first time we walked into the Great Hall, becoming tourists from different periods of time, capturing the sense of the way that Newstead straddles and represents many histories.

Our last exercise was in the Cloisters. I think the Cloisters are like a mindfulness retreat; they work their still and silent magic in seconds, and are a special place for reflection. In their writing exercise, we found all sorts of people in there – day-dreaming maids, children playing hide and seek, medieval schoolboys being educated by the friars, and those friars themselves, frightened by rumours of violence in other priories in the time of Henry VIII.

I hope that the volunteers got something out of the morning. They said beforehand that they didn’t think they can write. They definitely can. In fact, after being told at school that she couldn’t write, one of them has been inspired to carry on. This is what being a Poet-in-Residence is all about, I think. Poetry can sometimes be seen as something that is difficult, or just for very educated people – something that we need help to understand, let alone to write. But writing, and writing poetry, gives us freedom to say what we want to say, whatever that is, and that is very powerful. This is something that Byron really understood, and used – whether writing about a love or a luddite.  So I want to finish this blog with some of Byron’s description of Newstead as Norman Abbey in Canto XIII of his poem of excitement and adventure Don Juan. It’s a really good example of how accessible – and funny – Byron’s poetry is. This is stanzas LXVI and II.

The Mansion’s self was vast and venerable,
With more of the monastic than has been
Elsewhere preserved: the cloisters still were stable,
The cells, too, and Refectory, I ween:
An exquisite small chapel had been able,
Still unimpaired, to decorate the scene;
The rest had been reformed, replaced, or sunk
And spoke more of the baron than the monk.

Huge halls, long galleries, spacious chambers, joined
By no quite lawful marriage of the arts,
Might shock a connoisseur; but when combined,
Formed a whole which, irregular in parts,
Yet left a grand impression on the mind,
At least of those whose eyes are in their hearts:
We gaze upon a giant for his stature,
Nor judge at first if all be true to nature.


What we all did in the workshop was exactly what Byron describes here – we wrote about things and locations in Newstead we ‘gaze upon,’  writing as ‘those whose eyes are in their hearts’ about a place that leaves ‘a grand impression on the mind’ – a place to share with as many people as possible.


The next stage is a Family Writing Workshop on 4th April, to write poems for the poetry map with family visitors. It’s Free and you can book by contacting Melissa.Lewis@nottinghamcity.gov.uk by Tuesday 29th March.