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...

February 2016

When I started my residency, there were some precocious snowdrops around – now there is a spread of them in the Monk’s Garden, just visible through the archway as you walk down the final sweep of the drive towards the Abbey. The first glimpses of the Abbey still move me, what Byron called the ‘transparent’ lake in front of the house he describes in ‘Don Juan’ as Norman Abbey. Walking through the house feels less like a game of hide and seek with my own memory now.  The main part of the house is layered on top of the cloisters, so it’s basically a square and you find yourself back where you started eventually. As for the wings – well, that sometimes takes a bit longer. One of the things I love about Newstead is that it’s like stepping from one time period to another in seconds. There is a corridor into the West Wing, a left turn, and then steps leading down into the Clock Gallery. I have the strong sense of walking into the Victorian era each time I walk down the stairs – and not just entering a Victorian setting, but joining a Victorian family. The walls are covered with portraits of the Webb family; all the children, in groups, Mrs Webb opposite her mother on the stairs, the two boys above a case of ornamental animal models. I’ve spent a long time in the boudoir, where the Webb ladies would try to maintain some semblance of serenity away from the six children, reading, sewing or answering letters. This is not as genteel as you might...