Becky Cullen – Poet In Residence
From January to June 2016, Becky has been working in partnership with Nottingham City Museums and Galleries to explore how poetry can enrich visitors’ experience of visiting Newstead Abbey. The result of this project is a guide in poems written by our family visitors, staff and award-winning volunteers, titled ‘Windows and Shadows’.
From 12-4 on the 10th July, we are proud to present the guide at Wonderful Words and Wandering Poets, a day which includes all the things that Lord Byron would love – a warm welcome, wonder, words and wandering. We’ll be using the guide to give tours of the Abbey, and there will be music, birds of prey, story-telling, outside games for children, and more. It’s a special rate of £10 per car, which includes access to the beautiful house, and to the grounds.
Becky’s blog tells you more about some of the work that has taken place to put ‘Windows and Shadows’ together – and you can see it for yourself on the 10th July. Come and tell us what you think!
About Becky Cullen
Becky Cullen is a poet from Nottingham. In 2014 she was awarded a scholarship by the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership; her Creative Writing PhD, supervised by a team at NTU, looks at how poetry breaks time, repeating and layering the past to disturb our understanding of the present and expectations of the future. Becky has been published in various magazines, including New Walk and PN Review. She is the emcee at Totally Wired: Early Evening Poetry at Wired Café. You can listen to her podcast Poetry and Paxman: Becky Cullen
Since I last wrote I have watched Newstead slowly shift from early to late Spring – and even (without jinxing the sun today!) into the Summer. The bare bracken patches on the drive are now wildly green and flowered, and the rhododendrons have been glorious towers of purple.
It’s been an amazing couple of months – I met the wonderful Friends of Newstead Abbey and was able to read them some of Byron’s poems, as well as my own poem about Newstead, ‘South Stair Bow Window’. This poem was read at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of Shakespeare’s 400 years celebrations; I like the idea of Byron and Newstead sort of gate-crashing the party!
There have been lots of chances to share Byron, Newstead and poetry with people. I had the chance to make a podcast as part of the training programme for my PhD, when I was interviewed by fellow Midlands3Cities student and poet Richard O’Brien at the NTU Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism. This was enormous fun, as you can hear here. The wonderful Nottingham City of Literature team published an article about Newstead’s many treasures on their website, click here. I was featured poet in the June edition of LeftLion; many thanks to the team there and to the very talented illustrator, Ian Carrington. Then just yesterday I was at Radio Nottingham for a chat with Alan Clifford about Newstead, poetry, Byron, and the peacocks. It was great to meet him and talk about this phenomenal place.
My brief when I started was to see if poetry can be used to help visitors understand the Abbey itself, and encourage them to enjoy the house as much as we know people enjoy the grounds. So during workshops organised by Melissa Lewis in the Communities Team, we took families into the house and asked them to write about what they saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted. The range of writing that came out of this was astonishing, as our visitors highlighted things they wanted other families to experience about the place, and its unique atmosphere – the things that would make them come back. Newstead is a place of very many stories, for visitors to discover and enjoy. I wanted the poems that our visitors and volunteers wrote to be a way in – one of our volunteers (hi Judy!) described Newstead as ‘a portal to another world’ – the challenge has been to make guide in poems the entry ticket to that portal.
What we’ve come up with is a one page flexi-guide, shaped like a series of arched windows that echo the arches all over Newstead – windows, doors, ceilings – if you want arches, we can give you arches. We’ve called the guide ‘Windows and Shadows’, because Newstead has plenty of both. The title also suggests the way that each room in the Abbey gives a window to the past. As our volunteer Carole describes it so well, Newstead is:
Telling the story over the years:
the monks, the priors, the sirs, lords and ladies.
The dogs, the bears, the children;
the explorer, the writer,
The guide uses pieces of poetry like Carole’s as windows themselves to different rooms in the Abbey, helping visitors see them clearly, but also – hopefully – encouraging them to look and see what they sense in the shadows.
Creating this guide has been an astonishing piece of work to be involved in, because I’ve seen how poetry enables people to ‘remember things they didn’t know they knew’, to paraphrase Robert Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. The poetry workshops during the residency have made my experience of Newstead incredibly rich, and reminded me of why I write in the first place. It’s a kind of freedom of expression that Byron believed in and used as a guiding principle in his life.
As I come towards the end of the residency, the whole concept of freedom seems to me to be the biggest challenge Byron’s life makes to us today. How do we live celebrating our differences, to live freely whatever our opinions, nationality or sexual orientation? In my view, Byron’s poetry and the phenomenal existence from which it springs is a reminder to enjoy all of life, to speak for people who need a voice – and better still, to enable people to speak for themselves.
From January to June 2016, Nottingham Museums and Galleries Service have been working with Becky Cullen, a poet and PhD student funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.
For Light Night, Becky and fellow Midlands3Cities Cultural Heritage PhD student Suzy Harrison became Cullen and Harrison, Poetic Portraitists and Family Photographers. In the Nemi Room at Notitngham Castle, they asked families to describe themselves, and took their photos.
Over 300 children, friends, parents and grandparents wrote, drew and shared their families on coloured ‘family flags’ – Suzy took photos of families of all kinds. We’re very happy to share the photos and writing with you here – Becky has tried to make sure that everybody’s words have been included in some way – no mean feat!
Becky writes, ‘The words that people used over and over again to describe their families were ‘love,’ ‘fun’ and ‘kind.’ Whatever kind of family we come from – including our friends and pets – Light Night was a really good reminder of how important, and kind, and fun, families are to people in Nottingham – and how much we love them.’
Can you spot your family? Can you spot yourself?!
Many many thanks to everyone who took part.
A family is the word love written twice, fitting tightly into a heart.
Sometimes the first heart is not quite big enough, needs one more
to keep it safe. Make sure you tick it.
A family is play. It’s three swings and a slide, next to a path.
It’s a boy unfolding like a flower, shouting hello,
then saying it again, bigger and in a different colour.
Noise is family, and music, and being active in the sun.
A pet is family. It’s a cat curled asleep,
tired from walking on two legs.
It’s a dog that looks a bit like an anteater.
Sometimes it’s a cool dad in a cap,
or being able to draw just like your mum.
A family is your name, forwards or backwards.
My mummy is nice,
my dad looks kind
my brother looks kind –
he is a sharer.
I am pretty.
My mum is lovely.
I love my dad.
I am growing
to be a
My family is the best
Well, my brother always is silly and fun;
when I play with him he always laughs –
I have fun with my brother.
Well then, my mum is an incredibly good baker.
She loves baking things;
my birthday cake is the best.
Right. My dad is a good t-shirt printer,
he loves monsters.
My toy is the best, I love him a lot.
I go swimming, I go everywhere with him.
In Summer my brother is amazing
banging pots and pans and playing the Xbox in bed all day.
THEY ARE ALL VERY NICE
We go to Vernon Park, or Wollaton Hall, or Highfields
to feed the ducks. We get together on Thursdays
and there are lots of us.
Like the strong sides of a square, the Boyds love me and I love them.
The King family is five people and they are all smiling.
Linked by the heavens and held in love, family is everything to me.
Two families as one, living in the city we love.
Always happy together, having parties, spending time with relatives.
Laughing on holidays, including Christmas and Butlins.
They need not to lose us.
I live in Madagascar.
Also, have a good day.
Words we use to describe Nottingham families
Fantastic, loving, irritating probably, friendship, love, happiness, sharing, kind. Nice, safe, fun, learning, laugh, love, care. Playing crazy, happy, sounds full of love, kiss, play. Happiness; family box,
Kindness and laughter, love and fun, wonderful, cheerful, loving, enjoyable, kind and helpful.
Love, funky, crazy, happy, funny, joyful, epic, unknown, mysterious. Awesome, funny, crazy eyes, clever, loving, exciting, sweet. Fun, supportive, always there. My closest friends, happy, nice,
teaching things I don’t know, special. Treats. My family are everything to me. Crazy, beautiful and kind, funny, beautiful and daddy. Secrets. Wowmazing, the huggliest, curly and radonkulous. Fighting over Monopoly. Unique, interesting, caring, lovely, helpful, adorable, sage, happy, loved,
funny, sharing, fun, kind, excitement. Humble, noise, unity, compassion. A happy home, cuddles. Good, best. Holding hands, kind, nice, love together always, funny, cool, cute. Sweet like a cherry, bright like the sun in snow, energetic, beautiful, friendly, kind. Nice, lovely, love, kiss, love, help, sharing time. Silly. My family makes me happy. Helpful, implacable, although supportive, bonkers, fun, BOOM!
Our families have the best names
Sam, Joss, Kirstie,
Ameilia Ella, Harvey.
Jess, Ted, Rowan,
Diya, Daisy, Lily.
Paul, DJ, Alexia,
Katie, Jack, Evan.
Aoife, Rosa, Mary,
Angus, James, Fran.
Keira, Rokak, Mya,
Clarke, Nameela, Lee.
Myself, brother, sister,
mum, mummy, daddy.
Jade, Stuart, Dylan,
Maloe, Remy, Paige.
Chenai, Spencer, Fletcher,
Richard, Jack, Claudia,
Amelia, Alfie, Sammy.
Elliott, Roanne, Alfie,
Lily Belle, Natatie.
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.
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 think; Victorian correspondence was a full-time job. There is a strange echo through time as I close the door behind me and sit down to write.
I promised more on Byron, and on shoes. Let’s do shoes first. Newstead also houses the City’s Costume and Textiles collection, which includes everything from wigs to waistcoats, parasols to purses, shoes to chemises. Judith Edgar is the curator who looks after the collection, and very kindly got out some examples of shoes for me to have a look at. As you’ll know from the last blog, I’ve been thinking about where, when and how different occupants walked through the Abbey, so I asked to see some examples of shoes dating from 1800-1820, about the time that Byron would have been stepping out, in and around the place. I had two pairs of women’s shoes to look at. One was a black leather pair, the other pale blue with chevrons. Both pairs were remarkably well-preserved, despite their age. The black ones in particular had been well worn – in fact, they were described as ‘generally shabby’ in the inventory notes, which can’t be denied. Of the two pairs, these were my favourite – double soled and with a pointed toe that stuck out like a mole nuzzling the earth. They had been worn so often the heels had almost collapsed and worked up through the back seam. The leather was brown around the neck where a thumb or finger had hooked them onto someone’s foot. It’s fascinating to think about whose feet they protected.
I seem to have had a lot of conversations about ghosts recently, and whether Newstead is haunted. There are accounts of visitors ‘being flowered’ – becoming aware of a floral scent as a sign of the favour of Lady Byron. Byron himself writes about the ghostly friar who appears as a portent of misfortune, and reports of various kinds of supernatural occurrences exists in writing and anecdotes about Newstead. Talking to staff and volunteers, the general consensus seems to be that if there are ghosts here, they are welcoming and benevolent. Perhaps this is because Newstead has a long tradition of being generous to visitors, from the friars who welcomed local people in need, to Byron opening his home and his cellars for his friends. The WIldmans had an endless trail of guests who wanted to see where Byron had lived, and the Webbs hosted explorer Dr. Livingstone and his four children a place to write – he stayed here for seven months in 1864-5 to write his second book. One of my favourite stories so far is the tale of Livingstone playing Blind Man’s Buff with the Livingstone and Webb children (that’s ten children altogether), banging his head on the fireplace in the Great Hall and having to lie down for two days due to concussion. For what it’s worth, whether there are ghosts here or not, I’ve never felt anything but safe, even on my own in remote parts of the house, with the lights off.
Newstead has a fine collection of letters and manuscripts relating to Byron, and Newstead curator Haidee Jackson looked out some examples for me of letters written by Augusta Leigh, Byron’s sister,
and the letter written to Augusta by Byron’s valet William Fletcher, telling her about his death. It starts,
I am sorry to be under the painful obligation of writing you the most disagreeable letter that I ever to this unfortunate moment had ever to write, not only for me or you but for all the world in general –
How shall I be able to proceed or pronounce the fatal word which my duty demands from me as a faithful servant – But proceed I must though it costs me tears of Blood.’
Even when we take formality and class into account, it’s a deeply moving letter, and one of many examples of the loyalty shown to Byron and his sister by their servants, particularly as they were embroiled in scandal by association.
After that, I read the ‘autograph letter’ written by Byron from Greece to his friend Frances Hodgson in 1810. Byron tells Hodgson that there have been ‘no events worthy of commemoration,’ before dropping in a monster swim between Sestos and Abydos, ‘a few alarms from robbers, and some danger of shipwreck … a visit to a Pacha, a passion for a married woman at Malta, a challenge to an officer … with a great deal of buffoonery and fine prospects …’. It’s a gap year, and then some.
While I’ve been hanging out with Byron, I’ve been thinking about the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ thing. This epitaph was applied by Lady Caroline Lamb after Byron said he wanted to stop seeing her, and she’d taken to dressing up as a page to try and get into places she knew he’d be. I just wonder how we’ve managed to take Lady Caroline Lamb’s word for it, given the circumstances, when there is a wealth of evidence which gives a fuller picture.
This has been a month of meeting visitors, too. First, I took part in Light Night, at Nottingham Castle. My fellow Midlands3Cities student Suzy Harrison and I were Cullen & Harrison, Poetic Portraitists and Family Photographers. We welcomed all sorts of families to the Nemi room at the Castle, invited them to write about their families, and took a family photo. It was a fantastic evening and the finished poem and family portraits will be posted here very soon.
I also held my first Creative Writing workshop, using the current Now for Tomorrow II exhibition as inspiration for writing. It was a fantastic morning with a fantastic exhibition – there were some fantastic pieces of writing produced. Do make time to go and see it if you can – it will challenge you, delight you and nourish you. The next writing workshop is on the 12th March, and there is a public reading in the gallery on 9th April so you can hear some of the writing we’ve been working on.
On 4th April there is a family writing day at Newstead – for parents and children. We’re writing a Poetry Map of the House and Grounds for visitors and we’d love it if you’d like to get involved. There are two free workshops at 10.30 and 1 and to book, all you need to do is email Melissa.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0115 8762738.
It’s the end of my first month at Newstead, and I’m not quite sure where to start in telling you about this absolutely wonderful place. It’s amazing how quickly I’ve started to find my way around. I’m not exaggerating when I say that on the 5th January, the walk down the one mile drive seemed endless. In the middle of last week, I realised the walk goes really quickly now, and I have a route map in my head which goes gates – rhododendrons – bracken – lawn – Abbey.
My priority was really getting to know the house and grounds, so that I could focus what I wanted to write poems about. That first day, I was helping take the decorations down around the house, something like fourteen Christmas trees. People’s voices crackled on and off walkie talkies saying things like ‘I’m in the Livingstone room’ and ‘the coot’s in a box by the shop entrance’. People mentioned the undercroft, the west wing, Byron’s study, the Salon, the North staircase banister next to the cloisters, and I could go on; it wasn’t like any house tour you get on ‘Homes under the Hammer’. I was like a child in a sweet shop – in fact, I was like a poet in a Newstead Abbey, as all around me, poems leapt out. I found myself walking round and round the cloisters, watching the peacocks in the garth garden, observing the first pecking order I’d ever seen, as the peacocks, then the golden pheasant ate what they wanted and left the rest for the finches and sparrows. And how was I going to describe the movement of the peacock’s heads? The way they thrust their heads forwards as they walked?
The cloister is amazing, in four long corridors with a garden in the middle. Over the last week, the gardeners and volunteers have been weeding and turning over the soil in the beds, getting them ready for planting the beds around the fountain in the middle. When the sun shines, the light comes through the windows and stretches across the stones. After the stones are swept, the cloisters smell fresh like lavender, as though it is coming out of the clean, swept stones, all different, worn in different places by years of feet all the way through Newstead’s history. Perhaps monks from the 12th and 13th centuries, generations of the Byron family, and that one particular very special Byron, or the Wildmans who bought the house because Byron the poet was completely skint and had to flog everything anyone would buy, and the Victorian Webb family. All those feet have walked through the cloisters more than any other part of the house. I looked at each indentation in the stone, thinking about the staffs, and canes and heels that must have walked through on their way to Evensong in the Priory, or to bathe in the Slype plunge pool (as Byron did, perhaps singing rousing Albanian songs collected on his travels), or on their way to Chapel.
One freezing day, when there was snow in the wind, I was blown around the grounds and found, even then, volunteers tidying up the edges of the turf lawn slopes around the Eagle Lake and clearing logs in a copse where trees had fallen. It’s never-ending in the grounds. And then the cleaning! Every other Friday, a group of Newstead’s loyal and award-winning volunteers come in for cleaning detail. While I’m on the people who keep things going, everyone I’ve met here is incredible. Knowledgeable, helpful, and happy for me to lurk about and ask stupid questions. I have developed a cheese scone addiction that only the café can satisfy.
In the house, it’s a labyrinth, and also, because of all the different histories (monks, Byrons, Victorians) you’re moving between different time periods as you walk between rooms. For example, Byron’s bedroom is next to a room which is completed stripped, so you can see the beams of the 13th Century building, and the soot on the wall where the back of Byron’s fireplace was. That room overlooks the old priory, and if you look out you can see the blind window and the West Front on one side – it’s got no glass – but do windows normally see?
Byron’s bed is spectacularly kitsch; it apparently was mahogany until Byron decided to have it gilded. There is a coronet in each corner, with a thistle on top – very whimsical, but no record of whether this was Byron’s nod to his Scottish heritage. The dome on top is half tent, half Easter egg. The drapes are replicas of the originals, and if they seem a bit tight measurement-wise, it’s because Byron couldn’t afford any slack, and the originals were badly made. The replicas are very well-made, but for accuracy, they’re made to the original stingy dimensions. Haidee, the House curator, has just finished re-hanging them, and the bed looks spectacular.
It’s been a complete privilege watching and (hopefully) helping Haidee as she’s been moving items and furniture around the house in preparation for an audit. An elephant model has been brought down from the top of a fireplace, changes made in the Plantagenet room, and a bureau added to the drawing room next to the dressing up room (at Newstead, there is dressing up for adults too!). Everything in Byron’s study belongs to the room. Yes, that is the very chair and very table he wrote at. More on him, and shoes, next time…
Becky & Suzy
Officially the best workplace in the world
Writers in the Cloisters
The Great Hall Windows
Staircase window leading to the Great Hall, with bust of Byron.
Snowdrops in Monk’s Wood
The Blind Window on the West Front
Morning Sun in the Cloisters
Byron’s letter to Hodgson, from the Newstead archive