June 2016

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...

Light Night 2016

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. Family Portraits 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,...

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...

January 2016

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...