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 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,

‘Madam,

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.lewis@nottinghamcity.gov.uk or call 0115 8762738.