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…