Wednesday 15 November 2017

Newstead Abbey: Lords Behaving Badly

Confession: I've never read anything by Lord Byron - but (in the immortal words of Captain Jack Sparrow) I have heard of him. As I read an awful lot of historical romances, it's actually hard to avoid hearing about him. And after visiting his ancestral home, and reading about his life, I'm starting to see how his exploits (and those of his ancestors) have probably inspired generations of romance writers - and those exploits certainly sound very entertaining! Unfortunately the guidebook was a bit sketchy on the juiciest stories...

Bryon was the first modern celebrity. Or, as he supposedly said himself, 'I woke up one morning and found myself famous'. One of his exes, Caroline Lamb, thought he was 'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know', but from my 21st century viewpoint he did seem a little too 'try hard'. Skull drinking goblets? Really? But I did love his house!

Lord Byron spent very little time here at Newstead Abbey. He inherited both the estate and his title from his great-uncle, the fifth Lord Byron - who was nicknamed 'The Wicked Lord' and sounds perfectly horrible. The Wicked Lord spent both his own inheritance and that of his wife, and then let the house fall into ruin just to spite his son, who had married against his wishes. It was a waste of time, because he ended up outliving both his son and grandson, and the estate passed to his great-nephew instead. 

Newstead Abbey

The house was originally an Augustinian priory, founded in the late 12th century by Henry II. In 1540 the estate was bought by Lord Byron's ancestor, Sir John Byron of Colwick, following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Sir John dismantled much of the church and re-used the stone, but left the very dramatic-looking 13th century west front.

Newstead Abbey - the ruined church.

George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824), inherited the title and estate at the age of ten but did not move in until shortly before his twenty-first birthday. His great-uncle, 'The Wicked Lord' (I do love writing that), had long since sold off the contents - furniture, silver and a famous collection of paintings - and the house was virtually a ruin.

Newstead Abbey, the East side

Byron didn't have the money to renovate the whole building, so he only redecorated a few rooms, such as his bedroom and study, and left the others empty. He used the Great Hall (below) for pistol practise and the Salon for boxing and fencing. (The hunting trophies are from a later date - see below.)

The Great Hall

This bed (below) actually did belong to Byron. He brought it with him from his student rooms at Cambridge. 

Byron's Bed!

Like his great-uncle before him, Bryon excavated the grounds of the Abbey hoping to find the rumoured buried gold belonging to the monks who'd lived here before him. Unfortunately (also like his great-uncle) he only found bones. He decorated his rooms with some of the skulls (the ones on show now are replicas) and sent one off to a Nottingham jeweller to be turned into a silver goblet. This goblet held an entire bottle of claret and was very popular with his guests! (The one shown on the table below is a replica.) The original goblet was laid to rest at a secret location a century later. The screen in his study (below) also belonged to Byron, and shows boxing scenes on one side and theatrical scenes on the other.

Byron's Study

As well as his dogs (there is a monument in the garden to his favourite, Boatswain), Byron kept a tame bear and a wolf. When his friends arrived for parties, he'd get them to wear monks' cowls. They'd all get drunk, release the bear into the garden - and then have a great time trying to find it in the dark!

In the cabinets are copies of his books and many of his original belongings, including his boxing gloves, a silver toothpick in the shape of a sword and scabbard, and the sabretache (cavalry officer's satchel) he used while in Greece. I liked this inkstand, made of brass, with amethyst glass bottles.

Byron's Inkstand

Byron only lived at Newstead Abbey until 1814, before selling it to his old schoolfriend, Colonel Thomas Wildman for £94,000.

Colonel Wildman (1787-1859) spent over £100,00 renovating the abbey, and much of what can be seen now is due to him. He took the medieval theme and ran with it, decorating the rooms with stained glass and ancient armour, and buying tapestries and furniture.

The Salon

Because so much money had been spent in renovations, after Wildman died his widow was forced to sell the Abbey. The new owner was William Frederick Webb (1829-1899), a wealthy landowner. He installed gas lighting and central heating, and was responsible for the redecoration of the chapel. His many African hunting expeditions provided the 'trophies' on display in the Great Hall. There were once animal skins too, and a enormous rhinoceros head over the fireplace that would be decorated with a wreath of holly at Christmas.

It is believed the walled gardens at Newstead Abbey were originally created by the fourth Lord Byron. Like the rest of the Abbey, they were renovated by Colonel Wilding.

Small Walled Garden

After William Frederick Webb's death, the estate passed onto his children. The Japanese Garden was laid out for Ethel Webb in 1907 by a Japanese landscape architect. Many of the stone ornaments and plants were brought from Japan.

The Japanese Garden

The estate was finally inherited by Webb's grandson, Charles Ian Fraser, who put it up for sale. The Abbey was bought by a local philanthropist, Sir Julien Cahn, who presented it to Nottingham Corporation in 1931.

Detail from the Small Walled Garden

Newstead Abbey is open to the public and houses a collection of Byron memorabilia. There's even a gift shop, where you can buy any amount of merchandise illustrated with Byron's likeness.

What would he have thought about it, I wonder? To know he was still famous, after all these years...


Newstead Abbey Guidebook (Nottingham City Council)


Newstead Abbey

Thursday 9 November 2017

Erddig: Where Time Stands Still

A couple of weeks ago I found a guide book for a National Trust property called Erddig. I love reading about old houses so I bought it - and then promptly forgot about it until a week later when my husband suggested going out for the day - and why didn't we visit an old house he'd heard of called Erddig? When I showed him the guide book and said what an amazing coincidence that was, he rolled his eyes and pointed out that Erddig was the only National Trust house in the area we hadn't visited!

East front of Erddig, overlooking the garden

Erddig Hall was built by Joshua Edisbury between 1684 and 1687, two stories high, with a basement and a central cupola. Unfortunately it wasn't long before Joshua was deeply in debt and, although his brother attempted to bail him out, they both ended up ruined financially. The house was bought in 1714 by a lawyer, John Meller, who added the two wings on either side. When he died he left the estate to his nephew, Simon Yorke, and it remained in the same family for the next two and a half centuries.

The estate was supported by coal, but the industry was nationalised in 1947 - and then approval was given to mine beneath the house, causing catastrophic subsidence. Despite all the sacrifices made by the Yorke family to keep the estate going, it was handed over to the National Trust in 1973.

West front of Erddig, overlooking the park

The front of the house appears different to the back, because it was re-faced in stone in 1772-73. Not due to any particular fashion; exposure to the elements was eroding the brickwork.

Erddig is different to other National Trust houses in that you enter through the outbuildings and servants' quarters, rather than the main entrance. This is to appreciate how the owners of the house were very fond of their servants, treating them almost like members of the family. A collection of portraits and verses on the walls provide a fascinating record of those who worked on the estate - although I do wonder how the servants felt about being immortalised this way! 

The outbuildings include the blacksmith's, a saw mill and joiner's shop. There are also stables and carriage houses filled with old bicycles and vintage cars.  Because the house remained in the same family throughout the centuries, nothing was ever thrown away!

One of the Carriage Houses

This 1907 Rover was Erddig's first car. It was bought in the 192os from the chimney sweep, who in turn had bought it from the local vicar!

Electricity was never installed at Erddig, and visitors are not allowed to take photos with a flash, so I'm afraid my photos are not of the best quality. But the rooms pictured below were my favourites.

I was particularly intrigued to see the dining room, which was remodelled by the architect Thomas Hopper in 1826-7. He was also the man responsible for revamping Penrhyn Castle, one of my favourite places to visit, and the inspiration for Hurst Castle in Nemesis.

The Dining Room -
The pillars hold up the floor above!

The library wasn't created until 1775. It had originally been the little parlour. The books came from what had been John Meller's study, and there are more than 1,500 volumes - arranged from right to left! 

The Library -
I would love to work in a room like this,
although I'd prefer more interesting books!

Chapels always fascinate me but I was particularly interested in this one, because the windows include fragments of 15th century French glass. 

The Chapel

As we visited Erddig during the 'winter', it meant that some of the rooms weren't open. So that definitely means we'll go back again!


What I found most fascinating about Erddig were the people who used to live here; the Yorke family, who always called their male children either Simon or Philip. There was the first Philip (1743-1804), who had such a fear of fire, he built a new kitchen completely detached from the rest of the house. The second Philip (1849-1922) was bullied into marriage by his father; his bride left him shortly afterwards, cadging a lift on a milk float! 

The two Yorkes I admire most were the brothers Simon IV (1903-66) and Philip III (1905-78), who tried so hard to keep the estate going, yet had to admit defeat and pass it over to the National Trust. But as Philip III said to a friend, 'It was probably what my father would have liked - the old place restored to its former glory.'

The old and the new


Erddig (Official National Trust guidebook)