Back To The Abbey

The last time I was at Newstead Abbey was in March. Various commitments have conspired against me and I’ve just not been able to fit my spare days with ones when I was needed at the Abbey.

Last weekend however, I was back for a full weekend. And four days later I was back again helping behind the scenes on a costume tour and then I went armed with a ‘Hetty’ to do my bit of housework around the building. Driving all the way from Manchester means I need to fill my day there. And housework never stops at Newstead Abbey. It also means I get the run of the house when no one is there. That means it is ‘molto silenzio’ and I get to peek into all the cabinets. The atmosphere of course is quite different. That is when Newstead really comes alive.

I’ve been wanting to help out on a costume tour for some time now. The collection now housed at Newstead, which came from Nottingham Castle five years ago, rivals some of the best in the country but you wouldn’t even know it was there and tours are private affairs, prearranged with the curator. As a former costume designer myself, these rooms, off limits to most tourists and staff alike, are a haven of inspiration for me and other creatives with an interest in textiles from serious re-enactors to hobbyist embroiderers. As a resource it is second to none.

Costumiers dream

At the weekend when my volunteering duties were done, I took myself off to the gardens as I often do, to take some photographs. The day was glorious and the shadows falling on the masonry on the old Friary frontage were just too tempting to pass up. The textures on the stone and the colours are beautiful and ooze 900 years of history. No wonder it inspired the likes of Byron and became such a labour of love for those like Colonel Wildman. It’s a place you can never grow tired of.

My photography is amateur at best but I hope you see what I see.









Venezia – 3 Giorno – On This Day In Venice

Lunedi 8 maggio

On this day in 1798 on the island of Murano, my great great great grandfather, probably best known as Lord Byron’s gondolier and bodyguard, was born. The fact that I am in Venice this week was not a part of my plan, it’s just the way the dates fell on my AirBNB booking.

After breakfast at Goppion, where I met two tourists (one of whom teaches English on mainland Italy), I headed off to Fondamenta Nove to catch the vaporetto to Murano to meet my new cousin.

Paola Falcier is a writer and Murano resident whom I met on the internet a couple of months back. We were both researching our Murano Falcier ancestors and there was a reasonable chance we were related. As it happens, we’re not directly, but we’ve stayed in touch and she’s been a willing victim via Whatsapp as I improve my Italian. We’re still hopeful of finding a connection somewhere. The research continues.

We did a huge circuit of Murano taking in the Fondamenta Venier, which used to be the Fondamenta degli Angoli which is where my Falcieri family lived and where Tita and his siblings were all born.


We also visited all the churches, a glass factory, the cemetery and I was introduced to a whole host of friends and relatives who had all heard of my impending arrival.

My ancestors on Murano (Falcier, Nichetti, Gaggio and Caurlin) were liberally spread across the southern part of the island and were hanging out around San Stefano, San Pietro and San Ciprioni but there are also connections to San Donato. Between  1814 and 1818 Tita’s father, who had drifted between being a wine seller and a boatman, had picked up his wife and children and decamped to Venice where they had taken up residence at the Palazzo Mocenigo Casa Nuova as ‘gondolieri de casada’ to Lucia Mocenigo, famous of Andrea di Robliant’s books, and later residence for 3 years of Lord Byron after he left the Frezzeria. Why they moved I have no idea. I am guessing they had contacts, probably a family member, already there.

After we parted I headed off to Al Timon. I had found a language exchange group via ‘Meet Up’ and, even though I had spent all day with Paola speaking almost nothing but very broken Italian, I had the chance over cichetti and Aperol to give it another go with my host Michele.


After this I cut the day short. Paola reckons we clocked up about 8 miles today and tomorrow is another full day. My visit is now half way through. This makes me a bit sad, but I have plenty left to do.

For now, Tita, wherever you are, Buon Compleanno.

What Did I Spend?

Today was quite a cheap day. Breakfast at Goppion was 2.60 Euros and I only picked at cake and cappuccino during the day. Water is freely available throughout Venice at the various fountains so you have no excuse for dehydrating here. Cichetti and two Aperol at Al Timon cost me 10 Euros.

The vaporetto return to Murano Colonna from Fondamenta Nove in Cannaregio cost 10 Euros.

Di Venezia Con Amore

Forgive the impersonal nature of this blog post. Today I arrive in Venice – actually I’ll be somewhere over mainland Europe when this drops onto your timeline. I don’t know when I will get internet access so this is damage limitation, by way of a quick pre-published introduction to say hello from here. If you are in Venice, drop me a line. I am open to all sort of interesting liasons over prosecco, cichetti and anywhere else dreamy and romantic as ever Venice is.

The aim over the next six days is to document my time here with observations, the kinds of photographs you don’t normally see (I promise no Grande Canale panoramics), thoughts on prices, where to eat, artesans, people and the history I see as I trace my ancestors back and forth. I will also be tracking my spending, to see just how true it is that Venice is an overpriced tourist trap. I am very budget conscious so this will be an interesting exercise.

Ciao. Ci vediamo dopo…from somewhere over Europe.

Back To The Grind

My three weeks just south of London have come to an end. In case you’re out of the loop I’ve been housesitting a Boston Terrier named Malibu for a few weeks. My parents don’t live that far away so I’ve been making the most of the proximity to catch up with them and meet my brand new nephew. I’ve also taken myself into London for a couple of days of research at the British Library (that’s the image at the top of this post in case you are wondering).

Manchester for those of you that don’t know the geography is a 5 hour drive from my parents, so I rarely come down this way. And when I do, it’s usually via the medium of other tasks. It’s a lot to justify especially when you run your own business.

Primarily the reason was to get away from my day job and finish revising the second edition of my book which needed a lot of new material putting in. My time here has gone remarkably slowly, and though I don’t feel like I’ve done an awful lot with my time I have achieved what I came here to do – finish the book.

It’s gained a lot of pages and I’ve thrown a few out. And this edition will come with pictures once I’ve forked out for the copyright and got some artefacts properly photographed. There are lots of exciting things to show you and I hope you will be inspired. I doubt the copy will be out by the time I go to Venice in May. But rest assured the link will be up when it’s done.

In the meantime I have continued to plough away at my Italian lessons. And I’ve gained myself a Manchester based Italian penpal via WhatsApp. I’ve also managed to expand my Italian family tree and my grasp of the language seems to be coming on well.

So yes I suppose it has been a good few weeks. Back in Manchester it’s time to return to business. And in just five weeks I will be in Venice. After 10 years absence I am finally back at the ancestral home. And it cannot come soon enough.

Heirlooms And The Stories They Tell

It is fitting that I publish this post today – 10th March. It is the 140th anniversary of Sarah Falcieri’s death. Sarah, my great-great-great-grandmother, was Tita’s wife officially for 25 years and was with him as his partner for about 13 years before that when they both worked as staff at Bradenham Manor in Buckinghamshire for the D’Israeli family.

My family is lucky to still own her memorial ring. And it is this single object that set me on the road to finding out about our unique genealogy and our connections to Lord Byron and Benjamin Disraeli.

It is significant for another reason. Because it is ironic that we know more about Tita than anyone else in the family and yet we have nothing that is personal to him. Sarah on the other hand is illusive to us in the records and yet here is something which is as close to her as it is possible to get. For the ring itself contains a lock of her hair.

There are only two discernable mentions of her in the records pre January 1849 when she married Tita in London. The ring therefore is a highly prized object and continues to be a source of interest and frustration as I search through archives looking for tiny scraps of her life to add to the story.

The only other tangible item that connects to her is a letter she wrote to Benjamin Disraeli in early 1875 following Tita’s death, thanking him for the pension he had obtained for her from Queen Victoria. In mentioning her husband she conveys exactly the person he was:

‘I have only one regret – that my dear husband could not have been cheered before his death by the knowledge that such an event was possible. I do not know which would have caused him the greater delight, – the idea of a public recognition of services which, though indeed faithful, no one knows better than you, Sir, were rendered without desire of reward, or the assurance of the continuance towards him by yourself personally of that kindly feeling of regard….’

Sarah Falcieri’s memorial ring – authors copyright

You can read my book ‘A Most Faithful Attendant – The Life of Giovanni Battista Falcieri‘ by purchasing it here.


Venice, the BBC and a Gondolier named Roberto

I remember my first trip to Venice very clearly. It was 2003. I was recording a segment of ’50 Places to See Before You Die’ for the BBC. It was a whirlwind trip. 3 days, one Italian camera crew and one English born Venetian guide – Patricia Weston Liani.

Filming in San Marco Piazza – where else?

Most of what I wanted to see was kept at arms length due to a tight schedule and I knew next to nothing about Venice except the basics of my ancestral roots there. Ironically we were here for the BBC not for me, but it was a precious first trip and I still remember it clearly.

It included just what you would expect for a tourism heavy programme. We landed at the Basilica. Filmed in the San Marco Piazza and went on a gondola ride right up the Palazzo Mocenigo where Byron had lived and Tita had worked with his family.

They recorded my every reaction. I’m sure they wanted tears, but I didn’t give it to them. Inside though there were a hundred emotions raging through me that only I really understood. Really my first trip should have been alone. I was here for very personal reasons. Everything about the place spoke to me and I had no time to answer back.

But I can’t complain. We arrived from Marco Polo on a private motorboat, were put up at a very nice hotel and everything was expenses paid. I was in heaven.We even bumped into my English cousins who happened to be staying in the same hotel as me. Which was very odd.

Do you see that smug look – that’s me about to get into my first ever gondola – Roberto at the helm

I went back every year after that – another four visits of a week each. It was never enough. And I never went alone. Always with people who yearned for the tourist traps. Then circumstances changed and I stopped being able to afford the trips.

This year I am going back twice. It’s been 10 years. And I am going alone for the first one. This will be the first time I can genuinely just wander to my hearts content, avoid the hotspots and spend hours just gazing at the water as it laps the traghetto.



Space Dust

‘Conservation Cleaning Day’ at Newstead Abbey sounds like a very complicated and high end role at the Abbey. And it is. It happens because every artefact has a place within the walls of that ancient place.

Every item has a history and a value, whether financial or historical. And because they are woven into the story of the building and its inhabitants they all need due care and attention.

But largely it is about dust. Because every room is a dust magnet. And it is a never ending task, keeping it at bay and keeping the rooms in a presentable condition to the thousands of visitors it welcomes every year.


The process is overseen by the Abbey’s curators. Simon Brown is currently Newstead’s curator of artefacts at Nottingham Museums and he is there to oversee a team of staff and volunteers all eager to lend a hand and get up close and personal with some truly beautiful antiques.

It’s about a lot more than simple getting out the polish and a sponge – no chemicals are allowed near anything because they can cause irrepairable damage. Cloths are designed to be as soft as possible – scratches on wood are a catastophe. Each brush (whilst looking like a standard artists paint brush) is designed for a particular surface – from wood, to ceramics, to glass. Some fabrics are lightly hoovered, using special net guards to protect the fragile textiles from damage.

But aside from the dusting and hoovering it is a chance to step over the barriers that keep the artefacts at arms length and get within inches of some incredible items.

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As I stalked the corridors armed with a duster, I had my camera to hand and got a chance to see things I had missed up until now – from carpentry marks in the back of chairs, to the tiny head details on an Italian chest.

It’s an education on its own. And well as being useful, it’s a chance to get to know Newstead just a little bit better.


One of the first things that popped into my head when I first got involved in the cleaning days was a poem my mother wrote many moons ago about dusting. It seems appropriate given that Byron wheedles his way into many of my updates that I should include it. Please read and enjoy. I rather like it.

I’m looking down at a yellow cloth
red-stitched around the edge.
I’ve wiped the coffee table,
the chairs, and window ledge.
It was only done a while ago;
it was clean, it shone
yeah! gleamed,
but now it’s covered in dull grey film
which dropped, unheard, unseen.

A thankless, fruitless task is this;
a never-ending drudge.
For over thirty years I’ve cleaned;
the waste of time, begrudge.
I think of all the things I’d do,
if it wasn’t for the drag,
of shining surfaces in my home,
with a greasy, yellow rag!

And then one morning quite by chance,
I heard on the radio;
a Scientist from London,
who asked us; did we know
that dust is not just flakes of skin,
that drop from hands and face,
but microscopic bits of stars
that find their way from space.

She said it’s not just fluff and mites
that lurk in all our beds.
It’s not just unseen bugs or lice,
that live on people’s heads,
but sand from the Sahara
that’s blown halfway round the world;
or little specks of pollen from exotic
jungles hurled.

It comes from far-off galaxies.
It’s billions of years old.
It’s been there since the first Big Bang.
It’s iron, silver, gold.

It’s all around us everywhere.
It’s in our food and drink.
It’s on the dining table;
and even in the sink.

Since learning of its origins,
I’ve come to think anew;
about the stuff that dulls the shine;
I didn’t have a clue!
I didn’t know it came from space,
or drift of scorching sand;
across the world to the yellow cloth,
I’m holding in my hand!

© Susan C Oliver