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.

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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.

Enjoy.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Newstead Abbey

It would be remiss of me not to write something about how I came to now be a volunteer at Newstead Abbey. Especially since back in October when I was first inspired to write this post, I had visited it twice in as many weekends.

I first came here in 2003 but I hadn’t really got to grips with Lord Byron. He was a sideline to my research back then. Tita was my obsession.

But on 15th October this year I attended one of Abbey’s famous ghost tours and I became completely hooked on the history. And even if you went, like me, purely to get in through the door of that great house after dark, you could not help but ‘get the vibe’. At night Newstead takes on a whole new character. If you believe in ghosts and all things that go bump in the night, then Byron and his cronies are most definitely here.

The Saturday after my ghost walk, I came back for a full tour at my own leisure of both house and gardens. Now I’m ready to move in!

Byron has very much become a part of my life now that I am revising my book, furthering the research on Tita’s life and writing the script that that spawned from it. Looking into the nuts and bolts of Byron’s personality has become intrinsic to what I do because it explains why Tita became who he was in later years. They are interlocked by their journey together.

The thing is, I really like Byron and I know that those who are close to his history and the physical remnants of him do too. Like Tita, they are strangely protective of him. Even all these years on he instills a loyalty that isn’t easily explained.

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Lord Byron’s bedroom at Newstead. Most of the items in it are his (authors copyright)

On a wider scale, Newstead is a house oozing with a long and colourful history of which Byron is a relatively small part. And there are many tales of both good and bad that well versed staff are happy to regale you with. For me the connection is all LB but you cannot ignore the incredible past this house has.

Tita, I doubt, ever came to Newstead. It had long been sold before Byron made his last journey past the estate by hearse on his way to the family vault at Hucknall a few miles away. St Mary Magdalene, he was most definitely at, but not the Abbey. But it does contain a number of items which do relate to my ancestor – artefacts from Greece – which if you believe in the paranormal, must contain the imprints of some fairly tumulous events.

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St Mary Magdalene church, Hucknall (authors copyright)

I think it is the military helmet that Byron had made for him in Genoa in 1823 to wear ‘in battle’ that I covert the most. It is an impressive piece of regalia – typical of Byron. But Gamba’s military helmet is also there, a piece of Kaksalis house where Byron died and other fascinating military items that really bring the story to life.

Tita would have had his hands on these things. They would have been packed in Greece for the return to England with Byrons’ body in 1824. My mind tries to comprehend those events and what happened and what came after and it is almost impossible to imagine what it means.

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Byron’s military helmet designed by him and made in Genoa in 1823 – photograph courtesy of Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

All of the above is partly why I have enroled as a volunteer, to absorb some of that history and use it as inspiration. The house draws you in. And you can’t help but feel its pull.

But it’s also about giving something back. Not only is the connection personal but we are incredibly lucky as a nation to have places like Newstead, preserving our great and good cultural heritage. And to have the opportunity to work there and help safeguard it for generations to come is both an honour and a privilege.

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

The Reluctant Santa

20161203_110942I am not a fan of Christmas. Probably because of my lack of interest in material things. Christmas so often means ‘buy buy buy’. And I’m all ‘no no no’. I try to keep the festivities at arms length until around about the 24th.

Christmas begins in November at Newstead Abbey. And it’s full on so if you’re not a fan of Christmas cheer, good luck to you. But in the true spirit of my new volunteer role at the house, I am embracing the tinsel season for one day at least. It materialised as an opportunity to play paparazzi as they presented what can be only be described as a very festive atmosphere.

There’s a lot of work and planning that goes into putting on Christmas somewhere as large as Newstead. Some of the more vigilant visitors on the day I visited counted 14 trees. That’s a lot of trees. There are craft fairs to coordinate, Santas to book, choirs to arrange and seasonal eats to bake for the cafe. You get the picture.

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And actually I did get into the Christmas spirit. Sounds of carols both old and new wafted through the house thanks to its inhouse crooner ‘Johnny Victory‘, and very good he was too! Listening to Southwell Choral Group in the cloisters finally sealed it for me. The ‘Coventry Carol’ resonates beneath those vaulted ceilings!

I haven’t found any definitive examples of Byron’s opinion of Christmas, a much more low key event back in his day. He and his kind didn’t have to contend with pre-Christmas sales, Boxing Day sales, New Year sales or even January sales.

Life went back to normal pretty quickly I shouldn’t wonder. And once I’ve done my bit with my brethren south of the Watford Gap, it’ll be back to Manchester, Newstead and I’ll be heralding in 2017 which promises a lot more than what’s going to be under the tree on 25th December.

This post is not endorsed by Newstead Abbey.

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

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St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknall

If you are visiting Newstead Abbey because of Lord Byron, you have no excuse for not taking the 5 mile detour to St Mary Magdalene Church at Hucknall to see the final resting place of the poet and the Byron family.

It’s been a few years since I was last there (probably 10 in fact). In the meantime the church has been blessed with a Lottery funded grant and they have transformed their privileged position as the location of the Byron vault into a major pin on the map.

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St Mary Magdalene church, Hucknall (authors copyright)

A substantial information point which covers not only Byron’s connection to the church but its wider colourful history is accompanied by a more focused last resting place. When I was last there the spot was covered by the choir stalls. Now, a wooden coffin shaped box stands over the exact place. It includes a cut out so you can see the actual stone slab that covers the tomb and an illuminated case which contains something rather fascinating. …

In December last year a contemporary ceramic wreath, a copy of the one that was at Byron’s funeral, returned from being carefully cleaned and restored. It used to sit high up on the wall in a glass dome and had become black over the years. Now, it’s an impressive centre piece lovingly returned to its home.

The church prides itself on its Byron connection. It is open 6 days a week to visitors and when I was there at the end of November Carol Lear, the Steward, was on hand to answer questions. Of course, I quickly regaled her with my connection to Byron and we had a wonderful two hours discussing the various aspects of his life and times over very welcome cups of tea. She also talked me through the incredible collection of stained glass which the church has. It really is a very picturesque place.

It’s important the people visit St Mary Magdalene. In order to secure future grants and continue to provide the services they do, they need to show that visitors see the value in it. A visitor book is the evidence that we care that this place exists. If you go, please sign it. This is a unique place that deserves your attention and your patronage and I for one am very grateful that it exists.

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The ceramic wreath in situ (authors copyright)

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