Sunday, 13 September 2015

Newstead Abbey

Earlier this summer I visited Newstead Abbey, just to the north of Nottingham. Any guide, including Wikipedia, will outline the history of the place (usually starting with a dry explanation that it was never an abbey but a priory) but the really interesting thing about it is its previous tenants and the psychic residue they have left.

Lord Byron is the main event here, famous for being 'mad, bad and dangerous to know'. He lived at the Abbey on-and-off from the time he inherited it until he left England permanently in 1816. The building was difficult and expensive to maintain but its ramshackle nature appealed to Byron's love of the ancient and forlorn. A combination of repair costs and the poet's abysmal financial acumen meant the property was sold-on in 1818.

But the proportionately short term of Byron's stay has left its mark. Beneath the well-tended and rather orderly restorations and redecorations there lurks something of the lunatic deviancy of the poet. When I visited the reflecting lake had been drained to leave a cracked surface of baked mud with the footprints of some explorer veering weirdly around the scum in the centre. Byron's bedroom is a naked room where all the plaster has been lond since hacked-off the walls to reveal the cold, chiselled stones of the buidling's fabric. These blocks are likely impregnated with the memory of whatever acts occurred in that den.

It is said that when Byron's great uncle died in 1798, leaving the estate to his wayward nephew, a vast swarm of crickets he kept at Newstead left the estate. One can imagine the neighbours being terrified by this biblical plague and what it might herald. Byron seems not to have disappointed them on this front.