Newstead Abbey – What’s the big deal?

(If you haven’t read the previous post please do.)

It’s a crumbling pile of rock out in nowhere.
Okay, some weird dead poet once lived there,
Nobody reads him anymore so why should I care
If the roof leaks and thieves strip it bare?
I’m off to the pub for a pint of beer.

That’s an understandable attitude – especially if the sum of what you know of Newstead Abbey is what you pulled up on the City of Nottingham’s web site or read in a pamphlet you picked up at the tourist office. (That’s like assuming you know someone well after reading her Facebook page.) Newstead is vastly more than a physical description, a map, a brief history and a photo or two.

Of course you need those things as well to begin to comprehend her importance to those of us who care deeply for her.

Notice the pronoun. Newstead is often referred to by the feminine pronoun, just as a ship is “she” to the sailors who serve on “her”. I don’t have any idea how long that’s been going on but suspect it may harken back to the sea captains in the Byron family. The family crest sports a jaunty mermaid to reflect their history as seafarers. (Notably Admiral John Byron – known to history as “Foul weather Jack”) The usage also reflects the extent to which people relate on a personal level to her. She is not a thing, not a “pile of stone”. I might venture to say she has a personality. This is what Byron was referring to when he wrote that Newstead leaves “A grand impression on the mind, at least of those whose eyes are in their hearts”.

If you don’t look with your heart you might be singularly unimpressed by what you see. She isn’t and never was what might be termed a “stately home”. The Abbey is not classically beautiful. She’s no Downton Abbey. Architecturally, Newstead is a sort of wacky mishmash of styles with bits tacked on throughout her long history. All you have to do is glance at the picture above to see that the building has taken a beating over its 800-plus years in existence. The left side is a ruin – the right has all the charm of a shoe box. It’s almost impossible to figure out where the front entryway is! “Irregular in parts,” as Byron understated it. (He might have been speaking of himself as well.)

Flawed. As are we all. Perhaps that’s what resonates most when we see Newstead. We connect with her human quality. She’s not perfect but she’s ours. The Japanese (and many other cultures) believe that over time, objects can develop a living spirit from their association with people – they believe that objects lovingly crafted by careful hands take on something of the humanity of their makers. We can call this a soul if we want to.

Since her construction during Europe’s explosive twelfth century building boom, countless individuals have lived or visited her, leaving something of themselves behind. Royal guests have included Kings Edward I, II, and III, Edward VII, King George V and Queen Mary. American writers Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne visited (I read an article a number of years ago speculating that Edgar Allen Poe was inspired to write “The Fall of the House of Usher” after reading Irving’s account of his stay at Newstead. Don’t know if it’s true but I like the idea!). Dr David Livingstone visited between 1864 and 1865, writing “The Zambesi and Its Tribuaries” while he was in residence. Those are the famous people but we shouldn’t forget the others: the monks who lived here before Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monesteries, when Newstead was simply the Priory of St. Mary (many of whom are undoubtedly still buried on the grounds and under the stone floors) – the Byron family from the time Newstead came into their possession in 1540 – the hundreds of servants and staff who have served here over the years right up to modern times – individuals like you and me who were born, lived, laughed, cried and, died within the Abbey’s walls.

And yes, Newstead has her ghosts (or so I’m told). The White Lady, the Black Monk (Byron claimed to have seen him), and Lord Byron’s dog Boatswain who has been frequently seen on the roof, of all places!

So, “Why should I care?” You should care because each life that touched this place contributed something unique, eternal, and precious that we as fellow human beings must honor by keeping this place sacred to their memory – caring for it to the utmost of our ability and resources so that it stands well into its second millennium. There is and will ever be only one Newstead Abbey – it is irreplaceable and should we lose it we will as a people be diminished.

In my next installment of this tirade I’ll share with you my own personal experiences of Newstead Abbey. As you might have guessed it’s a love story.

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