“Newstead, what saddening change of scene is thine!
Thy yawning arch betokens slow decay;
The last and youngest of a noble line,
Now holds they mouldering turrets in his sway.
Deserted now, he scans thy grey worn towers;
Thy vaults, where dead of feudal ages sleep;
Thy cloisters, pervious to the wintry showers;
These, these he views, and views them but to weep.
Yet are his tears no emblem of regret:
Cherish’d Affection only bids them flow;
Pride, Hope, and Love, forbid him to forget,
But warm his bosom with impassion’d glow.”
(an excerpt from “Elegy on Newstead Abbey”, Lord Byron 1807 – he was 19 years old)
I’ve said before that responses to Newstead Abbey are often intensely visceral – even spiritual – in nature. A staff member once remarked to me that, “There are only two sorts of people; those who love her at first sight and those who hate her at first sight.” I point to Byron’s choice of words in the excerpt above: “Cherished”, “affection”, “pride”, “hope”, “love”, “impassioned” – clearly, of the two sorts of people, Byron is in the first camp.
There is no accounting for the human heart. It can latch onto such a cornucopia of strange objects. When I told the professor supervising my English degree that I wanted to concentrate my studies on Lord Byron he visibly shuddered. (Those of you who knew Professor Nelson Bentley are visualizing that shudder about now.) He argued that Byron isn’t read anymore precisely because by today’s standards he wasn’t such a great poet. Ah well, I didn’t expect we’d agree on everything. I didn’t attempt to explain what the attraction was, since I couldn’t site a rational reason. It was a matter of the heart and what’s rational about matters of the heart? I fell in love with Byron in junior high school and, though my tastes in poetry broadened and matured, Byron retained a special place in my affections.
I’m going out on a limb here to say I don’t believe many people come to Lord Byron because of his poetry. There are Byronists who have never read his work. People are primarily attracted to the man’s personality – and he has personality by the bucket-full! After reading a bit of Byron (especially Beppo and Don Juan) I became intrigued with him as a person – that’s when my true passion kicked in. Countless books have been written about this fascinating and often infuriating man. I won’t go there. I’m always in danger of sailing off on a tangent where he is concerned.
But within the context of this post it’s important to understand Byron’s own grand and irrational passion – his love for Newstead Abbey, that dear crumbling pile of stone he inherited from his great-uncle when he was only 10 years old. He and his mother traveled from Scotland in a rented carriage to claim his inheritance, which he instantly saw was an utter ruin. The roof leaked and his great-uncle had sold off nearly all of the furnishings, living in the kitchen toward the end of his life with a mistress and a racing stable of cockroaches. Byron’s mother was horrified (she was probably in the camp of people who hate the Abbey at first sight). Newstead was dark, spooky and completely uninhabitable. In today’s parlance, the kid would have seen it as awesomely cool!
Little Lord Byron had a title – and not a penny to go with it. He and his mother were nearly destitute, Byron’s father having quickly run through his wife’s fortune before abandoning her and their son for the Continent. They were essentially homeless and flat broke. Byron didn’t have the money to bring the Abbey up to habitable condition. He and his mother lived in rented housing – first in Nottingham, then in nearby Southwell – while Byron was forced to lease Newstead to a wealthy young nobleman who repaired the building for his own use. It must have frustrated and humiliated Byron to have a stranger living in his beloved Newstead. After he reached his majority he did live in the Abbey for five years but he didn’t have the resources to maintain the property.
Ultimately, he saved it from total destruction by selling it off to someone with the resources to do right by it. For the first time since 1540 the Byrons didn’t own the Abbey. Byron left England, never to return. There were many reasons for his exile but I conjecture that without Newstead Abbey there was no incentive to come back – there was no “home” to come home to. Without Newstead nothing rooted him in England.
Okay, that’s Byron’s story but what of mine? I promised a love story. My connection to Newstead truly began in 1986 when the International Byron Society announced that to celebrate Lord Byron’s 200th birthday, the 1988 Conference would be held in London, followed by a guided tour of Byron-related sites in England and Scotland. Understand that I had only recently started at a rather menial job after a two-year period of unemployment. I was deeply in debt, struggling to care for myself and my son (an echo of Byron and his mum!) – at best, living paycheck to paycheck. The idea that by the Summer of ’88 I’d be able to fly half way around the world for two weeks in England was as plausible as moving to Mars.
Still, love causes people to do crazy things. I took a leap of faith, shorted the rent, and sent a deposit off to the B. Soc. for the conference and tour. Almost immediately things began to fall into place. (I truly believe Byron wanted me on that tour.) Soon I received a raise and my boss promised me lots of overtime when I explained I was planning a trip to England – she understood the importance of having a dream. Though I was only entitled to one week paid vacation, she authorized two additional weeks off (unpaid but that was fine with me). I found a really good deal on a round trip ticket to Heathrow on Pan Am Airlines. I read a dozen guides to cheap travel (Rick Steves’ was the best). I bought a camera. When the time came for me to leave, my wonderful boss drove me to the airport and gave me $40 in English pounds sterling. Ten hours later I landed in England. A life-long anglophile, I was euphoric – and incredulous that it had all come together.
The three weeks that followed were of the most amazing weeks of my life (I’ve chronicled the entire trip in a lengthy and goofy parody of Don Juan entitled “We’ll Go Once More A’roving. Here’s a link to it: We’ll Go Once More. I have trouble believing it’s been almost 25 years since that Summer – since the big orange motor coach drove into the courtyard before Newstead Abbey and I saw her for the first time. And fell in love, as so many have before and since. At that moment I felt that I had come home. It’s a hard thing to explain but I felt that my entire life had led up to that one moment. That’s what love can do.
I thought that journey would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing but I’ve returned many times since the Summer of ’88. I’ve roamed the Abbey halls, sat for hours in Byron’s bedroom writing poetry (before they installed the security), ate picnic lunches in the cloister, chatted with her wonderful staff while enjoying tea and jacket potatoes in the Buttery. I’ve been caught in fierce storms on her grounds and been struck dumb by her beauty as the sunset turns her to a golden filigree. She is a breathtaking treasure. Just as with Byron, it is her unique spirit and personality that draws us to her, that resonates in the human soul.
And now she is once again on the edge of ruin, her owners unwilling or unable to take care of her. Her staff has been sacked and she’s locked up tight. There is no caretaker, no charming restaurant, no night watchman, no housekeeper. To tour the house you must have a group of 10 and book ahead. Robbers have pillaged her for the lead drain pipes. There is a big ugly chain link fence surrounding her. Is it any wonder those who love her despair? She has teetered on the edge of oblivion repeatedly since she was first constructed in 1170 yet each time she’s been pulled back from the abyss by caring people. Let’s hope she can survive into her second millennium. I would hate to have to write my own elegy to her.