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The Lives and Deaths at Newstead Abbey

8 October 18 words: Natalie Mills
illustrations: Eva Brudenell

The phrase is more burned out than the promiscuous Lord Byron’s pants, but Newstead Abbey is a “hidden gem”. Ten miles north of Nottingham and with over 800 years worth of history, this extraordinary estate may put a spell on you. With acres of romantic gardens and architecture to delight your inner goth, Newstead attracts many visitors; outside of Byron’s escapades, its monastic origins and centuries of spooky goings-on have fascinated many. From artefacts to ghost-story evenings, Byron is just the beginning of what this mysterious place has to offer. Buckle up for a history lesson that’s stranger than fiction...

The Curse of the Black Canons
Newstead’s story began in the twelfth century, when it was a priory for a group of Augustinian monks. You can walk around the atmospheric ruins of their old church, where many original features remain. Look out for the medieval cloisters where the monks studied and a cutaway panel in the Grand Drawing Room that reveals the old wall. Lord Byron even used this crypt as a plunge bath.

Known as The Black Canons, some believe the black-robed monks were the inspiration for Friar Tuck. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he handed over their home to the Byron family. Apparently, this resulted in a curse on all who lived at Newstead. If you dare go up to the Haunted Room, you’ll see a painting of a monk who’s sombre enough to give anyone nightmares, and inspired Byron to write about several ghostly encounters. The “Goblin Friar” was said to turn up scowling at happy events, and grinned whenever a Byron died.

The Wicked Lord
There were actually six Lord Byrons. Before the famous poet, there was his equally eccentric great uncle, William Byron. Byron V had a violent temper – even killing his own cousin in a duel – and a fondness for the occult; the stone satyrs he erected in the grounds earned him the nickname “Devil Byron”. One legend involves him hurrying home from Nottingham one night, throwing his coachman in the back and working the horses to death. After one of Newstead’s ghost evenings, a visitor swore he heard horses and felt something rush past him…

The fifth Byron owned a fleet of miniature ships, complete with canons, for battles on the lake. The fort he built remains, but his folly castle, where he hosted the odd orgy, was demolished. He probably wasn’t as bad as rumours suggest, but he did leave Newstead in a real mess. At his death, a cricket infestation left the building.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
The sixth Lord Byron was the biggest celebrity of his day, with scandals including numerous, well-publicised affairs and sympathising with the Luddites. He inherited Newstead in a state of disrepair, and actually spent more time living in Nottingham, but Newstead’s faded Gothic splendour was the perfect backdrop for Byron’s lifestyle, and it became his “party palace”. Blessed with a fine profile, an extravagant fashion sense and a way with words, Byron and his poetry still attracts fans to this day. You can still see a replica of his infamous skull cup, created from a large human skull his gardener found in the grounds. It was a favourite at gatherings, where he and his friends would dress up as monks and drink bottles of claret from it. Mrs Webb, a later resident, hated Byron’s skull cup so much that she had it blessed and reburied in a mystery location on the estate.

Byron planned to be buried beside his beloved dog and his valet Joe. Understandably, Joe wasn’t keen on the idea

Lyons, Bears and Boatswain
Newstead had some historic animal residents, not to mention its peacocks. After seeing a tame bear mistreated in London, Lord Byron saved it and took it with him to Cambridge; there was nothing in the college rulebook against bringing one. Back at Newstead, you would have to get past his bear, a wolf-dog called Lyon and Byron’s pistols if you wanted to meet him. He also often used the dilapidated Great Hall for target practice.

The tomb near Newstead’s Great Garden is the last resting place of a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain who Byron risked catching rabies to look after. You can admire a life-size portrait of him in the house. Boatswain’s tomb actually has room for three, as Byron planned to be buried beside his beloved dog and his valet Joe. Understandably, Joe wasn’t keen on the idea and luckily outlived being buried with his boss.

The Victorian Webb Family
After Lord Byron died, his friend Thomas Wildman took over Newstead. Then the impossibly tall, big-game hunter William Webb, nicknamed The Giraffe, outbid Queen Victoria to get his hands on the estate. The Webbs were keen travellers, and added their mark to Newstead with exotic gardens and the gorgeous Japanese room.

The Webbs carried on Wildman’s tradition of allowing Byron fans to visit, and installed heating throughout the house. However, the attics were left cold and this was where the Webb children slept. It was nippy enough to write their names on windows, and Newstead staff swear that they can sometimes hear children up there.

What’s next for Newstead?
Newstead is no stranger to change. While the Byron memorabilia has attracted millions of people, it has had to adapt to modern audiences. The estate recently redeveloped two rooms with digital tools and immersive games, making its story more accessible than ever. Curator Simon Brown says: “This gallery is the start of opening out the rest of the house, making it more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally come. We wanted to make sure the places that could be seen on the ground floor gave as great an introduction as possible.”

As a seasoned culture vulture, Newstead feels much more interactive and family-friendly than many other historic houses. Don’t forget to take a selfie in the well-stocked dressing-up room, try to play a tune on a harp and enjoy a picnic in your favourite garden. Just watch out for the ghosts…

Read our interview with The White Lady of Newstead

Newstead Abbey website

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