Mad, bad and devoted to his dog
George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron, inherited the title and estates of his great-uncle at just 10 years of age. But when, turning 21, he took up permanent residence in this striking former 13th-century priory near Nottingham, he opted for a lifestyle that was anything but monastic.
The fifth lord's profligacy had reduced Newstead to ruin. So, with only limited funds, the young poet confined himself to furnishing a few small rooms for his personal use, and used the rest as a playground both for himself, and for his extraordinary menagerie that included a tortoise, a hedgehog, numerous dogs, a tame bear and a wolf. The Great Hall he used for pistol practice. In the spacious salon he and his batchelor friends boxed, fenced and played shuttlecock. And in the evenings it was down to the Plantagenet Room to don monkish habits and carouse the night away with claret and champagne drunk from a real skull-cup.
Byron remained at Newstead for only six years before the outrage provoked by his dissolute private life, his reputation for being "mad, bad and dangerous to know", prompted him to leave England for good and, because of his financial difficulties, to sell his country seat.
The buyer was Thomas Wildman, a schoolboy friend of Byron's, who spent large sums of money on restoring the abbey, bringing in tapestries and ancient armour and furnishing many of the rooms in mock-medieval style. The house was further altered by another Victorian owner, William Webb, and is now run by Nottingham Council.
Despite the Victorian influence, there are still plenty of traces of Byron. Much of his early poetry, including his satire "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers", was written during the time he lived at Newstead, and although the room he used as a study is not open, it has been re-created in the one next door.
Notable here, in addition to his writing table, some gloomy skulls in the bookcase, and prints to remind him of his education at Harrow and Cambridge, is a screen which Byron used to make a collage of pin-ups of his favourite boxers, and of actors such as Sarah Siddons and Edmund Kean. The main memorabilia, housed in the library, are suitably dashing: a pair of silver pistols, some boxing gloves, fencing equipment, a malacca cane, and a plumed helmet designed by Byron himself. Here too is the inevitable lock of hair (rather less dark than the pictures suggest).
There's also a valuable collection of letters, editions, and manuscript poems. Among the letters, perhaps the most touching is the lengthy account by his devoted servant William Fletcher of Byron's death from fever at Missolonghi, where he had gone to fight for Greek independence.
Unfortunately, the interpretation around the house is of poor quality, and sometimes non-existent. Haidee Jackson, the keeper of collections, admits more needs to be done to help students. Ideas such as having a writer-in-residence, or creating a Centre for Byron Studies, might soon be considered.
Byron apart, there are hands-on history activities on offer in the house, and art and environmental possibilities around the beautiful 300-acre estate. Here there are lakes, ponds and waterfalls, peacocks strutting their stuff, and the monument Byron built to "one who possessed Beauty without Vanity" - no, not a woman, but his beloved dog Boatswain.
Newstead Abbey, Linby, Nottinghamshire, NG15 8GE. Tel: 0115 9793557. For educational information contact Jocelyn Dodd on O115 94835O4
Next week: Dylan Thomas