Thursday, March 29, 2012
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.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Where is Robin Hood when you need him? If ever we could use a champion of the underdog to go toe-to-toe and head-to-head with the Sheriff of Nottingham it is now. Oh wait, make that the City of Nottingham - because the City of Nottingham is the villain of this piece. For the city has betrayed its sacred duty of stewardship where it comes to Newstead Abbey, all but abandoning it to the ravages of weather and the plunder of unscrupulous thieves. Though this priceless treasure has survived nearly a millennium it may not survive its present owner's indifference and neglect.
The powers-that-be in Nottingham will plead the dismal economy - not enough copper in the coffers to do a proper job of managing the property. Okay sure,(they may say) Newstead was given to the city with the understanding that it be preserved and cared for in keeping with its value to all humanity as an irreplaceable historic site - but hey, that was that was then, this is now. This is business - it's not personal. Ah yes, those fighting words: "It's not personal". But to those of us who love Newstead (and I don't use that word lightly) there is nothing more personal than what is happening at Newstead. It is an arrow to the heart.
"That's a bit over the top, Sallie," you may say. Could be - but this is my tirade and my blog and I reserve the right to let my passion speak. A friend once commented, "Don't get Sallie going on the topic of Newstead Abbey, we'll be here all night!" I concede that on this subject I am a fanatic in the best sense of the word. And right now I'm livid with outrage.
Let me share with you a recent email from Ken Purslow of the Newstead Abbey Byron Society in England (with his permission):
"The City Council unashamedly said their priority is indeed Wollaton Hall and Nottingham Castle. Newstead Abbey is not within the City boundaries and that is exactly why they neglect Newstead in favour of the other two. When money is ‘tight’ they prioritize the budget - Newstead and Leisure being the big time losers.
The City has never been proactive in marketing the Abbey. As I said to them on one occasion “If you take all your goods out of the shop window, you will have no customers and nothing to sell” In my Society (NABS) I have four Ladies all of whom worked at Newstead as guides, one of them for nineteen years. They were all made redundant at the start of the summer last year. They are also part of a group calling themselves M.O.N.K.S. Members of Newstead Kindred Spirits.(All former guides to the Abbey) Like us they meet regularly, we are fortunate to have them; they keep me in touch with the latest developments.
In my archive file I have found some photographs taken last year after the lead down pipes had been stolen from outside the Abbey, you will see the plastic pipes they have put in their place to catch the water. Others have just been left. I will send them separately to this email – try not to fall in your coffee when you see them!"
I viewed the photos Ken sent me and they broke my heart. Certainly there are so many things that legitimately inspire outrage in the world today - war, terrorism, poverty, the destruction of the environment yet (if we are to retain a shred of humanity) somewhere near the top of the list had better be outrage when something of priceless beauty is trampled in the dust as not worth our time or money.
(More to come after I've taken a few deep breaths . . .)