Newstead Abbey – Great Britain And Ireland

Our drive to Newstead lay through what was once a portion of Sherwood Forest, tho all of it, I believe, has now become private property, and is converted into fertile fields, except where the owners of estates have set out plantations. . . The post-boy calls the distance ten miles from Nottingham. He also averred that it was forbidden to drive visitors within the gates; so we left the fly at the inn, and set out to walk from the entrance to the house. There is no porter’s lodge ; and the grounds, in this outlying region, had not the appearance of being very primly kept, but were well wooded with evergreens, and much overgrown with ferns, serving for cover for hares, which scampered in and out of their hiding-places. The road went winding gently along, and, at the distance of nearly a mile, brought us to a second gate, through which we like-wise passed, and walked onward a good way farther, seeing much wood, but as yet nothing of the Abbey.

At last, through the trees, we caught a glimpse of its battlements, and saw, too, the gleam of water, and then appeared the Abbey’s venerable front. It comprises the western wall of the church, which is all that remains of that fabric, a great, central window, entirely empty, without tracery or mullions; the ivy clambering up on the inside of the wall, and hanging over in front. The front of the inhabited part of the house extends along on a line with this church wall, rather low, with battlements along its top, and all in good keeping with the ruinous remnant. We met a servant, who replied civilly to our inquiries about the mode of gaining admittance, and bade us ring a bell at the corner of the principal porch. We rang accordingly, and were forth-with admitted into a low, vaulted basement, ponderously wrought with intersecting arches, dark and rather chilly, just like what I re-member to have seen at Battle Abbey; and, after waiting here a little while, a respectable elderly gentlewoman appeared, of whom we requested to be shown round the Abbey. She courteously acceded, first presenting us to a book, in which to inscribe our names.

I suppose ten thousand people, three-fourths of them Americans, have written descriptions of Newstead Abbey; and none of them, so far as I have read, give any true idea of the place; neither will my description, if I write one. In fact, I forget very much that I saw, and especially in what order the objects came. In the basement was Byron’s bath—a dark and cold and cellar-like hole, which it must have required good courage to plunge into; in this region, too, or near it, was the chapel, which Colonel Wildman has decorously fitted up, and where service is now regularly performed, but which was used as a dogs’ kennel in Byron’s time.

After seeing this, we were led to Byron’s own bed-chamber, which remains just as when he slept in it—the furniture and all the other arrangements being religiously preserved. It was in the plainest possible style, homely, indeed, and almost mean—an ordinary paper-hanging, and everything so commonplace that it was only the deep embrasure of the window that made it look unlike a bed-chamber in a middling-class lodging-house. It would have seemed difficult, beforehand, to fit up a room in that picturesque old edifice so that it should be utterly void of picturesqueness; but it was effected in this apartment, and I suppose it is a specimen of the way in which old mansions used to be robbed of their antique character, and adapted to modern tastes, before medieval antiquities came into fashion. Some prints of the Cambridge colleges, and other pictures indicating Byron’s predilections at the time, and which he himself had hung there, were on the walls. This, the housekeeper told us, had been the Abbot’s chamber, in the monastic time. Adjoining it is the haunted room, where the ghostly monk whom Byron introduces into “Don Juan,” is said to have his lurking-place. It is fitted up in the same style as Byron’s, and used to be occupied by his valet or page. No doubt, in his lordship’s day, these were the only comfortable bedrooms in the Abbey; and by the housekeeper’s ac-count of what Colonel Wildman has done, it is to be inferred that the place must have been in a most wild, shaggy, tumble-down condition, inside and out, when he bought it.

It is very different now. After showing us these two apartments of Byron and his servant, the housekeeper led us from one to another and another magnificent chamber, fitted up in antique style, with oak paneling, and heavily carved bedsteads, of Queen Elizabeth’s time, or of the Stuarts, hung with rich tapestry curtains of similar date, and with beautiful old cabinets of carved wood, sculptured in relief, or tortoise-shell and ivory. The very pictures and realities, these rooms were, of stately comfort; and they were called by the names of kings—King Edward’s, King Charles II.’s, King Henry VII.’s, chamber; and they were hung with beautiful pictures, many of them portraits of these kings. The chimney-pieces were carved and emblazoned; and all, so far as I could judge, was in perfect keeping, so that if a prince or noble of three centuries ago were to come to lodge at Newstead Abbey, he would hardly know that he had strayed out of his own century. And yet he might have known by some token, for there are volumes of poetry and light literature on the tables in these royal bed-chambers, and in that of Henry VII. I saw “The House of the Seven Gables,” and “The Scarlet Letter,” in Routledge’s edition.

Certainly the house is admirably fitted up; and there must have been something very excellent and comprehensive in the domestic arrangements of the monks, since they adapt themselves so well to a state of society entirely different from that in which they originated. The library is a very comfortable room, and provocative of studious ideas, tho lounging and luxurious. It is long, and rather low, furnished with soft couches, and, on the whole, tho a man might dream of study, I think he would be most likely to read nothing but novels there. I know not what the room was in monkish times, but it was waste and ruinous in Lord Byron’s. Here, I think, the house-keeper unlocked a beautiful cabinet, and took out the famous skull which Lord Byron trans-formed into a drinking-goblet. It has a silver rim and stand, but still the ugly skull is bare and evident, and the naked inner hone receives the wine.

There was much more to see in the house than I had any previous notion of; but except the two chambers already noticed, nothing remained the least as Byron left it. Yes, another place there was—his own small dining-room, with a table of moderate size, where, no doubt, the skull-goblet has often gone its rounds. Colonel Wildman’s dining-room was once Byron’s shooting-gallery, and the original refectory of the monks. It is now magnificently arranged, with a vaulted roof, a music gallery at one end, suits of armor and weapons on the walls, and mailed arms extended, holding candelabras.

We parted with the housekeeper, and I with a good many shillings, at the door by which we entered; and our next business was to see the private grounds and gardens. A little boy attended us through the first part of our progress, but soon appeared the veritable gardener—a shrewd and sensible old man, who has been very many years on the place. There was nothing of special interest as concerning Byron until we entered the original old monkish garden, which is still laid out in the same fashion as the monks left it, with a large oblong piece of water in the center, and terraced banks rising at two or three different stages with perfect regularity around it; so that the sheet of water looks like the plate of an immense looking-glass, of which the terraces form the frame. It seems as if, were there any giant large enough, be might raise up this mirror and set it on end.

In the monks’ garden, there is a marble statue of Pan, which the gardener told us, was brought by the “Wicked Lord” (great-uncle of Byron) from Italy, and was supposed by the country people to represent the devil, and to be the object of his worship—a natural idea enough, in view of his horns and cloven feet and tail, tho this indicates at all events, a very jolly devil. There is also a female statue, beautiful from the waist up-ward, but shaggy and cloven-footed below, and holding a little cloven-footed child by the hand. This, the old gardener assured us. was Pandora, wife of the above-mentioned Pan, with her son. Not far from this spot, we came to the tree on which Byron carved his own name and that of his sister Augusta. It is a tree of twin stems,—a birch-tree, I think—growing up side by side. One of the stems still lives and flourished, but that on which he carved the two names is quite dead, as if there had been something fatal in the inscription that has made it for ever famous. The names are still very legible, altho the letters had been closed up by the growth of the bark before the tree died. They must have been deeply cut at first.

There are old yew-trees of unknown antiquity in this garden, and many other interesting things; and among them may be reckoned a fountain of very pure water, called the “Holly Well,” of which we drank. There are several fountains, besides the large mirror in the center of the garden; and these are mostly inhabited by carp, the genuine descendants of those which peopled the fish-ponds in the days of the monks. Coming in front of the Abbey, the gardener showed us the oak that Byron planted, now a vigorous young tree; and the monument which he erected to his Newfoundland dog, and which is larger than most Christians get, being composed of a marble, altar-shaped tomb, surrounded by a circular area of steps, as much as twenty feet in diameter. The gardener said, however, that Byron intended this, not merely as the burial-place of his dog, but for himself, too, and his sister.