“Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” These are the now famous words used in 1812 by Lady Caroline Lamb to describe the man who would become her lover, the poet Lord Byron.
When it comes to literary legends, Lord Byron has always struck me as one of the most interesting; capable of penning some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written, but at the same time a serial womaniser with some undoubtedly wild ways.
To get to know the most famous Byron family member a little better, my husband Payat and I travelled to Nottinghamshire where we enjoyed a weekend stay visiting the poet’s former home Newstead Abbey and staying at his ancestral home (now a hotel), Colwick Hall.
We were given a tour of Newstead which, even on a drab winter’s day, was beautiful in its majesty.
Even before the Byron family came to Newstead, the place had a long history, having started out, in the late 12th century, as an Augustinian priory.
By 1539, the priory had been closed by Henry VIII and, one year later, the poet’s ancestor Sir John Byron of Colwick took Newstead on from the King. The estate remained in the family until 1817.
Walking around the various rooms and seeing the various exhibits, showing personal items once owned by the Byrons, I felt it was easy to discover more and more about the real personalities who once lived there.
Particularly interesting were stories linked to the poet’s great uncle, known as the ‘wicked’ Lord Byron. The estate is still home to this Byron’s rather frightening looking sword, with which he allegedly murdered his neighbour.
The offending weapon is now tied up in a glass case as, according to our guide, the sword kept mysteriously flying from the wall and being found in unusual locations.
Whether the sword moves at the hand of a ghost or not is uncertain, but Newstead has more than its fair share of spooky tales. Our guide told us that, more than once, a dog’s footprints have been found on the carpet of the chapel where the poet Byron once kept his much-loved dogs and, rather strangely, a pet bear.
The rooms are littered with artefacts, each with their own fascinating histories. One exhibit includes a recreation of a skull cup. As the story goes, the writer, Byron, was in some financial difficulties and ordered his grounds to be searched for any lingering monastic gold. Instead, all that was found were some human bones.
Finding a person’s skull, he had it mounted on a silver stem and made into a cup for use at parties. It was only years later, when the skull was discovered by a subsequent owner, that it was given a Christian burial.
Newstead’s artefacts are enough to carry visitors away on a never-ending sea of wild tales about parties, imprisonments, ghosts and lost loves. But the house itself provides a fitting backdrop, ranging from Byron’s Blue Room (which he once used to entertain friends) to his bedroom (containing his original bed).
The poet was only 36 when he died, but Newstead is a wonderful place to visit to learn more about exactly which escapades he got up to in his short life.
Although, I am told, Newstead has a wonderful cafe with excellent afternoon teas, we chose to take the short drive to Manor Farm Tea Shoppe in Bleasby, which was well worth a trip.
Cosy and welcoming, the tea shoppe offers a fantastic range of sandwiches, cakes, quiches and soups. We sat down to guzzle a huge afternoon tea selection, including a range of delicious sandwiches made from locally produced ingredients and fresh salad, followed by tea and home-made scones with clotted cream and jam. I have to say that the scone was so sweet and light, I was happy to tell the owner it was the best scone I had ever tasted.
On our way back to the car, we were also shown Manor Farm’s proud new addition, a ‘shepherd’s hut’ in which they offer bed and breakfast accommodation for one or two people. Set in an actual hut, the layout was so pretty and the room is officially the ‘cutest’ I have ever seen offered for guest accommodation. This would be worth a visit for anyone in search of somewhere a bit different to stay.
We spent the Saturday night at Colwick Hall Hotel, located not far from Nottingham’s city centre.
The Byrons are known to have inhabited the hall for more than 150 years, before moving to Newstead. Today, the hotel is a luxurious and well-restored building reflecting elements of its centuries-old glamour.
Our room was sensitively and subtly decorated to echo the site’s age, but had plenty of modern adornments, such as a plasma TV, comfy king sized bed, mini-bar and tea making facilities. The bathroom was also huge, which really impressed me.
We enjoyed dinner at Byron’s Brasserie, at the hotel, which is decorated with extracts from the poet’s works. We ate the meal late, due to the magnificent tea we had enjoyed earlier, and I was impressed with the quality of the menu.
I enjoyed some French onion soup while Payat had the scallops on a bed of garlic and herb tagliatelle. For the main, I had the breast of chicken, stuffed with apples, marinated in cider and rolled in a Cheddar breadcrumb coating, while Payat had the slow braised blade of beef with red wine and caramelised onion gravy and creamy mashed potatoes. We then shared the white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake.
The whole meal was a delight and, although there were hardly any diners in the restaurant at the time, I was impressed to notice that one of them was the celebrated Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson. Always good to share a dining space with a celebrity!
For those with a passion for literature or those who simply want to spend a weekend somewhere beautiful and interesting, Nottinghamshire’s attractions come highly recommended.
-Colwick Hall Hotel can be found in Racecourse Road, Colwick. Ring 0115 9500566. Rooms range in price from £59 a night.
-Newstead Abbey’s address is Newstead Abbey Park, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, NG15 8NA.
-Newstead’s grounds are open all year round, from 9am until 5pm. The house is open on Saturdays and Sundays from midday until 4pm.
-Free weekday parking until February 14, 2014. The usual charge is £6 per vehicle, which includes access to the grounds and gardens.
-Entry to the house is available for an additional £5 per person and £1 for under 16s.
-For more information about Manor Farm Tea Shoppe in Bleasby (NG14 7FX), see www.manorfarmteashoppe.co.uk.