Author: David Atkinson

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How to mark the bicentenary of the death of Lord Byron in Nottinghamshire

My Lord Byron feature appeared in print in the Daily Mail travel section last week.

The story was based around a visit to Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire [pictured above].

The original copy was edited for space, so here’s my first draft of the article below.

He was notorious for drinking from a cup crafted from a monk’s skull. He spent his evenings drunkenly singing Albanian sea shanties and was famously described by one of his former lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

Lord Bryon was, in many ways, the first celebrity. A Romantic poet, bon-viveur and scandaliser-in-chief of Regency society, he became the poster boy for literary mavericks and popularised vampire stories.

Nottinghamshire marks the 200-year anniversary of the death this year [April 19] with Newstead Abbey, his ancestral home near Mansfield, hosting the year-long exhibition, Byron a Sensational Life, showcasing artefacts from the Byron collection.

“I see him as a pansexual rock star in the Harry Styles mould,” says Newstead curator Jonathan Brown. “For all his faults, he would have been great company.”

Newstead dates from 1163 and was founded as an Augustinian Priory, surviving the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. The Monk’s Room, the former priory oratory with witching marks on the wooden beams, is said to be still haunted by The Black Monk.

Lord Byron arrived at Newstead in 1808 having inherited the title from his uncle, the so-called Wicked Lord, and set about beautifying the crumbling ancestral pile. Drowning in debt, he sold it to his Harrow schoolfriend, Thomas Wildman, in 1817 with the bailiffs and a series of angry husbands, whose wives Byron had seduced, knocking down the door.

Wildman subsequently hung Thomas Phillips’ 1813 portrait of Byron above the hearth in the Great Drawing Room, where he still surveys his adoring fans today.

The exhibition reveals the eccentricities behind the myth and uncovers rare items from the collection. In Byron’s bedroom, I learn he kept a loaded pistol next to his four-poster bed. The Edward III Room has a first edition of Polidori’s novella The Vampyre, inspired by Byron’s rakish appearance, and stanzas from Byron’s The Giaour, which between them inspired Bram Stoker and the Twilight films alike.

The library, meanwhile, documents his multiple affairs and menagerie of animals, including Bruin, a domesticated dancing bear, but also his political convictions. Byron used his first speech in the House of Lords to back the frame-breakers, the lacemakers from Nottingham’s historic lace quarter, who were struggling to maintain their trade during the Industrial Revolution.

Following a disastrous marriage to Annabella Milbanke, and amid scandalous rumours regarding his relationship with his own half-sister, Byron exiled himself to Europe in 1818. He died, aged 36, fighting the Greek War of Independence in 1824, making the eccentric lord a folk hero in Greece.

Byron leaves a legacy across Nottinghamshire, however. A short drive from Newstead is the village of Hucknall, where a statue of Byron looks out regally atop a kitchen shop and his book-shaped memorial is to be found in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene Church.

Elsewhere, the Bromley House Library, the Georgian townhouse turned subscription library in central Nottingham, hosts the Byron at Bromley exhibition with a first edition and an early guidebook to Newstead amongst the atmospheric collection of dusty tomes and ceiling-high shelves. “I feel many of his circle were drawn to Byron’s inner turmoil,” says Heather Green, library supervisor.

Byron’s scandalous reputation eventually overtook his literary legacy. But with events across Nottinghamshire to mark his anniversary, plus an upcoming BBC Travelogue with Rob Rinder and Rylan Clark tracing his Grand Tour, Byron’s celebrity remains undiminished.

“I have a complex relationship with Byron,” says Dr. Sam Hirst, a Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, who is consulting on the Newstead exhibition.

“But I feel a strange attachment to some of his work. After all these years, he can still really connect with people.”

Indeed, exploring the Newstead grounds later that day, I find the softer side to the Romantic firebrand. The grave of his beloved dog, Boatswain bears a moving epitaph from his devoted master.

“To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;

I never knew but one – and here he lies.”

More from Newstead Abbey

Dark Chester named winner at the Marketing Cheshire Tourism Award 2024

Photo: Kat Hannon photography 

Dark Chester picked up an award last week at the Marketing Cheshire Tourism Awards [pictured above].

My walking tour of Chester was named the winner in the New Tourism Business of the Year category.

The ceremony was hosted at Chester Cathedral and Nicola Said, Regional lead for the North West and West Midlands at Visit England.

Amongst the comments from the judges, was this feedback from my mystery shopper:

“David was a very knowledgeable and engaging host. He was attentive and brought the history to life.

Throughout the tour, David was engaging and informative and made us all feel like valued customers.”

Read the full list of winners here via Marketing Cheshire.


Check out my Dark Chester tour via the new Kayak Chester travel guide

My Dark Chester tour resumes this week after a winter break.

I’m back with new ideas, fresh takes on Chester folk tales and plenty of fire-and-brimstone dark-tourism heritage from my historic home city.

I’m also up for new collaborations and editorial coverage, including being featured in the new Chester guide from travel search engine, Kayak.

Look out for news and updates over the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, read the Kayak Chester Travel Guide here.

Follow @darkchestertour on Instagram

Liked this? Then read Dark Chester runs special spooky tours for the Chester Heritage Festival.

A weekend away at a stately pile fit for a Prime Minister in North Wales

He was a four-time British prime minister and dominant figure of the Victorian era.

Clashing regularly in Parliament with his arch-rival Disraeli, he was described by Queen Victoria as a “half-mad firebrand”.

But a weekend visit to his ancestral estate in North Wales reveals his lesser-known passions for literature and collecting axes.

Away from Parliament, it seems, William Ewart Gladstone was a voracious reader and loved nothing more than chopping wood in the grounds of his stately pile.

Modern artworks

A new holiday let on his family estate in the village of Hawarden, located near the Chester border, draws back the curtain on the starched image of one of our greatest statesmen.

The West End, located within the western wing of 19th-century Hawarden Castle, has five stylish bedrooms and grand communal areas, blending the modernity of Yoko Ono and Damian Hirst artworks with Georgian-era furniture.

The meticulous home-from-home touches, such as Max Richter albums and coffee-table tomes about David Hockney and Johnny Marr’s guitars, have been curated by Charlie Gladstone, the great-great grandson of the Liverpool-born former PM, whose family still lives in the adjoining house.

Guests have exclusive access to the time-capsule Temple of Peace, Gladstone’s private library, and bespoke experiences, such as dinner cooked by the estate’s head chef, or a yoga session in the sprawling grounds.

A private woodland glade comes with an al-fresco wood-fired oven and hot tub.

After settling into our rural retreat with a hamper of goodies from the nearby Hawarden Estate Farm Shop, we set out against a wintery landscape to explore the walking trails, leading through the estate grounds to the village.

We pass the Walled Garden School with its regular programme of talks and classes, a group absorbed in Indian Head Massage as we stroll by, then emerge into a thriving rural village.

It boasts a clutch of restored estate cottages, a village store and a cosy local pub, the Glynne Arms, for pints of local ale and a slap-up supper of fish pie and sticky toffee pudding.

A pair of axes glimmer above the open hearth, a reminder that everything in Hawarden nods to Gladstone’s legacy.

“We think of him as rather rigid, but he must have been very charismatic to command huge crowds at public lectures,” says the Revd Dr Andrea Russell, Warden of Gladstone’s Library situated at the top of the high street.

The UK’s only Prime Ministerial Library was founded in the late 19th century as a memorial to Gladstone’s vision as a place “for the pursuit of divine learning”.

An elderly Gladstone is said to have delivered his books to the original building by wheelbarrow, aided only by a manservant.

The pin-drop-quiet Reading Room, dating from 1902, still has a collection of his personal volumes, the pages annotated furiously with his notes.

“I was a Disraeli fan but, since moving here, I’ve come to respect Gladstone’s vision for educational reform,” adds Revd Andrea, “as a man ahead of his time.”

Castle ruins

Back at the West End, we settle down for an evening of vintage vinyl and book browsing before an open fire, breaking off occasionally to look more closely at the artworks, notably Chris Levine’s Stoned, a Stonehenge standing stone glinting with diamond dust in the hallway.

Morning reveals another attraction: the ruins of the 13th-century Marcher castle in the grounds. It’s still privately owned by the family and best enjoyed from a bay-window seat with coffee and sourdough toast.

Gladstone died in 1898 and buried in Westminster Abbey but his heart remained in North Wales with his books and penchant for amateur forestry.

A winter-warmer break at the family home could be the ultimate romantic gesture for Valentine’s Day, or maybe inspire some Victorian-values thinking.

Either way, we came away from a weekend of reading, unwinding and logs on the fire having glimpsed something new — a wry smile on the lips of the ‘Grand Old Man’ in the faded photographs.

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