Newstead Abbey is best known today as the ancestral home of Lord Byron (1788–1824). The original Newstead Abbey was founded by Henry II as an Augustinian priory in the twelfth century. In 1540, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the property was offered to the Byron family by Henry VIII and converted into a residence. The estate grew over time, but a large portion of the original medieval fabric survived, including the west front, constructed in 1274, and the fifteenth-century cloisters. Later extensions were built out of stone quarried from the main church building.
The main building suffered from neglect and deterioration before being inherited by the Romantic poet, who lamented, “Thou, the hall of my Fathers, art gone to decay” in the poem “On Leaving Newstead Abbey” (1807). Lord Byron sold the property in 1818 to his childhood friend Thomas Wildman, who spent much of his wealth to restore and redecorate it, and opened it to visitors. After subsequent changes in ownership, it was donated to the city of Nottingham in 1831.
2012 World Monuments Watch
Newstead Abbey’s house and gardens were included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch because of the substantial cost of necessary conservation work, and the burden of providing regular public access with reduced municipal budgets.
World Monuments Fund, with assistance from the Paul Mellon Estate and in partnership with Nottingham City Council, the owners of Newstead Abbey, organised a seminar to establish a friends group in March 2013, at which interested local parties helped develop support for Newstead.
More than 60 people joined the seminar to hear talks from previous recipients of WMF support, including Gorton Monastery in Manchester and Strawberry Hill House in London. The seminar provided a useful opportunity for relationships to form and bridges to be built. The wealth of expertise within the group was encouraging and a host of creative ideas were put forward which could improve the visitor experience of the site. At a follow up meeting the Newstead Abbey Partnership was created to ensure the monument is conserved.
Though the surrounding parklands and gardens are well visited, opening hours for the house museum were limited due to insufficient resources. Newstead Abbey has suffered significant deterioration, and a strategy for its conservation and long-term maintenance was greatly needed. Restoration and renewed interpretation would benefit the local community and other visitors and could reinforce the historical connections to one of the world’s great poets. In 2013 the World Monuments Fund Yale Scholar carried out a research report and vision for Newstead in the future.
Conserving the West Front
After the 2012 Watch, WMF continued to support the Newstead Abbey Partnership. The main conservation aim was to initiate a restoration project on the West Front of the Abbey, removing it from the Buildings at Risk Register and giving both NAP and the Nottingham City Council confidence to address the wider conservation needs of the site. WMF’s contributions were instrumental in securing a £122,000 grant from Historic England towards the total cost of the £200,000 restoration.
Restoration work began at the Abbey in June 2019 and was concluded by December 2019. The project revealed the quality of the medieval carving – and hidden detail only visible at height – and the fragility of the work.
Furthermore, thanks to the support of WMF, Historic England have awarded an additional grant to restore the mock cannon fort on Newstead’s lake, part of a collection of follies that made up an important designed landscape.