Rural northern Nottinghamshire, with its gentle rolling landscapes and large ducal estates, was transformed in the nineteenth century by coal – deep, wide seams of the stuff that spawned dozens of collieries, and colliery towns, stretching north across the county and on into Yorkshire. Almost without exception, the mines have closed, their passing marked only by the occasional pithead winding wheel, left to commemorate the thousands of men who laboured here. The suddenness of the pit closure programme imposed by the Conservative government in the 1980s knocked the stuffing out of the area, but one prop of its slow revival has been the tourist industry: the countryside in between these former mining communities holds several enjoyable attractions, the best-known of which is Sherwood Forest – or at least the patchy remains of it – with one chunk of woodland preserved in the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve, supposedly where Robin Hood did some canoodling with Maid Marian. Byron is a pipsqueak in the celebrity stakes by comparison, but his family home – Newstead Abbey – is here too, as is Hardwick Hall, a handsome Elizabethan mansion built at the behest of one of the most powerful women of her day, Bess of Hardwick (1521–1608).
Newstead AbbeyIn 1539, Newstead Abbey was granted by Henry VIII to Sir John Byron, who demolished most of the church and converted the monastic buildings into a family home. Lord Byron (1788–1824) inherited the estate, which was by then little more than a ruin, in 1798; he restored part of the complex during his six-year residence (1808–14), but most of the present structure actually dates from later renovations, which maintained much of the shape and feel of the medieval original while creating the warren-like mansion that exists today. Inside, a string of intriguing period rooms begins with the neo-Gothic Great Hall and Byron’s bedroom, one of the few rooms to look pretty much like it did when he lived here, and then continues on into the Library, which holds a collection of the poet’s possessions, from letters and an inkstand through to his pistols and boxing gloves. A further room contains a set of satirical, cartoon-like watercolours entitled The Wonderful History of Lord Byron & His Dog by his friend Elizabeth Pigot – there’s a portrait of the self-same dog, Boatswain, in the south gallery, and a conspicuous memorial bearing an absurdly extravagant inscription to the mutt in the delightful walled garden. Beyond lie the main gardens, a secretive and subtle combination of lake, Gothic waterfalls, yew tunnels and Japanese-style rockeries, complete with idiosyncratic pagodas.
Hardwick HallBorn the daughter of a minor Derbyshire squire, Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (1527–1608) – aka Bess of Hardwick – became one of the leading figures of Elizabethan England, renowned for her political and business acumen. She also had a penchant for building and her major achievement, Hardwick Hall, begun when she was 62, has survived in amazingly good condition. The house was the epitome of fashionable taste, a balance of symmetry and ingenious detail in which the rectangular lines of the building are offset by line upon line of windows – there’s actually more glass than stone – while up above, her giant-sized initials (E.S.) hog every roof line. Inside on the top floor, the High Great Chamber, where Bess received her most distinguished guests, boasts an extraordinary plaster frieze, a brightly painted, finely worked affair celebrating the goddess Diana, the virgin huntress – it was, of course, designed to please the Virgin Queen herself. Next door, the breathtaking Long Gallery features exquisite furnishings and fittings from splendid chimneypieces and tapestries through to a set of portraits, including one each of the queen and Bess. Bess could exercise here while keeping out of the sun – at a time when any hint of a tan was considered decidedly plebeian.
Outside, the garden makes for a pleasant wander and, beyond the ha-ha (the animal-excluding low wall and ditch), rare breeds of cattle and sheep graze the surrounding parkland. Finally – and rather confusingly – Hardwick Hall is next to Hardwick Old Hall, Bess’s previous home, but now little more than a broken-down if substantial ruin.