Byron heritage gets a sinking feeling

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"That antique house", as Lord Byron called Newstead Abbey, his family home, may soon be trembling with more than the tread of the Romantic poet's reverential fans. More than a million tons of coal is to be extracted from beneath the building and its foundations are expected to drop by at least a foot.

Newstead, eight miles north of Nottingham, is a mining village and the plan by Midland Mining to work a 6ft seam half-a-mile beneath the abbey will safeguard 500 jobs.

But the company's assurances that the poet's ancient home will not suddenly slump into a crater and that any cracking will be made good, has cut no ice with the Byron Society or conservationists.

"We can hardly believe anyone could contemplate such a thing," said Ken Purslow, chairman of the abbey's 200-strong branch of the society. "Byron fans all over the world will be outraged when they hear of this."

Mr Purslow yesterday wrote to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, urging him to intervene and somehow stop any digging below the abbey, parts of which are 800-years-old. But it is difficult to see how he can. The company owns the mineral rights and no planning permission is required for the work.

Nottingham City Council, which owns the Grade I listed building and its surrounding parkland has opted for a pragmatic course. "Since there is nothing we can do about it in law, we are concerned to work with the company and make sure that anything that needs to be is shored up in advance," it said.

Newstead attracts 35,000 visitors a year, including scholars wishing to study its unrivalled collection of the poet's manuscripts and letters. The abbey dates back to the 12th century when it was founded by Henry II as an Augustinian priory. It was converted into a house by Sir Byron in 1540, but by the time the ill-starred lover, the 6th baron, inherited Newstead in 1798 it had fallen into disrepair - though the ghostly halls and the sense of decay seemed to appeal to his melancholy nature. Debts forced him to sell the family home in 1818 and it eventually passed to Nottingham City Council in 1931.

The Annesley-Bentinck colliery, where the coal will be mined from, dates back to 1860. Doug Williams, Midland Mining's surveying and environmental engineer, said coal was extracted from a shallower seam beneath the abbey in the 1920s.