Although A Weekend with the Oliviers officially ended on Sunday the 29th, there was still one last treat in store for those who were free on Monday morning. I think it would be accurate to say that the one place many Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier fans want to visit is Notley Abbey, the 15th century country estate near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. The Abbey was bought by the Oliviers with Larry’s salary from Henry V just before the end of the war. It has been widely reported that Larry loved the house from the beginning but it took some time before it started to grow on Vivien. It had been in a state of neglect and was in desperate need of refurbishment.
Over the years Notley became a weekend retreat from the hustle and bustle of busy London but the glamorous life was never far behind. The Oliviers hosted their famous fashionable parties for the who’s who of the entertainment business. You weren’t famous unless you were invited for a weekend at Notley. But it was also a place that offered quiet solitude when needed. Vivien’s heartbreak at the idea of having to sell the Abbey gives a good indication of just how much it meant to her:
On top of all this it seems as if Notley is sold. I can hardly write the words. A Canadian couple saw it some weeks ago, made an immediate and perfectly good offer and want to move in at the end of April. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? Of course it is looking particularly beautiful. We have had the most glorious crisp and dazzling winter days…I walk from place to precious place and gaze at the beloved views with tears pouring down my face. What memories for all one’s life—such unbelievable rare happiness, sweetness and quietude there has been here. I don’t forget the other times too, but they seem to me outweighed by blissful togetherness. Dear God it is a heartache…the fact that we have known for some time now that it would have to go doesn’t seem to help in the least.It is fifteen years—a great part of one’s life…Oh the hundreds of times my beloved Larry and I have wandered here in wonder and grateful amazement at the beauty all around us—the feeling that we were a little responsible for creating it too made it all so doubly dear. It is hard to imgine life without such an oasis.
Today Notley Abbey is a wedding venue, which means the inside is more like a hotel than a home. The outside, however, retains its old-world romantic charm. Many of the touches that made it such an “oasis” still remain: the lime walk drive, Vivien’s folly, rose bushes and exotic trees. The beauty of the countryside is like something out of a Jane Austen adaptation. The canopy of trees hangs over you as you walk down the long gravel drive. The lazy river with its reeds and lily pads meanders through the pastures. Vines of flowers cling to crumbling garden walls. If you listen closely, you might just hear the ghosts of the past whispering in the spring wind.
I had originally wanted a trip to Notley to be an official part of our event, but back in January it was not possible to make a definite appointment. However, I dropped an email on the Thursday before the event started enquiring whether it might be possible to come up with the few group members who stayed an extra day and take some photos. As Monday was a bank holiday, they graciously said yes, so on Monday morning, Sammi, Marissa, Lara, Julian and I caught a train from Marylebone to Haddenham and Thame Pkwy. We were met there by Louise and her mom who had driven down from Birmingham, and two Americans who came on their own but weren’t officially part of our group.
As we walked over the grounds, it started to rain. Hard. Although it was closed due to being a bank holiday, there were some maintenance workers there preparing for an upcoming wedding. They were so lovely and let us in to use the restroom and wander around to take some photos. Then the nicest thing happened. They asked us if we’d like some refreshments on this extremely blustery day. We graciously accepted and lo and behold, ended up having team and coffee (and amazing brownies) in Larry and Vivien’s sitting room. It was truly perfect. One of Vivien Leigh’s favorite words was serendipity, and I believe we encountered some at Notley. I don’t think our long weekend could have ended on a more special note.
The lazy river
Walking down the long drive
This one is a bit underexposed
Notley from the side as you come down the drive
It looks a bit gothic in black and white
Group shot! L-R: Marissa, Lara, Sammi, me, Julian, Louise, Louise’s mom
That wall must be ancient
Sammi trying to creep in the window
The back yard is gorgeous
A secret garden
Garden walls and the cottage
I love when stately homes have old statues in hedges
Vivien’s folly–a tunnel of trees by the river
The cottage. Laurence Olivier’s brother Dickie and his family lived here
Taking shelter from the rain
The Thame River
This fireplace has been there since Larry and Vivien’s day
Vivien and Larry’s bedroom (not their original furniture)
Through the looking glass
Looking out on the courtyard
Another view of the courtyard
In the sitting room before tea
Tea time. Those brownies were amazing. Seriously.
The kitchen. I love that stove. Vintage.
I’m pretty sure that photo should have been hanging right inside the door to the main house, but it was in the cottage. Well, at least they have a photo of Larry and Vivien in the first instance! Brilliant.
*All photos © Kendra Bean.
*More info about Notley Abbey
VivAndLarry.com is an historical archive and film blog dedicated to preserving the memories of classic screen and stage stars Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and to the discussion of classic Hollywood and world cinemas. The site is designed and edited by Kendra Bean, a film scholar, writer and photographer living in London. What you'll find here: A cabinet of curiosities brimming with vintage articles, video footage, the largest archive of Vivien Leigh and/or Laurence Olivier photos on the Web, and much, much more.
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Read Vivien Leigh: Becoming Scarlett by Kendra Bean in issue no. 75 of Bright Lights Film Journal
Read Kendra's article Style Icon: Vivien Leigh at The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower
My running list of films watched in 2013.