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.