events the oliviers travel

Destination: Notley Abbey

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 Thame River at Notley Abbey

The lazy river

Walking to Notley Abbey

Walking down the long drive

Notley Abbey, Buckinghamshire

This one is a bit underexposed

At Notley Abbey

Notley from the side as you come down the drive

Notley Abbey gothic

It looks a bit gothic in black and white

Group shot at Notley Abbey

Group shot! L-R: Marissa, Lara, Sammi, me, Julian, Louise, Louise’s mom

Notley Abbey back yard

That wall must be ancient

Creeping in the window at Notley Abbey

Sammi trying to creep in the window

Notley Abbey

The back yard is gorgeous

Notley Abbey side door

Old world

Notley Abbey secret garden

A secret garden

Roses at Notley Abbey

Rambling roses

Roses at Notley Abbey

So lovely

Notley Abbey garden walls

Garden walls and the cottage

Notley Abbey statue

I love when stately homes have old statues in hedges

Vivien's Folly at Notley Abbey

Vivien’s folly–a tunnel of trees by the river

The cottage at Notley Abbey

The cottage. Laurence Olivier’s brother Dickie and his family lived here

Taking shelter from the rain at Notley Abbey

Taking shelter from the rain

The river at Notley Abbey

The Thame River

The sitting room, Notley Abbey

This fireplace has been there since Larry and Vivien’s day

Vivien Leigh's and Laurence Olivier's bedroom

Vivien and Larry’s bedroom (not their original furniture)

Reflections at Notley Abbey

Through the looking glass

The view from the inside

Looking out on the courtyard

The courtyard at Notley Abbey

Another view of the courtyard

Before tea time

In the sitting room before tea

Tea time at Notley Abbey

Tea time. Those brownies were amazing. Seriously.

Notley Abbey kitchen

The kitchen. I love that stove. Vintage.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier and me

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

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (32)

  1. It was a wonderful day Kendra. It was so nice to have been there and have tea and cake in their sitting room!! The whole weekend worked out perfectly. It’s just a shame they have ruined the inside. Vivien and Larry would be distraught if they saw it now. You have taken some wonderful pictures though that really capture the beauty of the place

    1. I’m so glad it worked out and that you got to drive down and meet us there! It is a shame the inside is so modern. At least the outside is still beautiful and old. I think we should all rendezvous there again some day

      1. Kendra: What a truly neat thing to do, and even the weather failed in making your day successful! When is your book due out? Or is it out now? Vivian was such a wonderful actress, and very lovely (Easy to look at). Thank you for letting us into your world. Bob Noble/Winter Park, Fl.

  2. Kendra, your description of Notley Abbey was almost as beautiful as the pictures! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful experience with those of us that could not make this outing. I hope that next year you will consider another tour!! Remember that I am living vicariously thru you and your great luck, or great timing with the memory of the Oliviers!!! 😉

    1. Aww thanks! I went back and corrected some typos (proofreading is not my strong suit, lol). If I’m still in London next year, I would love to do another event 🙂

  3. Wow this looks amazing. It seems you all had a great time. Thanks for sharing this with all that couldn’t be there. It’s also nice to see what the inside looks like:)

  4. The visit to Notley truly was a special way to end the event. It’s been so fun reading the posts about the weekend and reliving everything… I’ll always treasure the memories. I wish we could all go back and do it again! Hopefully, you’ll do another one 🙂

    1. I’m so glad, marissa! It was great to meet you! You’re welcome back any time and I think we should all meet at Notley in the future! Until hen, best of luck at UCLA–you’ll love it!

  5. Kendra, I’m so happy that your big weekend was such a resounding success! As with everything you do, you make it look so … effortless … but I can only imagine the painstaking planning that went into it. I completely identify with Stephanie’s comment above — I’m enjoying all your experiences vicariously, and I really appreciated this particular post because 1) it’s Notley, and as you said I HAVE always wanted to go there, and 2) your photos of the place are so good, I almost feel as if I DID get to visit it personally. So thank you! This post was the perfect companion piece to your blog about Tickerage Mill (your photographs for which were equally amazing).

    I’m guessing you’ll be coming home to the U.S. soon for the summer, and I hope you have a safe trip and a restful break from school. All the best to you as always, Kendra!


    1. Thanks, David! I was so glad it turned out so well after all the hard work! I’m glad you enjoy the photos and that it felt like you went there, as well. I am coming back to the US for a spell in July and am looking forward to it very much!

  6. This was one of my favorite posts, Kendra. The images along with Vivien’s heartbreaking words had tears streaming down my face… it reminded me of selling my own humble home and the sadness and all the feelings that went along with it. It was no Notley however! lol

    For those of us that could not be there, you presented the excursion so beautifully that I do feel as though I experienced it vicariously. 🙂 Thank you… the photos are just stunning.. breathtaking… Notley was truly befitting the Oliviers. And vice versa. What a noble old place!

    There should be a huge portrait of Vivien and Larry in the main venue, and the decor should be much warmer. I suppose they don’t want to interfere with couples’ wedding themes. Heck, you’d think wedding couples would be infinitely grateful if they could be connected however loosely with these two glamorous greats!

    1. Aww, thanks! Oh no, moving is always a difficult thing to do, especially if you’ve lived somewhere for a long time.

      It really is a noble place (on the outside, anyway). I love stately homes, they are always so much fun to visit and explore. Plus the countryside is always beautiful, even in the rain.

      There should be a huge portrait of them inside. Insetad there is a rather scary pop-art one of marilyn monroe in one of the bedrooms. perhaps not many people who get married there really know much about the oliviers

  7. So, Kendra, when do you head off to Darjeeling?

    Love these photos, thanks for posting. I think “Vivien’s Folly” could be the title of your biography of “her ladyship” – someday! Didn’t her daughter Suzanne opine in one bio that her mum’s Queen Anne furniture suited Tickerage Mill much better than Notley? Hmmm. Which home would YOU choose?

    1. Haha, actually I have a friend from India who has been to Darjeeling, so maybe some day!

      I thought it was Tickerage Mill that was built in the Queen Anne style rather than her furniture? I seem to remember David Niven talking about his wife Primmi and Vivien often going scouting for Regency furniture near Windsor during the war, but I could be wrong.

      I like both places. They both have an aura of history and magic about them.

  8. You’re right Kendra, I read the same thing. And I also think a portrait of Larry and Viv should be in the main entry. People need to know their history of Notley and how they helped it be the showplace it is today. Having a portrait in the cottage alone is to say the least insulting. Just because they’ve been gone a long time is no excuse.

      1. No biographer ever mentioned it… I’m so disappointed to learn that in their beloved England Larry and Vivien seem to be neglected , that their contribution to the theatre and to the film industry is scarcely known by younger generations .In my opinion,. Notley should be a memento of both their art and their love of beauty.

  9. Wonderful home for big stars like Vivien and Larry but probably due to her illness the
    property became too much for Larry to keep. He thought at one time that he would lose
    his beloved Notley and it was probably a relief to sell the property.

    Notley was certainly a dream home!

  10. Thanks for the beautiful photos of their wonderful home. In reading a biography on Vivien, when they first saw and bought this house, it was in need of much repair. Glad they did the work and enjoyed it so much. 🙂

  11. Hi Kendra
    I just happened upon this site whilst re-living my memories of Notley Abbey. I was honoured enough to have lived at Notley Abbey for 2 years from 1997-1999. I was a live-in nurse to the then owner, Mr Dany. I had the bedroom above the kitchen and laudry room and remember the yellow en-suite bathroom with its pure gold taps. It was still decorated in the same way as Vivien and Lawrence had it in the 60’s. I remember the long walks up the drive, sitting on the bench on the front lawn over-looking the Thame River, walking through the tree tunnel and even playing a game of tennis on the old court. My parents came to stay once and they were put up in the cottage. I have many wonderful memories of that beautiful home and the wonderful times spent there. I have a box full of photo’s which serve a vivid reminders of the most beautiful place in the world, Notley Abbey. I look at the interior now with such a heavy heart – what a shame not to have kept it as it was. Mandy Hutchison – Cape Town – South Africa

    1. Hi Mandy,

      What wonderful memories you must have! I’ve heard the same from other people who knew Notley as the Oliviers had decorated it, and they don’t like the interior now, either. I do admit it’s very bare and sterile – rather like a hotel, but the outside is so beautiful.

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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