In the years before Calke Abbey became a National Trust property, a visitor who had heard rumours of rooms full of abandoned relics, decided to ‘explore’. Making an excuse to visit a toilet, he deliberately wandered along neglected corridors, opening doors into rooms where years of sunshine had bleached the colour out of Victorian Turkey Red carpets.
Stepping into one particular room where something had caught his eye, he went straight through the floor; the woodwork was almost like paper, woodworm and dry rot was endemic. This was the state of the building when the National Trust was given care of the estate when it was handed over to the nation as part of death duties in 1985.
Inheriting what the National Trust officials correctly called ‘an illustration of the English Country House in decline’, they made the courageous decision to keep the house more or less exactly as they found it. With rotten timber, bulging walls, peeling paintwork and invasive vegetation, it took a stroke of genius to make the house safe while keeping all the apparent evidence of its decline. Where plaster, or wallpaper and paint inevitably had to be removed, it was replaced by matching ‘dirty’ or deliberately faded materials.
Calke was never an actual abbey and should strictly be called Calke Priory, a subordinate ‘cell’ to Repton’s Augustinian priory, for that is what stood on the site from AD1115 until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538. By then the ruling canons from Repton had, however, anticipated the king’s edict and began to lease out some of their estates. Calke was one of these and it was leased to one John Prest (or Priest) for 99 years. Prest was a wealthy member of the London Grocers’ Company and he was able to pay outright for the first 59 years of his tenure. He lived at Calke until his death in 1546 when the house passed to his widow, then later through his daughter Frances to her husband William Bradbourne. In later years the estate passed through various freehold and leasehold deals until it was acquired by Richard Wendsley in 1575. Wendsley had twice been MP for Derby and is credited with building a new house in the Elizabethan style on the site of the old. This house formed the core of the building that still exists today, and of which parts are still visible around the courtyard. The present house is mainly Georgian and it was only during repair work carried out in 1988 that the architects and building engineers were able to delineate the outline of the Tudor mansion swallowed by later alterations.
In 1622 the first of the Harpurs (Sir Henry Harpur, 1st baronet – 1579-1639), bought the estate and his descendants would own Calke Abbey for over 300 years. The Tudor house was rebuilt by Sir John Harpur, 4th baronet (1680-1741) between 1701 and 1704 and as successive owners did little or nothing to add to the fabric, the present house is the result of that work. Through marriages, the family name became Harpur-Crewe, with Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe (1846-1924) being the first to use that name. Somewhere throughout the centuries, the Harpers, then later, the Harper-Crewes developed a strange gene. Generation after generation could not live without hoarding things. They filled room after room with the oddest mementos, but it was Sir Vauncey Harper-Crewe who was the busiest collector. He couldn’t resist anything unusual and brought things home, rather like an overgrown schoolboy. There are still cabinets with fossils and stones, often labelled with where he found them, such as, ‘I found this on the beach at Bognor Regis’. There are hoards of stuffed birds and four-legged animals of all shapes and sizes, all gathering dust in some secluded corridor. When Sir Vauncey died, his eldest daughter Hilda Harpur-Crewe (1877-1949) managed to pay off part of his death duties from the sale of a part of his collection of stuffed birds, butterflies and fishes.
It was not only the natural history collections that filled every nook and cranny. Everyday objects such as hip baths, water cans and bedding once they had served their purpose were not discarded, but pushed into some unused room. When it was full, the door was shut and the room simply forgotten with its contents mouldering away. Sun blinds or shutters were often left open and as a result the passage of the sun bleached a triangle on any uncovered carpet.
It was not only late Victorian family members who had this strange hoarding attitude. One of the things the National Trust officials found when they opened the Aladdin’s Cave that is Calke Abbey, was a large packing case of some obvious age. Folded inside was a magnificent Chinese State Bed dating from the time of George I. It had been given as a wedding present to Lady Caroline Manners on her marriage to Sir Henry Harpur, the 5th baronet by Princess Anne, daughter of King George II. When the couple opened their present they decided without checking that the bed would be too tall for any of the rooms at Calke and simply put the magnificent silk fabrics back into the box and hid it away. Here it lay for over 260 years until it was opened. The bed was assembled as it was meant to be and, lo and behold, it fitted perfectly into the room where it is now displayed.
As Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe had no sons, when he died his unmarried daughter Hilda inherited the estate, and on her death it passed to her nephew, Charles Jenney (1917-81), who was the eldest son of Frances Harpur-Crewe, the fourth daughter of Sir Vauncey. Charles changed his name to Harpur-Crewe in order to continue the family links. Unfortunately for the estate, Charles’ sudden death led to crippling death duties (£8million on an estate worth £14 million). Unable to continue ownership, the estate was transferred to the National Trust by Charles’ younger brother Henry Harpur-Crewe in 1985.
While the house has been kept warts and all in order to look just like it was when the National Trust found it, the garden on the other hand has been restored to all its previous glory – in fact in a better way than the original owners ever intended. Originally a physic, or herb garden, within a walled enclosure it is now managed as a productive kitchen garden, with fruit trees and vegetables supplemented by bee and butterfly-attracting flowers. One of the special attractions is an Auricula Theatre tucked away in a sunny corner of the garden. The attractive members of the primula family make an interesting feature in the already colourful garden. Just outside the garden and behind the theatre, a tunnel marks the way gardeners were expected to enter and leave their workplace. Here they would walk, without being seen by their betters who would be out strolling or taking their ease. The surrounding landscape of Calke Abbey is still managed as a deer park, along with free ranging flocks of sheep. Calke Abbey Estate is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
As a final twist in the story, some years after Calke was handed over to the National Trust to settle death duties, a wealthy heir was discovered: he was Andrew Johnson, a resident of Vermont in the USA. Classed by the media as a ‘lumberjack’, his fortune was in fact based on the vast numbers of forests he owned in the States. Johnson was given the use of an apartment in the Abbey, which he and his family have used on occasional visits.
Calke Abbey house and garden are open daily 11:00am-5:00pm February to end October. Please note that entry to the house is by timed ticket only.
Park and Nature Reserve open all year from 7:30am – 7:30pm.
Restaurant open all year 10:00am-5:00pm.