Image: Sammy Haynes

Visiting Calke Abbey, the ‘un-stately’ home where less is more

Calke Abbey is an unrestored country house estate, situated in Ticknall, Derbyshire. It was abandoned by its owners, the Harpur-Crewe family, in 1985 and was given to the National Trust. Labelled as an ‘un-stately’ home and gardens, I found exploring its history and secrets deeply intriguing. Both the building and furniture have been kept in exactly the same condition as when the family hurriedly left. This makes Calke Abbey vastly different to the majority of other stately homes which are open to tourists to visit within the UK during the summer months.

Originally a priory during the beginning of the sixteenth century before Henry VIII had it dissolved, the estate was sold to Henry Harpur in 1622. The main building, a baroque mansion, was constructed in 1701 by Sir John Harpur. The architecture of the façade was inspired by the neoclassical trend rising to prominence at the time, featuring three large columns and a pediment over the entrance way. Over the exquisitely carved wooden fireplace still rests a fifteenth century coats of arms brought later to the house by Sir John Harper, on which a hand is thought to symbolise that he was a knight. The Caricature Room, exhibiting satirical cartoons by Regency artists such as Rowlandson, is a feature which was popular in high society until the late nineteenth century when the trend eventually grew out of fashion and the owner decided to have it wall-papered over.

Calke Abbey is vastly different to the majority of other stately homes which are open to tourists during the summer months

The last baronet who inherited the house, Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe, was interested in natural history and collected many specimens. Visitors can still view his extensive collection of 900 stuffed animals, just under a third of the original collection. When he died in 1924, his daughter Hilda had to sell the majority of specimens in order to pay for the death duties.

The grandeur of the property began to decline slowly throughout the course of the twentieth century, largely due to the huge economic burden that running such a massive house had on Hilda and her nephew Charles. When Charles Harpur-Crewe died, the death duties came to £8 million, a significant portion of the estate’s £14 million worth; and so the estate was ultimately given over to the National Trust.

Visitors are immediately struck by Calke Abbey’s uniqueness as a property which is frozen in time. The contents have been untouched, accumulating dust and even cobwebs. The paintwork on parts of the ceiling has cracked and one staircase has been rampaged by woodworm, reinforced by the National Trust only enough as to allow visitors to ascend to the upper floors safely. Expensive oak furniture and ancient children’s toys are scattered in each room almost haphazardly, left that way by the owners in their panic.

Expensive oak furniture and ancient children’s toys are scattered in each room almost haphazardly, left that way by the owners in their panic

When I think of other estates open to the public which I have visited this summer, they provide an entirely different historical experience. The famous Chatsworth House, for example, is a very impressive estate which attracts thousands due to its manicured beauty and now, as of this summer, newly restored gold-leaf windows and accents. Glinting in the sunlight amongst classically well-structured gardens and countryside, the splendour of the Cavendish home is anything but understated. Similarly Burghley House, as a sight-seeing destination, boasts high-profile Italian works by artists such as Veronese and Sofonisba Anguissola and beautiful sweeping gardens by landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Looking around in both Chatsworth and Burghley, one sees the old black and white photographs proudly exhibited in their drawing rooms. They were taken during the early twentieth century to show off-guard, natural portrayals of family life but these images are almost unrecognisable when compared to the present grand rooms they are displayed in. In comparison, the sheer extent of Calke Abbey’s crumbling disrepair provides its main and entirely unique appeal for an avid historian or student. It is steeped in historical honesty to a larger degree than houses which have been restored in a plea to impress the public. Rather than being so heavily restored in recent times and therefore compromising a sense of authenticity, Calke Abbey does not shy away from showcasing its candid story of decline in its entirety.

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