There’s nothing we love more in the UK than a stately home, but Calke Abbey in Derbyshire is one with a difference.
Normally the grandeur and elegance of a country house takes us back to a bygone era. It’s easy to imagine the lords and ladies who spent their time there hosting balls and great dinners.
However, what we very rarely think about is the cost of up-keeping and maintaining those homes. Nowadays many are in the hands of organisations such as the National Trust. However, those still owned by individuals continue to cost huge amounts of money to run.
“The un-stately home”
So visiting Calke Abbey was a real eye-opening experience. The Grade I listed country house is billed as “the un-stately home” due to its rundown appearance. The National Trust took ownership of the house and country estate in Ticknall, Derbyshire, in 1985. But by that time it was in very poor condition, with many rooms simply shut up as the inhabitants couldn’t afford the maintenance.
We visited the house, which was built between 1701 and 1704, during our anniversary stay at Breedon Hall. The house is the biggest local tourist attraction and it’s easy to see why. It’s such a rare, unique insight into the world of the struggling upper classes.
‘Repair’ rather than ‘restore’
After taking ownership of Calke Abbey the National Trust made a decision to ‘repair’ rather than ‘restore’ the estate. This means it will make good and mend things, so that they do not fall into further disrepair. However it will not return things to their former glory.
At first this struck me as quite a strange decision. After all imagine how beautiful it would be to see the house and grounds in its full glory. But the more I wandered around this beautiful, shabby, building, the more I understood the important social message it makes.
These houses are not easy to upkeep and Calke Abbey’s dramatic decline tells a story of the difficulty of slowly watching a house disintegrate around you. It provides a fascinating insight into a family slowly having to come to terms with the fact that they couldn’t continue to keep the house.
The other amazing thing is that the Harpur family, who owned the house for nearly 300 years, were hoarders. They hardly ever threw anything away, which means it is a time capsule of the years gone by.
Their particular passion was taxidermy and there are entire rooms dedicated to it, with display cases reaching to the ceilings.
As the collection grew and space began to run out, items were moved to wherever they could be stored. This essentially just led to some rooms being filled with stag heads.
A forgotten garden
The garden tells the same story. It must have been absolutely stunning in its day. It featured an orangery (with a sophisticated heating system), a huge vegetable garden and formal flower gardens.
However when The National Trust took it over it was overrun by the deers who live on the site. Over the years the deers have been contained in an enclosure in the park. But while the gardens have been maintained, they have not been completely replanted.
The house and gardens are well worth a visit. However the estate is also open for people who just want to walk or have a picnic. But be warned there is a parking charge per person, even for those visiting the house and gardens (charged separately).
Entrance times into the house are also timed and slots fill up quickly particularly during the holidays. For more information visit the Calke Abbey website.