Calke Abbey

To say Croome had a lot to offer, Calke Abbey is something else… and a completely different National Trust offering. It is advertised as an “Un-stately Stately Home”; something different with a rough around the edges image in varying degrees of restoration, with a distinctly quirky atmosphere and boy… where do I start.

The South Front of Calke Abbey built for Sir John Harpur by an unknown architect and completed in 1703
Calke Abbey ©National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

A Little History

The roots of Calke Abbey date back to the 12th Century as a priory before the English Reformation, and after several owners was acquired by the Harper family who lived at the estate from 1622 in an existing house until the current house was built in 1701-1704 by Sir John Harper, 4th Baronet.

As the years passed, the Harpur family became slightly eccentric with a proclivity for isolation and taxidermy, beginning with the 7th Baronet; Sir Henry Harpur who inherited the estate in 1789. The 7th Baronet was a very reclusive man who preferred solitude and following a liaison with a lady’s maid named Nanny Hawkins, fathered an illegitimate daughter before marrying her and fathering a further 8 children. The 7th Baronet had a vast wealth of £10,000 a year (matching that of Austen’s Mr. Darcy), lived in complete isolation, both as his preference and from the social ostracism following his scandalous marriage to a lady’s maid, the extent of his isolation was reported by diarist Joseph Farington who wrote that the Baronet dined alone at a table laid for company, and communicated with his servants via notes rather than speech.

The seclusion at Calke Abbey skipped a generation following death of the 7th Baronet, but returned with the 9th Baronet who inherited the estate in 1844. Whilst not as obsessed with seclusion as the the 7th Baronet, the 9th Baronet Sir John Harpur Crewe preferred avoiding public life in favour of cattle and sheep breeding, and his interest in geology. After the 9th Baronet’s death, the estate was inherited by his son Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe who has been described as the most ‘spectacularly eccentric’ of the Harpur Crewe baronets. Vauncey Harpur Crewe neglected his duties as a landowner, leaving all social obligations to his wife and would hide away whenever a visitor arrived. He had a passion for natural history and the natural world, attempting to turn the estate into a nature reserve and filling the house with a menagerie of stuffed creatures.

The Harpur baronetcy ended in 1924 with the death of Sir Vauncey, however Calke Abbey remained in the family until 1985 when the estate was transferred to the National Trust, the Harpur Crewe line died in 1991 with the death of the Henry Jenney (Harpur Crewe).

The House

Let me start by saying Calke Abbey is a BIG house, full to the brim of ‘things’; furniture, objects, stuffed animals, in all honesty the sheer amount of stuffed animals was overwhelming and disturbing.

When visiting you’ll be given a time slot for entry, to ensure free movement around the property and on entry to the house be sure to ask if you can leave your backpack there, during my visit there was no sign whatsoever asking to leave backpacks or bulky bags at the entrance, nor was I asked, however mid tour there was a slight fuss made about the risk of knocking over a ‘precious glass object’ and asked to carry my bag on my front rather than back. I would definitely recommend the National Trust do more to advertise this requirement, to save other guest the embarrassment of being lambasted for carrying a backpack.

On entry, the first room is the Entrance Hall.

The Entrance Hall at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Entrance Hall ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

The Entrance hall is quite a dark room compared to many of the country houses I have visited in the past, prior to 1806 steps up to what is now the Saloon would’ve been used as the entrance for the family when a Grecian portico was added to the front of the house along with four large pilasters.

To the left of the Entrance Hall is a Billiard Room which is furnished as a sort of study and doesn’t seem wholly big enough to fit a billiards table. After this, you leave the Entrance Hall and enter the Lobby, with the Principe Stairs to your left, and a ‘Caricature Room’ and Study to your right.

I’ve not seen anything like the Caricature Room before, where caricature’s (a sort of comic book picture) were pasted to the wall.

A view of the Caricature Room at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Caricature Room ©National Trust Images/John Hammond 2011

After the Caricature Room, you head up the Principal Stairs to the first floor where the main rooms are located.

The Principal Staircase at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Principal Stairs ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

The first floor is home to the Saloon, Dining Room, Drawing Room, Library, Boudoir as well as a few other rooms than you can see, and a number that are not open to the public,

The Saloon

View of the Saloon at Calke Abbey showing the glazed oak display case, billiard display case, table with alligator skull and portrait of Lady Frances Harpur and her son Henry by Tilly Kettle
Calke Abbey Saloon ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Saloon is a large bright space, decorated with many animal heads and animal specimens, though I assure you this is just a tiny fraction of the specimens on show at Calke. Before visiting Calke Abbey, I went with a preconception that the house would be in a state of decay, but many rooms show very little decay, and definitely not the peeling wallpaper, exposed timber and rotting silk wallhangings, at least in the principle rooms.

To the left of the Saloon is the Breakfast Room and then Dining Room.

View of the breakfast Room at Calke Abbey, showing the circular table inlaid with light and dark oak in radiating bands, as well as photographs of Richard Harpur and Sir Vauncey in old age
Calke Abbey Breakfast Room ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
The Dining Room at Calke Abbey, Deryshire
Calke Abbey Dining Room ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

To the right of the Saloon is the Drawing Room.

The Drawing Room at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Drawing Room ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

The Drawing Room was *full* of chairs, in size it was was about a third of the size of the Saloon and every available space was used. It was at this point in the tour that my friends said they half expected to see Miss Havisham or a decaying wedding dress at the house, though Calke isn’t quite at that stage of decay, even if the owners were every bit as eccentric as Dicken’s Miss Havisham.

After leaving the Saloon you can view the next set of rooms on the First Floor, starting with the library.

The Library at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.
Calke Abbey Library ©National Trust Images/John Hammond 2011
The Boudoir at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Boudoir ©National Trust Images/John Hammond 2011

At the end of the series of rooms leading from the library, you arrive at the School Room, this is the first room that really shows the decay of the house.

The School Room at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.
Calke Abbey School Room ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

After the School Room you go up to the Second Floor, where you can view several several bedrooms and the nursery rooms.

View of Sir Vauncey Harpur's Bedroom at Calke Abbey
Calke Abbey Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe’s Bedroom ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Sir Vauncey’s bedroom is now of the rooms you can view on the second floor, once again, there is a lot of animal head’s adorning the room with specimens displayed in cabinets, this room doesn’t look in terrible condition, however the ceiling has a few quite worrying cracks.

In addition to Sir Vauncey’s bedroom, you can view the ‘Bird Lobby’ this is a room full of stuffed birds.

A collection of stuffed birds at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Bird Lobby ©National Trust Images/John Hammond 2011

After viewing the other rooms on the second floor, you return to the First Floor where you can enter the Butler’s Pantry, and a few rooms with exhibits including a State Bed.

The State Bed at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.
Calke Abbey State Bed ©National Trust Images/John Millar

The State Bed was discovered wrapped in tissue in boxes in a first floor closet in the 1980s, never having been assembled. It dates back to the early 17th Century, and is believed to have been a wedding gift to the wife of the 5th Baronet, who was a lady in waiting to Princess Anne (later Queen Anne) when she married the Prince of Orange (later William III) in 1734. The bed was too big to fit in any of the bedrooms at Calke and so was left stored and undisturbed for centuries, it is decorated with deep blue and ivory Chinese silk embroidered with colours, gold thread and scenes of cranes, lions, peasants, pagodas and mythical dragons.

You then return to the ground floor and can see some of the servant’s rooms and kitchen before exiting the house.

The house was an interesting place, somewhat quirky, strange, disturbing even, with all the stuffed animals, and it is chock-full of STUFF, every room is full of furniture, objects from the past and specimens/stuffed creatures.

As well as the house, Calke Abbey is home to substantial grounds and gardens.

The Garden and Park

Besides the house, there is a large stableyard which is now used as the entrance, shop, cafe and restaurant.

When you exist the stable yard, you walk down a small downhill path covered in foliage, leading to the house with is well hidden.

Past the house you walk up a path and from there you can either visit the church, or continue to the walled gardens and deer park.

St Giles Church, remodelled by Sir George Crewe in 1827-9, with the Ha Ha in the foreground on Calke Abbey estate
Calke Abbey St Giles Church ©National Trust Images/Mike Williams
Vegetable garden at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.
Calke Abbey Vegetable Garden ©National Trust Images/John Millar
The Orangery at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Orangery ©National Trust Images/James Dobson
The old Aviary at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Old Aviary ©National Trust Images/James Dobson
The Walled Garden entrance to the Gardeners' tunnel at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Walled Garden Tunnel ©National Trust Images/James Dobson
CALKE ABBEY
Calke Abbey Grotto ©National Trust Images
The tunnel from the Ale and Beer Cellars, leading to the Brewery and Stables at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
Calke Abbey Brewery and Stables Tunnel ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

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