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A Stately Oddity
Calke Abbey (Ticknall)
Member Name: BizzyB
Calke Abbey (Ticknall)
Date: 27/07/01, updated on 27/07/01 (2411 review reads)
Advantages: Bizarre, Extensive and very beautiful parkland
Disadvantages: Taxidermy overload, IS it right not too restore at all?
I have had a passion for stately homes and historic buildings for as long as I can remember. When I was young and other children would beg to be taken to theme parks for their summer holiday treat it was a formality that I would ask for a trip to Castle Howard.
If you are like me, you will probably have a very set view of the traditional stately home. Grand houses such as Castle Howard and Chatsworth House often spring to the imagination as the typical open stately home complete with grand architecture, finery and pristine gardens. With this image Calke Abbey isn't so much a stately home as a home in a state. This is not to say the National Trust has let a great estate go to ruin, on the contrary, read on and I will try my best to describe one of the trusts more unusual conservation programmes.
Calke Abbey is situated in the village of Ticknall, Derbyshire about 10miles south of Derby in between Melbourne and Swadlincote. There is ample car parking at a fee of £2.60 which is refundable should you buy entrance into the house. Due to current foot and mouth restrictions there is a temporary route to the Abbey and facilities (follow the signs). When F&M allow, the route from Ticknall village to the road to the house is quite uneven and winds through the extensive parkland which is home to Portland sheep, deer and much wildlife. As of writing the sheep and deer are currently in an excluded area as the region has been exposed to F&M.
If you are not taking the car you can also reach the Abbey by regular buses that stop at Ticknall on the Derby-Swadlincote route. Get off at Ticknall and it is an just over a 1mile walk through the park land to the house. Please note in the current F&M restrictions it may be worth ringing ahead to ensure access. Ticknall is on the route of many well used walk and cycling routes in the South Derbyshire area.
On arrival the car parking is next to the converted stable block which now house
the information and ticket office, restaurant, toilets, shop and small information display.
All visitors are required to buy either a house and garden or garden only ticket at the ticket office. The current cost is:
House and Garden access-
(your car park entrance fee will be reimbursed should you buy these tickets)
Note there are savings for National Trust members and group bookings.
Tickets give entry to the house on a timed basis at busy periods to try and ease congestion. The current opening times are 1 March 2001 - 28 February 2002:
House, church & garden until 4 November, daily bar Thurs and Fri: 1pm - 5.30pm
Garden: 11am - 5.30pm
Parkland: open most days until 9pm or dusk.
Closed August 11th for a concert to take place in the parkland.
With your ticket to the ready, you walk through the stables and down a small garden pathway to the front of the house.
The house was built in 1701-3 by Sir John Harpur on the land which had once housed a 12th century Augustian monastery hence the house is still known as Calke Abbey. Originally built in a Baroque style I find it a rather numb looking, symmetrical building which has been greatly altered over the years, notably at the end of the 18th century when Sir Henry Harpur commissioned extensive alterations in a Neo-classical style and the early 19th century dismantling of the ornate second floor entrance and grand steps that led up to it.
Entrance to the house is through the small, and rather unimpressive, entrance hall. I highly recommend you purchase one of the guide booklets available. As well as guiding you through the bricks, mortar and contents of the house it will give you a great insight into how such a once great house became so run down.
As a short overview when Calke Abbey was acquired by the National Trust in 1985 it was often called '
;the house where time stood still', a tagline they still use to advertise the house.
The home of the Harpur family houses the mystery and intrigue of a good historical drama novel. The 18th century owner Sir Henry Harpur adopted the name Crewe, a family with a Baron title into whom his ancestors had married. Sir Henry had great aspirations to be in the full swing of aristocratic life but was later shunned by his peers when he lived with and eventually married a lady's maid. The family tale is one of both increased and lost social standing through marriage, quirky eccentricity and reclusive nature. A family of hoarders, they apparently kept themselves to themselves and as the years wore on the extreme expense and their own idiosyncrasy lead the house to become a static memorial to the family. Indeed two years ago the death of the last Harpur-Crewe lead to an extensive investigation into the rightful heir, finally tracked down to a distant relation in America who had never even heard of Calke Abbey or the family! The makings of a mini-series surely!
The entrance hall is small and very dark with poor lighting and dark wood paneling. It soon becomes apparent that this is not a stately home of glittering cutlery and fine porcelain. The walls are hung with the mounted heads of prize cattle in the style of hunting trophies and this remains a lasting theme of the house.
If you do not like taxidermy this is one house possibly best avoided or be prepared for. Born in 1846, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe was somewhat of an adventurer and natural history buff. His extensive travels are reflected in his hug collections of stuffed birds and animals, bird eggs, shells, fossils and artifacts. The items are not displayed as such in the majority rooms but left as the house was found, literally rooms packed to the ceiling with glass exhibit cases of stuffed animal after stuffed animal. I will admit it was quite a creepy sight. As a regular
of museums and stately homes I have seen many such exhibits and been able to appreciate them in their context as an exhibit but the sheer extent and apparent chaos of this collection was bordering on the bizarre.
The trail through the house takes you up the main staircase which is an impressive cantilevered oak and yew carved rise. The majority of paintings are of race horses, the Harpur-Crewe's having had a long running equestrian interest.
You soon come to realise the lack of decoration and restoration in the house. There is no ornate wallpaper or beautifully conserved carpets in the majority of rooms. You will notice many pieces of flaking paint and cracked plaster which gives the house an almost grimy feel. The stairs and landing lead to one of the most peculiar rooms in the house, the Butlers pantry. This once grand room is left furnished as found - in 1960s style. It is remarkably odd to walk into a once grand house to find a kitchen which looks like an enlarged version of many a terraced house's 1960's kitchen.
The Butler's Pantry leads to the Dining Room which, unlike the rest of the house, has been restored by the National Trust. It was restored because the Trust say they found it in a state of decoration that was 'inappropriate'. The room had been decorated in the 1960s and I am told it was somewhat of a psychedelic colourfest. Now, my argument with the Trust here is why was it considered necessary to deem this 1960s décor 'inappropriate' yet they will not carry out what appears to be the most basic of renovation in other areas of the house? As it is the Dining Room has been restored to its 18th century look, guided by the paint fragments found underneath the 1960s decorating. This room is the nearest you will find to the quintessential stately home look. Sumptuous reds and gold and an elegantly laid out dining table look the staple of stately home life. However, I can't help but t
hink I would like to have seen the 1960s look, having an imagine in my mind of toffs wearing velvet-flared suits and flowers in their hair. That 1960s look is not inappropriate to my mind as it was a genuine part of the house's history, but that's just my view!
The following room is the breakfast room with an impressive peak marble fireplace, which leads to the Saloon.
The saloon is a large, two storey high room which was once the entrance hall when the grand outdoor steps led up to its extensive front. This room is full of Sir Vauncey's artifacts and yet more stuffed animal. Well laid out, at least it is possible to see these items at close quarters and in some form of order.
The adjourning Drawing room is a classical looking 18th century sitting room with flock wallpaper and exquisite textiles. You cannot walk round this room, viewing is from the doorway only and you will see a large collection of pottery and china laid out on the table. This is disappointing as it is difficult to appreciate the items and many of them are from different eras and styles which is distracting.
You exit the Saloon through the library which for any bookphile is a treasure. Adorned with more paintings of race horses, this is the one room where you actually feel a sense that real people once lived here and considered it home, and due to this it has the warmest feel of any of the rooms.
The Boudoir and Yellow Rooms are said to be little changed though as with so many of the rooms they are 'littered' with cases of taxidermy. Whilst the original wallpaper and textiles survive it does feel exceedingly shabby and you cannot help but feel the depth of decay the house has seen.
The schoolroom is another of the rooms that made me feel somewhat uneasy. Strewn with children's books and toys it looks as if people just up and left which in a sense is what has happened. The room is in a state of ruin and this is
mainly due to when the house was taken over by the army in the Second World War. This fact increases that uneasy feeling as you see something of the reality of childhood alongside war.
Sir Vauncey Harper Crewe's bedroom is next, yes with yet more taxidermy, and has been left as found and it is hard to see how anyone could have slept in such chaos. The structure, as well as the décor, is showing signs of decay and it was in this room that I began to seriously question the National Trust's decision to leave the house 'as is'. Maybe it was the personal nature of this room and artifacts but I felt as if I had overstepped the mark of admiring a building and contents to being sucked into that reality tv voyeurism of looking in at what has obviously been a different if not a little odd family.
It was also in this room that I talked in depth to a National Trust volunteer guide who's knowledge of the house and its history was extensive to say the least - a credit to the Trust.
The final row of rooms on the upper floor consists of the Nurseries, Bird Lobby, Gardener Wilkinson Library and Oak Bedroom. All these rooms are little more than storage for yet more of the family artifacts and taxidermy which having been left in the random way they were found meaning they are difficult to comprehend and quite frankly, by this time even Mr. Paxo couldn't face another stuffed bird!
You exit the house via stone stairs to the West Passage. As this house had no attics this was were the servants were housed and the in house communication system of bells and pulleys is still evident. Whilst the rooms remain in their limewash state the Housemaid's Bedroom certainly contains a bed she will not have laid in!
On cataloguing the house's contents the Trust came across the Calke State Bed which is believed to have been a gift from the Royal family on the marriage of Sir Henry Harpur in 1734. It has never been out of
its box, it is thought none of the rooms could have taken the height of the bed and so it was left in its box next to the linen closest! As such the fine and intricate Chinese silk embroided bed spread and canopy is in near perfect condition with the original vibrate colours still shining. The Trust has put the bed up in full museum conditions, behind glass and in a darkened setting. It is without doubt the most impressive display of the house and whereas in the more traditional stately home you will see room after room of such quality, in Calke this bed grabs your attention having been through the drab and disorganised nature of the rest of the house.
From this museum piece it is back to rooms full of clutter as it becomes apparent little was thrown away from Calke. One room is full of the old gas lamps which were made redundant when electricity was installed in 1962.
There are two exits from the house at this point. You can leave through the west door back into the gardens or go through the courtyard via the cellars and tunnel which bring you out to the brewery section of the stables.
I wholeheartedly recommend the tunnels - without doubt my favourite aspect of the house. If you are claustrophobic though they are best avoided as they are quite daunting as they taper the further you go on. It is also advisable to make sure you have sensible, non-slip shoes on as the stones of the courtyard and tunnel can be slippy.
The tunnel is fascinating and certainly fires the imagination of illicit liaisons, the toffs of the house running off for a tumble in the haylofts of the stable with the milk maid. Now of course if this ever happened is unknown but once you've watched a few period dramas it's hard for the imagination not to wander this way.
Back at the stables there is a small collection of cars and carriages and the stables are in excellent condition - certainly better condition than the house.
side, the gardens are well worth an exploration even for the non-greenfingered amongst us. The grounds are extensive and include a small walled flower garden, a physic garden which is now used to grow fruit and vegetables, make sure you have some spare money with you as they often sell their own produce and plant cuttings here. The original kitchen garden is now left to grass but the expanse of it is impressive and must have taken a small army of gardeners to keep it ticking over. You can also see the ingenious method of heating the walls of the orangery and fruit areas so they could grow soft, delicate and more exotic fruits and vegetables. The large orangery is currently being restored and is an impressive edifice of brick and glass.
The gardener's potting shed and storage areas have been left as found and for gardeners it is interesting to note how little has changed in the mainstay of gardening tools. It is rather poignant to see the gardener's shed still has the rosettes and place cards up from their winning entries into local garden shows in the 1970s.
The small family church is worth the walk up the hill that overlooks the front of the house. On one of my visits it was a few days after the death of the last of the direct Harpur-Crewe family and the church was still decorated with flowers from her funeral. It was a very moving visit. As the guide at the church explained she had been buried in the family crypt below the church which is entered by removing a number of pews. As he said, she would be the final member of the family to be laid to rest there and the crypt would not be opened again. The church walls are hung with the mourning banners of the family. It was explained that these large diamond banners were put up on the gate to donate a death of a member of the family, the differing crests and colouring denoted whether it be the lady or husband of the house that had passed away. The church is still used by local peo
ple to this day.
The converted stable blocks house toilets, restaurant and shop. The shop is well stocked with items of local interest as well as National Trust merchandise, and there's a range to suit all pockets. The restaurant can get very crowded at busy periods and is a self-service style with hot and cold meals, drinks and desserts. I thought it was rather pricey but the quality was good and there was an interesting choice including many local specialties and dishes using the produce of the kitchen garden. When I ate there I noted there was a good vegetarian selection. Highchairs and a baby menu and heating service are available.
With so much beautiful parkland though and picnic areas it is well worth taking a picnic and given the expanse of the estate I recommend you put at least a full afternoon if not longer to get the most out of the area. Many people visit Calke time and time again just to walk in the parkland which leads to a series of ponds and the river, through wooded areas. My only complaint was some of the paths were not well marked. Dogs are allowed in the parkland on leads only and are not allowed into the gardens and house. It is worth noting that the car parking available is not shaded so if you have a dog in the car you must ensure you take your own shades, water bowl and ventilation.
Calke Abbey is not greatly accessible for the disabled. If you ask at the ticket office, it may be worth phoning ahead to make arrangements, there is a 5-seat buggy driven by a volunteer to take people from the car park to the house. The ground floor of the house is accessible to wheelchair users and there are photo albums available of the inaccessible rooms. The church has a number of small steps leading into it and some areas of the garden and parkland are difficult for wheelchair users. For blind visitors there are Braille guides on request and some exhibits can be touched. There is also a sympathetic hearing sys
tem for hearing aide users.
There are a number of organised fun and educational days organized at Calke Abbey and it is worth contacting the information office for details. Events include such things as guided nature walks and craft demonstrations with a number aimed specifically at children in the holidays. Calke has also been home to a yearly outdoor concert, this year they are holding a Glenn Miller/Big Band evening which attracts thousands of spectators. There are often flower and plant sales.
Calke Abbey makes for an intriguing day out and certainly a change from the 'normal' stately homes and Grand Houses of Britain. I think the entrance prices are a little too high but can also understand the need to increase revenue in this costly venture. It is an oddly fascinating place that fires the imagination on many levels.
Personally, I am not convinced that the National Trust is right to leave the house as it is and I do not believe that a limited programme of restoration would distract from the house's unusual history. I certainly believe the immediate course of action should be to ensure the present structural state of repairs is maintained if not improved. One thing Calke Abbey does highlight is the state of a number of houses in the country and the immense cost both financially and timewise for their preservation. The National Trust is no doubt in a great quandary over where their efforts are best spent. Calke Abbey is a very rewarding estate not only for visitors but for local peoples who care a great deal for this pivotal estate of Southern Derbyshire.
Contact details for Calke Abbey:
Telephone : 01332 863822
Fax : 01332 865272
Further details can be found on the National Trust website at www.nationaltrust.org.uk
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