Calke Abbey dreams

One of my favorite places in the UK is Calke Abbey. I stopped there on my way from Edinburgh to Oxford, having first seen the place in 1989, three or four years after the National Trust took it over. Every time I go, I wander the house and grounds in wonder (and have a great cup of tea and a scone afterwards, of course), astonished at the work.

Calke Abbey is a family home where, as happened so often, the family slowly died off. From the Great War on, the numbers dwindled: first the direct descendents died, which eliminated the title, and then the sideways family that inherited were less interested, and finally the burden became too much, and the National Trust had another jewel in its crown.

The fascinating thing about Calke, however, is not the body of the house or the beauty of the garden, although those are quite enough to keep the eyes busy. Nor is it the treasure within, although that too occupies the mind—on the one hand, literally hundreds of enormous glass display cases of stuffed animals, dominating the main rooms and piled up in all the spare bedrooms, and this after 2/3 of the collection were sold to pay death duties; on the other hand, a stunning, mint condition, 18th century state bed, its four posters draped with gorgeous white and dark blue silk solid with Chinese embroidery, never put up because it was too big for any of the bedrooms, miraculously stored away from the various roof leaks.

The main concern at Calke is the decay itself. The National Trust went through the place and found bedrooms abandoned as if the occupant had just stepped out, a 1920s kitchen still scattered with pots and pans, nursery rooms piled with toys and doll houses. And in their wisdom, they chose, not to restore, but to preserve: meticulously, precisely, and lovingly. The goal at Calke is the preservation of decay, so that when they got down to those 60 year old iron pans in the kitchen covered with rust, they didn’t clean them, they brushed off the rust and coated the surfaces with clear wax, so the metal didn’t deteriorate further. The hundreds of enormous glass cases containing hummingbirds and grouse and crocodile skulls sit where they were found.

There are a few exceptions. One of the rooms badly damaged by rain and rot has been brought back to life, its bright plaster work and clean wallpaper a startling contrast to the carefully preserved peeling paint and worn wallpaper next door. And the state bed, vulnerable as wood and metal are not, is assembled in a room with a high enough ceiling, and now locked away inside a climate-controlled, twenty foot high glass case. When I first saw it, some of the drapes were still inside their wooden packing cases, which somehow had managed to preserve the contents against 250 years of damp and insect.

If the family had had a bedroom tall enough to put up the bed, the thing would be a ghost of itself, faded, the embroidery snagged and worn, the silk patched, the tightly-wound fibers of peacock feathers spring and missing.

Some day, I will write about Calke Abbey.

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  1. LaideeMarjorie on June 23, 2008 at 10:50 am


    That was so fascinating that I had to look up the abbey. Here is a link to some photos(others may have to cut and paste it):

    Thanks, again, Laurie for letting us peek over your shoulder on this trip. Fantastic!


  2. admin on June 23, 2008 at 11:50 am

    Yes, thanks, I meant to include this link and forgot I can do so now I’m home and working off the desktop. I’ve now put it in, sorry for the repeated post….


  3. LaideeMarjorie on June 23, 2008 at 11:56 am


    Please feel free to delete me if you’d like. (Well, that first post and all of this.)

    The photo of the kitchen at the Abbey is so poignant, isn’t it? Sort of the twentieth century version of Pompeii. It makes me feel quite wistful.


  4. Strawberry Curls on June 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    My list of places that I simply must see on my next trip to England is expanding at an alarming rate with these accounts of your trip, Ms. King.

    The pictures of this Abbey are fantastic, thanks for doing the research Marjorie! You are so right, the kitchen does give you a chill thinking of it abandoned in that state, a twentieth century Pompeii indeed. Well put!


  5. ladonna on June 23, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    We visited Calke shortly after it became a National Trust property. The house wasn’t opened yet — just the grounds. We were living in Derbyshire (Hatton) and I was working at another NT property (Sudbury Hall) — I can remember the comments and rumors that made the rounds after the curators had their first tours at Calke — the newspapers in piles next to the chair where they had been read, the misplaced cup and saucer found by a bookshelf, but mostly the acres of stuffed animals and birds! An exclamation of “Ghastly!!” just sounds so much better when uttered by a prim and proper Oxbridge educated historian!!

  6. Kerry on June 23, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Calke Abbey looks fascinating! FYI, those cases of stuffed critters were actually pretty common in Victorian times (and a bit earlier, if my fuzzy memory serves correctly). They were often used for decoration (I’ve seen some that are really stunning in the arrangement of specimens) and were part and parcel of a sort of mania for natural history collecting that also included pressed plants, pinned insects, and shells in trays. My understanding is that this pastime was an outgrowth of the Natural Theology of the day, an outlook in which studying God’s creations (i.e., all those collected plants and animals) was to study God. In fact, many of the most notable natural historians of the time were clerics.

    Darwin himself began as a beetle collector . . .

  7. riobonito on June 24, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Oh please do. I would so enjoy reading more about the Abbey. I’m glad you are home. I was concerned about the lastest spat of fires that have hit. What a crazy storm. Smoky in my neck of the woods.

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