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 mindâ€”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 didnâ€™t clean them, they brushed off the rust and coated the surfaces with clear wax, so the metal didnâ€™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.