Over the hills to Calke

For twenty years, one of my favorite places in Britain has been Calke Abbey, not far from the gloriously named Ashby de la Zouche in Derbyshire.  The National Trust took possession of the property in 1984 and embraced its idiosyncratic nature of it by treating and presenting Calke as “a country house in decline.”

The Harpur family bought the land, which had indeed long before been the site of an abbey, in the early 1600s.  A few years later, Sir Henry purchased a baronetcy to go with Calke’s grand setting, but it wasn’t until the early years of the 18th century that the house itself was vastly renovated into the impressive hall of its prime.  (And we shall stop here for a moment while you scroll through the slide show of the house and grounds.)

When the first NT employees entered the house, they must have felt like explorers in darkest Africa, for Calke had been the home of generations of eccentric collectors, passionate assemblers of seashells, stuffed animals, and oddities in general.  The sitting room is piled high with scores of glass display cases of birds and animals.  The kitchen was simply closed one day, leaving the pans and implements where they had last been used.  Behind the stables doors were all the tack and supplies of the horse world, simply abandoned.  And imagine the shock when the NT pried open a large wooden crate found in a room with a leaky roof, and found this:


A pristine, unused, unfaded, un-motheaten set of embroidered silk bed hangings dating from a 1734 marriage, never unpacked.

The Harpur family, later Harpur Crewe, was not only possessed of a gene for manic collection, but also that of solitary eccentricity.  The family slowly died off over the 20th century, leaving it finally to the National Trust to cherish the deer and the rusty buckets, the orangerie and the stables. 

If you go, the nearby village of Ticknall has a lovely inn called The Staff of Life, with an impressive and beautifully cooked menu, friendly staff, a pair of black labs eager for a toss of the ball, and a couple of draped four-poster beds that, while not up to Calke’s state bed, will comfort the sleeper tired by a day’s hike over the Calke  grounds.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m tempted to discover that Mary Russell was there…

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  1. Pat Floyd on September 13, 2009 at 5:03 am

    Thank you, Laurie, for a delightful tour.

  2. Strawberry Curls on September 13, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    My list of “must sees” just grows and grows with each of your blogs. You are better than any guide book, Laurie, and I trust your opinion so much more. Thanks for taking us along with you on this trip. 🙂


  3. Jessara on September 14, 2009 at 5:18 am

    Travel at this time of year is delightful, and with the cost of this trip I can afford the best food on the menu. Your link to the Staff of Life didn’t work, but it’s easy to find. I’ll have the seared breast of Gressingham duck tomorrow night, and then the pheasant in red wine with herb dumplings for lunch Wednesday. Wait, I really like the sound of shin of beef. (Hauls out cookbooks). This could be a high-calorie visit, and we don’t have the lovely scenery to traipse over. I can pin a travel poster in front of my treadmill but it’s not the same. Please enjoy it for us. (Where’s a recipe for burnt orange syrup? It sounds wonderful.)

  4. Jessara on September 14, 2009 at 5:25 am

    Drat, wrong ‘Staff of Life’ link; that one wasn’t in Ticknall. Now I have to start all over; a creamy mushroom tower, then steak and ale pie, and…

  5. Merrily on September 14, 2009 at 7:46 am

    So Alice, are you taking notes for our next trip?
    I visited a house in Savannah, Ga some years ago (sadly I am blanking on its name) which puts me in mind of Laurie’s description of Calke Abbey. The owners had also been huge collectors, and the last occupant of the house had died with no heirs at a great age and left the place “as is.” “As is” included unopened crates from her parents’ honeymoon trip to Europe at the turn of the 20th century! It was quite a place!

  6. TheMadLibrarian on September 14, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Estate sales can be quite remarkable, as far as what you get. DH and I bought our house contents intact as an estate sale. The previous owner had been quite a tinkerer, verging on an Eccentric, and we are still discovering oddities nearly 5 years later.

    Now I must find a recipe for that steak and ale pie!

  7. La Donna on September 14, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    “yes, I’m tempted to discover that Mary Russell was there…”

    Now that would be fun!! The last baronet (Vauncey Harpur-Crewe) died in December of 1924 and the house went on to a daughter (the daughters had interesting names and I can’t remember which one inherited — Helga? Hilda? starts with an H anyway). Vauncey was something of a character in a family of characters — I think he forbid his daughters from marrying but one did and got thrown out for her pains. The one who inherited Calke Abbey passed it on to a nephew. There were sons but they died before Vauncey did. Plenty of material to work with there!!!

  8. TheMadLibrarian on September 15, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Steak and ale pie was duly created for dinner, and even DH, the picky eater, approved!

  9. Meredith T on September 16, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    At last, a house more disheveled than mine. And can you imagine the feelings of the person who found That Bed! for the history nuts of the world, practically heart-stopping. I’d say, do do have Russell and Holmes ramble in.//Meredith

  10. Laraine on September 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Thought I’d previously posted a most sincere ‘thank you!’ for the joy of discovering I won a copy of the prize book . . . looking forward to its arrival with anticipation.
    As my brother and sister-in-law were just in England (Bridport area) and loved their rambles there, I’m delighted to share your recent posts with them. Thanks for the fascinating links on the library and the ‘in decline’ property; love these glimpses.

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