There’s nothing we love more in the UK than a stately home. The grandeur and elegance takes us back to a bygone era and it’s easy to imagine the lords and ladies who spent their time there hosting balls and great dinners (Pride and Prejudice anyone?) However, what we very rarely think about is the cost of up-keeping and maintaining those homes. Nowadays many are in the hands of organisations such as the National Trust, but those still owned by individuals continue to cost huge amounts of money to run (as anyone who’s watched Downton Abbey will be only to aware of.)
So visiting Calke Abbey was a real eye-opening experience for me. The Grade I listed country house is billed as “the un-stately home” due to its rundown appearance. The National Trust took ownership of the house and country estate in Ticknall, Derbyshire, in 1985, by which time it was in very poor condition, with many rooms simply shut up as the inhabitants couldn’t afford the cost of maintaining them.
We visited the house, which was built between 1701 and 1704, during our anniversary stay at Beecham Hall. The house is the biggest local tourist attraction and it’s easy to see why. It’s such a rare, unique insight into the world of the struggling upper classes.
After taking ownership of Calke Abbey the National Trust made a decision to ‘repair’ rather than ‘restore’ the estate. This means that they will make good and mend things, so that they do not fall into further disrepair, but they will not return things to their former glory. At first this struck me as quite a strange decision, after all imagine how beautiful it would be to see the house and grounds in its full glory. But the more I wandered around this beautiful, shabby, building, the more I understood that it makes an important social message. These houses were not easy to upkeep and its dramatic decline tells a story of the difficulty of slowly watching a house disintegrate around you. I loved the fascinating insight into a family slowly having to come to terms with the fact that they couldn’t continue to keep the house.
The other amazing thing about this property is that its owners the Harpur family, who owned it for nearly 300 years, were hoarders and hardly ever threw anything away. It is therefore a time capsule of the years. However their particular passion was taxidermy and there are entire rooms dedicated to the art, with display cases reaching from floor to ceiling.
As the collection grew and space began to run out, items were moved to wherever they could be stored, which essential just led to some rooms being filled with stag heads.
The garden tells the same story. It must have been absolutely stunning in its day, with a sophisticated orangery (heated by a sophisticated heating system), a huge vegetable garden and formal flower gardens.
However by the time The National Trust took it over it was overrun by the deers who live on the site. Over the years the deers have been contained in an enclosure and the gardens have been maintained, but not completely replanted.
The house and gardens are well worth a visit, but the estate is also open for people who just want to walk or have a picnic. But be warned there is a parking charge per person, even for those visiting the house and gardens (charged separately). Entrance times into the house are also timed and slots get filled up quickly particularly if, like us, you turn up on a bank holiday Monday. For more information visit the Calke Abbey website.