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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Calke Abbey - The Hidden House

One of the most interesting English great houses I've stumbled upon doing research for my writing is Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and it's high on my list of places to see when I head to the UK next year.

Calke Abbey, built in a hollow, is hidden from view until the last moment. Set in extensive parklands landscaped to reflect the grandeur of the property, the 18th century mansion lay mostly undisturbed before England's National Trust began taking steps to conserve the house as it was at the time they took over management in 1981. Surprisingly, they are not attempting to restore the whole house and contents, but conserve in the state it was found.

While the present building is named Calke Abbey, it never actually was one. An Augustine priory (inferior to an Abbey) operated on the site up from the 12th Century until its dissolution by Henry VIII. The current house was built by the fourth baronet, Sir John Harpur, between 1701 and 1704 and was named Calke Abbey in 1808.

The house belonged to the Harper-Crewe family for over 400 years and the family were great collectors, but they lived very quietly, removed from the world at large. As each successive later generation took control of the family seat it appears they simply closed doors and shutters and moved to another part of the house.

The past few generations appear not to throw anything out from perhaps the middle of the 19th Century. From that time, the normal process of removal and renewal of possessions seemed to stop. At the time the National Trust took over the property, the mansion contained deliberately kept treasures (stuffed birds, minerals, pottery), and items retained by years of careless housekeeping: old letters and documents, abandoned childhood toys, whole rooms of personal possession.

Calke Abbey is an historians dream.

The house – architecture

Calke Abbey consists of three stories, first (lowest) a high basement, then two main floors: the first floor the library, saloon, drawing room and dining room; the top floor contained the principal bedrooms. Since the roof is flat, there are no attics and the servant quarters lie behind the state rooms on the first floor.

The top floor corner pavilions (see picture above) were designed to contain an apartment (bedroom, private closet or study and a room for a personal servant). There might also be a withdrawing room or sitting room, depending upon the occupant.

The grounds – Calke Park

At its height, the Harpur estate (including Calke Abbey) totalled 33,000 acres spread across Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. The grounds immediately surrounding the mansion were extensively landscaped by successive generations. The drive from Ticknall Lodge (the first of three lodges) to the Abbey, through planted limes, is nearly two miles long. Existing ponds were expanded to form a chain of lakes and walled gardens protected plants from two herds of deer. Constructed features include a church (redesigned in the first half of the 19th Century), conservatory, two grotto's, ice-house (picture above), boat-house, stables and a riding school.

Calke today is a treasury of Victorian Life and taste with a base of Georgian furnishings. A social exhibit where we can see with our own eyes the aristocratic world we lost. I've always wished I could go back in time and a visit to Calke Abbey might just be the closest I'll ever come to time travel.


  1. What a treasure! Your description makes me want to hop on a plane and go see it right now. Love the pictures. Thanks, Heather!

  2. I'm with Gail, when can we go. Your description was amazing.

  3. How interesting, that they're preserving it as is instead of restoring it to its former glory. Still, I'm sure there is a mountain of treasures for history buffs to be found there. I'd love to visit it someday. Thanks for sharing this one with us.

  4. Wow, Heather! This place sounds amazing. I have never heard of it before.

  5. This is going on my "must see" list! Wow! Your descriptions are wonderful - I can see everything so clearly in my mind...I'm excited to see it in person one day! Thanks for sharing this with us!

  6. It looks like one of the houses used in the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice! Beautiful.

  7. Great description, Heather. Will have to put that one on my list of 'must sees'.

  8. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    If you'd like to see more of the house the ABC put out a DVD "National Trust: National Treasures" that feature ten English, Welsh and Northern Ireland historic houses. The presentation is so good that I've managed to corrupt my husband into watching it with me. The National Trust also produces books on great houses so you should keep your eye out for those as well.

  9. This looks like a place to add to our list next time we're there. Thanks.

  10. Great post Heather. I'm going to the UK later this year. I'm definately putting it on the list to see.


  11. This Is an amazing imprint of history. I love the actual builing itself. I'm going to add it to my list of buildings to paint. One of my fav topics. An artists dream of the bridge road.
    Thanks for posting Heather.
    DH and I are planning to visit the UK next year. Haven't arranged things yet (holiday breaks etc) , but If time permmited how wonderful to fit it in.
    :) Mary

  12. I keep coming back to this post because it inspires so many story ideas.