From mandrake to secret passages, silk beds in boxes and 99 year leases – the delights of Calke Abbey

Calke Abbey near Melbourne in Derbyshire is one of my favourite National Trust properties ever! On Friday we took the opportunity to visit it before the summer holiday. We still have no desire to join the crowds but have missed our adventures to stately stacks during the last two and a half years.

We began by exploring the house which from the outside isn’t much to shout about unless you like eighteenth century symmetrical stately stacks with columns and big windows. The house has become slightly tidier across the years we’ve been visiting but its delight is the sensation of walking into a house that hasn’t been touched – the wall paper is peeling, there’re piles of chairs in various states of disrepair, trunks and collections of seashells, seals, Victorian birds if you’re into that sort of thing and old papers – the Harpurs were once one of the richest families in Derbyshire but the Harpur-Crewes were clearly amongst the most eccentric. Not only did they wish to provide for the education of their tenants, they seem to have loved their wives, were passionate about their natural history and never threw anything away. Whilst the house isn’t as dark, dirty or as dusty as it used to be but it’s still pleasingly ramshackle and demonstrates what happened to the aristocracy when they could no longer afford a platoon of staff to maintain order and could no longer afford the lifestyle or the house.

On this occasion we discovered that the double thickness walls in the eighteenth century hall were not only to permit servants to move unseen but also to ensure that there was a symmetry to the grand residence – though you’d have thought they’d have considered a staircase to the rather elegant new rooms when they planned their mansion and not had to add one on later. There’s even a panel that opens to reveal a secret entrance – makes you wonder what might be lurking undiscovered in the skeleton of the house – and of course, there was a skeleton unearthed in the courtyard several years ago.

Then there’s the glorious silk bed – amidst the layers of history were two wooden chests, and inside, rolled not folded, was Lady Caroline Manners wedding present from Princess Anne, the daughter of King George II. The bed hangings were made for George I in about 1715 and as beautiful as the day they were carefully wrapped up and placed in the boxes where they lay forgotten for so many years. Obviously Caroline didn’t appreciate the gift or had no need for fancy bed hanging. Apparently there are coiled peacock feathers in the embroidered butterfly wings. For those of you who want technical terms rather than me describing beautiful embroidery – its a Palladian state bed which was apparently an essential household item…I’m sure we’ve all got one somewhere ….

Which leads us to the monastic element of the equation – Calke was never an abbey – priory is pushing it as well. It would perhaps best be described as a cell attached to Repton. When the monks of Repton realised what Cromwell was up to prior to the dissolution of the monasteries they let Calke to a certain John Prest – on a 99 year lease. It wasn’t straight forward and Thomas was not best pleased. Suffice it to say that it was only thanks to Cromwell’s demise that matters didn’t get out of hand and Calke ended up as a Tudor manor with a courtyard and a gateway. Everything you can see today was wrapped round the Elizabethan mansion which is why the stairs are slightly odd, there’s secret passages between the rooms and a blocked up entrance for a coach to drive through. The tour of the house finishes with a climb through the brick lined tunnels that the servants used so that they didn’t blight the landscape with their presence before you emerge in the brew house and back out into the sunlight.

The gardens are some distance from the house and to be honest I usually see them in the autumn so it was rather wonderful to find the walled gardens filled with flowers and a rather surprising mandrake nestling amongst the feverfew. Then there was time to see the deer lounging beneath various trees and inspect the grotto -again every one should have one, though the one at Calke isn’t going to win an RHS medal any time soon. Rather like the house it’s seen better days but has its charm for all of that and is rather more fun than some of the spotless but rather cold eighteenth century properties that can be found elsewhere.