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The Extraordinary Calke Abbey

Calke Abbey, located within 10 miles of Breedon in the charming village of Ticknall, just over the border in Derbyshire, is not what most people think of when they think of the stately homes under the care of the National Trust. This home came into the care of the National Trust in 1985 upon the death of Sir Charles Harpur Crewe and has been kept almost exactly as it was when it was handed over except the National Trust has stabilised and weatherproofed the building as well as rationalising the interior somewhat.

Calke facade

With a complex history and a narrative of a reclusive and socially isolated family, the National Trust decided to present the house as an English country home in decline. Work on the house has been done to halt decay but no restoration work has been done to transform it back to the glitzy and majestic home which many people come to expect from National Trust properties. Portraying a period of the twentieth century when many stately homes fell into financial ruin and did not survive to tell their stories, Calke Abbey gives the visitor the sense of a house just halted from terminal decline with some rooms left in the same state as they were found - mostly derelict! .

A derelict bedroom
A potting shed

Piles of tools and old planters are piled in the corners of the garden sheds, as if the old gardeners had just popped out. It is this exact feeling that makes Calke Abbey such an incredible place to visit. There is a sense of comfort in the dishevelled feel of the house. While stepping into a grand home, with all its fineries on display is wonderful, most times you just don’t feel like you belong. But at Calke, by showing the state of what this home actually was like when Sir Charles lived here in the early 1980's, alone, is a much more comfortable feel albeit strange given the size of the property. My father, David, used to drop in on Sir Charles in the later years, usually after a day's hunting, and there they would toast the place with excellent port salvaged from the house's enormous cellars, sitting in Sir Charles' bedsit within the huge house consisting of just a bedroom/kitchenette and bath! (Unfortunately the wines were much depleted after thieves discovered access to the underground tunnels from the stables to house, originally for the use of servants, to those cellars, where they helped themselves to the abundant and rare wine!).

Calke Abbey had a very interesting and long history long before its story with the National Trust began. The site that the current house sits on was originally the home of an Augustinian priory, founded by Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester sometime between 1115 and 1120 and remained there until its dissolution by Henry VIII. The land eventually made its way into the hands of Richard Wendsley, an MP for Derbyshire twice over, in 1575. He is credited with building the first house on the estate which forms the core of the current house and is visible within the house’s courtyard. Wendsley later sold the estate to Robert Bainbridge, 3-times MP for Derby, in 1585. It eventually passed on to his son who sold it to Sir Henry Harpur in 1622 for £5350 (approx. £3m. in 2022 money), and this is where our story really begins.

Blazon of the Harpurs of Calke Abbey
Sir Henry Harpur, 1st Baronet

Calke Abbey would remain in the Harpur family for ten generations, with the narrative of an isolated and secluded family beginning with Henry Harpur, 7th Baronet (1763-1819), also known as the ‘Isolated Baronet’. Gossips spread word that he was incredibly shy, and he was described as suffering from a ‘disease of the mind’ by the diarist Joseph Faringdon, who had in fact never met Henry at all. From these small pieces of gossip sprouts the story of a family that distanced themselves on their vast estate not only from society, but from each other, and who all rejected modernity.

Fast forward to 2019 and new research through a partnership with the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester and The National Trust that has resulted in a new narrative of Calke Abbey and the Harpur Crewe family. The project came from Calke’s desire to develop interpretation and programmes around the contemporary issue of social isolation and loneliness in 2019, an issue that is now more important than ever in the COVID-19 world we are now living in. (The collaborative research culminated in the immersive exhibition at Calke called HumanKind, now been & gone). Several new stories of those who lived at Calke shed light on the isolation and loneliness, but also on the amazing kindness and compassion that was shared between its residents, somewhat is contrast to the ‘mad’ rumours that have traditionally held sway locally about the Harpur Crewe's.

One of the newly researched stories tells of the only non-family member, that of Harriet Phillips, the Housekeeper (born 1823). Little is known about Harriet, except for a secret she kept to herself for her whole life. At the age of 20 Harriet gave birth to an illegitimate son, a social stigma that could destroy both of their lives. Harriet paid for another woman to care for her son, ensuring that he would be given a better life. Harriet came to work at Calke in 1865, and although her son was then 21, she would still never speak of him. Harriet did not acknowledge Samuel as her son until she reached the age of 88, when they finally were able to live together in 1891.

Sir Henry Harpur, 7th Bt

Another story relates to Sir Henry Harpur, the 7th Baronet (1763 – 1819). The new research shows that despite the rumours of his isolationary tendencies, Henry was like every other child, doodling strange creatures in his school notebooks and writing comments in the margin like “H. Harpur is a fool”. As he grew up, he was influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, collecting books, commissioning music and building the library. Henry was a smart, inventive man who was influenced by the world and brought a new school of thought to Calke Abbey. A more nuanced interpretation of Henry’s life is told in the Dining Room, where visitors can look at three books, the diary in which Farington gossips about the young boy, and two of Henry’s personal books, a book of Latin prose which contains his childhood doodles and a book on how to be a gentleman.

Winifred Harpur Crewe

The next story is of Winifred Harpur Crewe (1879-1953), daughter of Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, 10th Baronet (1846 - 1924). Known as an inspiring and passionate woman, she lived an incredible life full of adventure and travel. She married the love of her life, Albert “Bertie” Morton Sr. in 1914. Bertie was an officer in the Indian Army and soon after their wedding they were off to Burma. Unfortunately, the joy would not last long as Bertie was killed on his first day of duty by friendly fire in 1916. Her father had a deep love for his children and brought the grieving Winifred home to be surrounded by her supportive family. The most moving depicting of this story is so simple, it can easily be missed. In one of the upper rooms of the house which contains images and keepsakes from Winnie and Bertie’s short marriage, a blue piece of silk is draped in mourning over a portrait of Bertie. We are not able to see the portrait, but we can empathize with the grief that Winifred would have experienced upon seeing that portrait.

The draped and covered picture at Calke
George Crewe, 8th Bt.

Next up is Henry’s son Sir George Crewe, 8th Baronet (1795-1844). George was sent away to boarding school at a young age and although he enjoyed his time at school, we know that he deeply missed Calke as expressed in his letters home. This longing caused great distress to George, so much so that he considered suicide, a moment he reflects on later in his life in his journal. He eventually found solace with his wife Jane Whitaker and her family. In the hallway leading towards the servant’s hall the visitor gets to glance into the mind of George through entries of his diary where his anxiety and love for his wife are revealed.

Airmyne Jennie

The final story that is shared is of Airmyne Jennie (1919-1999), granddaughter of Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe. Continuing her family’s love of the natural world, Airmyne was a lover of horses and all animals. She suffered a horrific accident where she was kicked by a horse which resulted in her losing her ability to speak. Her family were instrumental in her recovery and speech therapy, specifically her brother Henry who she would describe in her notebooks as ‘Hen-ry the lis-ner’. She was always known by her friends and family to be an incredibly generous person who loved to give gifts. She believed in nurturing kindness to combat the cruelty that can so easily be spread in the world. Visitors can experience her story and how she learned to speak again where segments of her speech therapy notebooks are displayed on the floor while her favourite song, “Que Sera Sera (Whatever will be will be)” sung by Doris Day is played in the background.

Although the interiors to Calke are fascinating, Calke Abbey provides a great outdoor space to discover. Nature and the environment have been at the heart of Calke for many years and still are to this day. Situated on over 600 acres of majestic and historic parkland, nature conservation is incredibly important to Calke, preserving ancient parklands and some of the oldest trees in the UK. Work is done to return historically accurate plants in the Pleasure Garden, Orangery, and Physic Garden while still keeping the sense of an estate in decline.

Calke palmery

Ten thousand new trees were planted in 2018 to help expand the existing woodlands and create valuable new habitats. The grounds are also home to some beautiful animals including a flock of rare-breed Portland sheep and a herd of red and fallow deer. Also in 2018, Calke Abbey in partnership with Butterfly Conservation and Natural England began reintroducing the Grizzled Skipper, a rare butterfly species.

Calke Explore visitor centre

Calke Explore, a new outdoor recreation area was opened in the summer of 2019 as a designated area to help visitors explore the wider parkland and nature programmes. Here you can discover walking and biking trails, as well as a natural woodland play area and a refreshment kiosk. As always, conservation and sustainability are key and Calke Explore has taken steps to ensure it is as green as possible. If you find yourself staying with us at Breedon and have the time, visit this place, it won't disappoint.

Red deer in the park at Calke

Calke Abbey Opening Hours

House: 11:00am – 4:00pm

Calke National Nature Reserve: 9:00am – 5:30pm

Garden: 10:00am – 5:00pm

Restaurant: 9:30am – 4:30pm

Shop: 10:30am – 4:30pm

Stables: 10:00am – 5:00pm


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