Monday, 3 April 2017

When is an Abbey not an Abbey?…. when it’s an Un-stately Home

 

Calke Abbey is a Baroque house built on the site of a former priory and completed in 1704 by Sir John Harpur.  The family name changed to Crewe and then Harpur Crewe and the family wealth was accumulated through clever marriage and the proceeds of land ownership.  Throughout the generations, the family displayed a range of eccentric characteristics from being strangely reclusive to fanatical collectors.”

“The National Trust has decided to show Calke as a graphic example of  ‘the decline of the great country house’.  Safety is maintained in the Abbey but rooms and objects are not repaired or restored.’’   from the National Trust Brochure

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The Abbey Grounds and surrounding park land is gorgeous with its century old trees and grazing sheep and cattle.  By chance, we had a great sunny day, a tad cool that even produced a few snow showers.

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The Stables and Courtyard are charming with their collections of old tools and remnants of the 18th century way of life.

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View the painting of the stable today, then turn your head and the image changes to 1800’s. 

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Even though it was early spring, the walled gardens and conservatory showed beautiful vines, flowering shrubs, bulbs opening and herbs beginning to thicken.  The antique glass produced a magical light on the walls and plants.

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Peeling paint looks like beautiful old maps on the walls.

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Marilyn poses as a scarecrow.

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English Goldfinch

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Tunnel for town’s workers to privately access the gardens.

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The view of the long-horn cattle from the Abbey window was not enough for the Harpur Crewes.  They employed many a hunter and taxidermist to collect hundreds of specimens of mammals and birds that are displayed in cases, glass bell jars and on the walls at Calke Abbey.

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Afternoon tea is always better when you are surrounded by dead animals.

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Who needs chocolate Easter bunnies when you have these?

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Sir John had a passion for albino animals and collected many.

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With their wealth and passion for the unusual, the family collected paintings, illustrations, pottery and china, furniture, rocks, shells and books.  They are all crammed in to the various rooms: The Saloon, Drawing Room, Library, Boudoir and various Bedrooms.  The 18th century Dining Room is the only space in the Abbey where one feels any “breathing room.”

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Giant crocodile skull.

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The Caricature Room is filled with political cartoons.

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The most valuable items at Calke are the finely embroidered silk quilt and bed drapes.

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My favourite rooms were the Schoolroom, Nurseries and Sir Vauncy Harpur Crewe’s Bedroom.  Under low light and filled with a  musky odour and peeling wallpaper, these rooms connected me to the spirits and imaginations of those who inhabited them in the past.  It is interesting to note that British officers were posted to Calke Abbey during WWII and likely stayed in these rooms.

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The Kitchen, created in 1794, was most enjoyable.  The afternoon sun filtered through the cracked windows covered in the patina of years of smoke and steam.  We viewed the huge fireplace with its rotisserie, huge cast iron and copper pots,  kettles and wooden prep tables groaning under the weight of jugs, cookery tools, clay and brass serving platters.  It was easy to imagine the sounds and smells of the baking, broiling and roasting foods as the downstairs staff bustled about.  In the 1920’s, many servants were let go as a cost saving measure and the kitchen was subsequently abandoned.

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The ‘upstairs-downstairs’ of the popular “Downton Abbey” could be felt throughout our tour, especially seeing the bells used to summon the servants.  There were a couple of tunnels that connected buildings as well a lead outside.  One conjures up stories of secret rendezvous and the nearby Brewhouse only adds more “fuel” to the imagination.

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Late afternoon we suddenly realized that we had not eaten any lunch so we made a beeline for the charming restaurant and enjoyed bowls of hearty squash soup and homemade bread followed by a cuppa and a shared cookie that was the best shortbread I have ever eaten!

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I would return to Calke Abbey in a heartbeat!

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