Firstly I just want to apologise for the weird publishing schedule lately; I have been incredibly busy and not putting out posts as frequently as I would like. Whilst there may be a few kinks for me to iron out, I’m going to endeavour to publish more content next month. That out of the way…
I am a big fan of impromptu trips and exploring places I haven’t seen before so, when we found ourselves at Calke Abbey on a sunshine-filled Wednesday morning I was very happy. Calke Abbey stands on the site of a medieval religious house and is a Grade I listed property that sits just outside Ashby-de-la-Zouch (AKA the home of Adrian Mole and KP.) The Baroque Mansion was passed in to the hands of the National Trust in 1985 and is affectionately described as ‘The Un-stately Home and Country Estate’.
As we were on a flying visit to Gareth’s hometown to partake in some early birthday celebrations with family members, we had the pleasure of visiting Calke Abbey with his parents which was lovely.
We started out with a walk through the grounds and up a winding hill to a wooded area, past an enclosure filled with beautiful fallow deer. As we walked we noticed fun sculptures of insects and animals which we guessed were part of a trail.
Gareth’s dad had mentioned that around this time of year the woods were filled with bluebells and, as I have always wanted to see the bluebells in Spring I was keen to take some photographs. We were in luck as the further in to the woods we walked the more we saw, the ground littered with a sea of flowers gently bobbing in the breeze.
There are lots of different walks that you can take around Calke Abbey, and the one we took looped around in a circle that brought us up a hill then back down and around to the front of the mansion. I imagine I added quite a bit of extra time to that walk, stopping every so often to take photographs! Naturally I was particularly drawn to a tree filled with bird feeders and chirping. I was excited to spot a pair of chaffinches among lots of other garden favourites such as the little coal tit I managed to snap a photo of.
After our walk we headed to the mansion. Entrance to Calke Abbey is £13.50 per adult. I think this is really reasonable and I would be more than happy to pay that for the whole experience, although on this occasion Gareth’s parents very kindly treated us to the day out.
I must admit, I didn’t know what to expect from Calke Abbey; I certainly didn’t expect it to be as intriguing as it was.
Inside Calke Abbey we were immediately greeted with the site of dusty glass cabinets filled with curious taxidermy; stuffed otters with fish clamped permanently in their jaws, birds captured in mid-flight and impressive stag heads mounted to the walls. The first room was impossibly full with a wooden table at the centre set with tea things and a faux cake, a grey coat casually slung over the back of one chair. Something about this set-up left me feeling as if the room had only recently been left, as if the occupant would appear at any moment and resume tea. This left me deeply reminiscent of Dennis Sever’s house which is designed to leave you feeling as if you have stumbled upon one families abrupt exit from the property.
On the first floor of the property the rooms are dark, lit only by lamps and flickering candles (fake of course.) There is a strange mix of opulence, disrepair and clutter. Each room seemed to be in competition with the last in terms of what it could contain. Threadbare armchairs and elaborate paintings in ornate frames sat side by side; it really was quite unique to see.
In one room the contents of drawers from the Breakfast Room were laid out and displayed on tables. As we poured over carefully preserved insects, shells and other curios I couldn’t help but wonder about the family that had lived there and collected all this stuff with such earnest. I think that this was one of the rare occasions where a walking tour of the building would have actually been not only useful but extremely interesting.
One thing that became obvious with each room was the inhabitants love of taxidermy. I honestly think there were enough stuffed birds and animals on display to rival that of the Natural History Museum. I particularly enjoyed perusing the cabinet of pheasants, even if the colour had somewhat been bleached from their initially vibrant feathers.
I particularly enjoyed a room that resembled a tea parlour. (But really, I have no idea what the rooms purpose was.) With lots of little round tables and chintzy chairs, this dark room felt cosy yet strangely claustrophobic. I’m not sure if all the stuff was placed for us to view or if it was very much a part of the Harpur’s everyday life. The latter would not surprise me if it were the case; the sheer volume of possessions in the house would inevitably lead to clutter on every surface.
The library was another room of interest. With shelves lined with impressive leather bound books, we were reliably informed that unlike most estates, the books were all completely readable and not fake. I particularly enjoyed the story of the Ostrich egg which was given as a 21st birthday present.
Unlike the lower floor, the upper floors were in state of disrepair with peeling paint walls and original wallpaper that had somewhat succumbed to the damp. One ceiling looked particularly precarious with a great big crack through the plaster. We were informed this was being held up and suspended from above. Some rooms seemed to be mostly for storage, with old rocking horses, dolls houses and small nursery chairs stashed away to gather dust, unloved but intriguing all the same.
We walked a loop of the house and ended back down on the ground floor and by a cold stone passage that led to the kitchen. This was a large, open room; still cluttered but this time with useful kitchenalia.
In the kitchen I came across a little door that led to another side room. This room really made me think of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings and for me, was quite reminiscent of ‘The Room’. This is my favourite photograph from the day, it feels really characterful to me.
We ended our tour with a walk through a cold, bricked tunnel and brew house, lit by an eery orange glow. As someone who enjoys exploring tunnels, caves and dark spaces I found this really interesting.
Finally we stopped for tea and the most delicious scones I have ever tasted, complete with thick cream and sweet jam.
All in all Calke Abbey is a wonderful day out. Not restored but instead preserved, it is like stepping in to a time capsule and is deeply interesting. With its’ collection of strange and unique objects, I feel that Calke Abbey is the type of place you could visit time and again only to spot something different on each occasion. I really hope that I will have another opportunity to pay it another visit as this has been one of my favourite days out of 2017 so far.