This year, Calke Abbey celebrates 25 years as a National Trust property, and in all this time, it has remained a rather unusual addition to the National Trust’s portfolio. Basically, where most National Trust properties are frozen in time, for the vast majority of them, this snapshot we see so carefully preserved will showcase a property at the height of its importance, with rooms full of objects, that still seem to carry echoes of conversations had the night before. There are echoes in Cake Abbey, too, but much more haunting ones, of a property that outstayed its use by decades, and where the life inside it retreated into an ever smaller corner of a vast house full of creaks but no laughter. Calke has been deliberately preserved in its state of ruin and decay, and this makes a visit to the property distinctively different for a visitor who may be expecting to see another National Trust history showcase. For me, Calke Abbey is another one of the many houses surrounding Nottingham that makes me research into ideas of self fashioning and elite living, and that invites reflections on the relations between communities, their spaces, and class.
But, first things first, lets give Calke Abbey a bit of context. There certainly never was an Abbey, and the property should really by called Calke House or Calke Hall, but it does stand on dissolved church lands, those of an Augustinian House founded by Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester sometime between 1115 and 1120 and dedicated to St Giles. The location of the current house seems to roughly correspond with the site occupied by the priory, which given the lay of the land at Calke, definitely makes sense. Following the Dissolution, Calke and its lands passed through quite a number of occupants, yet none of them settled at the site until Richard Wendley constructed a new, Elizabethan prodigy house in 1575. This in turn became enveloped and subsumed by the current, 18th century house (1701-04). While there is little left visible of the original Elizabethan house,this nevertheless links Calke to the Elizabethan building boom that seems so characteristic of Elizabeth’s nobles. Many of the elite families of her reign were desperate to fashion provincial power bases for themselves, such as Francis Willoughby who built his Wollaton Hall from 1580, or Bess of Hardwick, or, to name the greatest builder of them all, Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley who poured vast amounts of money not just into Theobald’s but also Burghley House at Stamford. And there are also Charlecote, and Thoresby Hall and the
Earl of Shrewsbury’s Alton Towers- well, you get the idea: a house becomes more than a place for living, a house encapsulates and fashions the dynastic legacy of a family. Of course these houses are as distinctively different as they are similar, but they share quite a number of characteristic features such as often quite quirky architectural details and of course the significance of the estates that generated the owners’ wealth. Most of these estates had industrial and/or agricultural uses, and most of them were extensively landscaped and to this day often support live stock (Portland sheep at Calke, Jacob sheep at Charlecote) and deer herds (often both red deer and fallow deer). There is also another aspect of these estates, and that is an issue that very much interests me in my research, and that is the relationships that exist between the great house and the estate’s church and village; at Calke, much work still needs to be done with reference to the great house, but also it’s location at Ticknall, and the significance of the church of St. Giles, which contains a number of the Harpur family’s monuments.
Calke certainly became synonymous with the fortunes of one family, the Harpurs. It first passed into the family’s possession in 1622, and remained in the family until 1985, when the Estate was transferred to the National Trust in lieu of death duties (just for the record, the 25th Anniversary of change of
ownership dates to 1981when the process of transferring the house commenced).
Calke Abbey has much to offer to its visitor, from a truly breathtakingly beautiful great bed with the most enchanting Chinese silk hangings to quite mad, wonderfully messy rooms full of the debris of decades of non-use. My favourite had to be the discarded biscuit tin in the old kitchen depicting the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh from sometime in the Fifties (I couldn’t get quite close enough to have a proper look). It seemed oddly appropriate that even in its decline, a house whose function was to define an elite family’s relation to the monarchy as the centre of power, should still shelter royal memorabilia.