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The un-stately home

September 27, 2013

Not a trip into ancient history this time, but a visit to the relatively modern  Calke Abbey, It isn’t really an abbey but a house, built in 1704.

Front view of Calke Abbey stately home

The outside is deceptive. Unlike many properties in the care of the National Trust, this one has been left pretty much the way they found it in the 1980’s. Which in some places was splendid…

Room crammed with gold-framed paintings and elegant furniture

While in others…

Room with spartan furnishings and damp peeling wallpaper

The owners of the house were great collectors, and there are rooms full of things in glass cases that I’m certain didn’t want to be collected, or indeed shot in the first place. Below: this brings a whole new level of meaning to “go and tidy your bedroom!” (There is a bed under there. Honestly.)

Iron frame bed barely visible under junk including stuffed stag heads and antlers

As Dolly Parton famously remarked, “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to look this cheap.” The decay on display has been painstakingly and expensively halted in its tracks so that,  as the website explains, “With peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards, Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house estate.” I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the result far more interesting than the usual stately-home displays of ancestral portraits and china.

The estate was owned by one family but in its heyday would have required armies of staff to maintain it. Back stairs and tunnels were provided so that the place wasn’t cluttered up with servants going about their business. This one, leading to the brewing house, must have been a daunting prospect before the arrival of electricity in 1962 (no, that is not a typo. 1962).

Long dimly-lit brick tunnel

Staff tunnels aren’t a new concept – they’re still discovering new tunnels under Hadrian’s splendid villa at Tivoli.

But while Hadrian famously never forgot a face, Calke’s servants were so invisible to one of their masters that it’s said he was unable to recognise any of them. When, in the occasional fit of rage, he would fire one of them, the offender would merely scuttle off down the back stairs and return to work, leaving the master none the wiser and still with a full complement of staff.

I’d thoroughly recommend Calke Abbey for a day out, but if geography prevents, there’s a splendid virtual tour here.

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8 comments

  1. Although we don’t have any stuffed animals, the bedroom looks on the whole somewhat tidier than ours. Years ago, when we were married but still childless, my father-in-law observed that our house looked like a place inhabited by two bachelors, and it’s got more and more cluttered ever since.

    Nice story about the anonymous servants immune to dismissal.


  2. It’s the sort of home we clutterers need – fill one room, shut the door and move into another one!


  3. Fantastic! I’d love to visit, and hope to do so someday.


    • It’s definitely worth a visit, Petrea. And if you go on a good day the grounds are beautiful, too.


  4. Thanks for the link to the National Trust site … what a treat.


    • Glad you’re enjoying it, Penny. A great way to sightsee from the comfort of home!


  5. What a grand house. Thank you so much. Most of the rooms are so beautiful, some rooms not so much. You know, I think I can see the rationale for those abandoned rooms. If one’s house had that many rooms, would it not make sense that if things got out of hand in a particular room to just move on to another room? In our American history there are examples of land and resources sometimes being used injudiciously because there was the perception of an endless supply of more land and more resources still out there Apparently the British aristocracy’s version of that would be the perception that there was an endless supply of more rooms still out there.

    I tried to picture the long, dark and poorly lit servants’ tunnel before the addition of electricity. Not to be political, but what came to mind is the Halls of Congress. (You may have heard that Congress was unable to pass a budget, thus shutting down the American government. Sigh!)

    I always enjoy seeing what is new on your blog. Be well.

    Phil Hall
    Oregon, USA


    • That’s s lovely comparison with the US government. Phil – I hope the lights come back on for you very soon.
      As for the idea of abandoning one room and moving to another in the infinite supply… it’s every hoarder’s dream, isn’t it? In an extension of Parkinson’s Law, it seems junk expands to fill the space available.



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