Another work trip. Another National Trust Property. Another tale of monastic dissolution and aristocratic excess… though with a slightly unusual outcome.
Calke Abbey is not a religious building as you can see, but back in the mid 12th Century there was an Augustinian priory here (never an abbey) and one that remained for over 400 years. The canons here were more prescient than many of their peers, and so when Henry VIII set about the Catholic monasteries the land at Calke had already been leased to a grocer who was ironically called John Prest (or Priest). Forty years later and an Elizabethan House was constructed on the site, later to be expanded into the present Baroque Mansion under the ownership of the Harpur family who remained in residence for 300 years and assumed various political roles in Derbyshire.
When Charles Harper-Crewe died suddenly, and seemingly without an heir*, in 1981 the death duties owing exceeded half the value of the estate resulting in the eventual transfer of ownership to the National Trust. What they acquired was something that they now describe as “the un-stately home”. Charles had been the grandson of the last baronet in the family, the title expiring when the 10th Baronet Sir Vauncey Harper-Crewe left no male heirs to inherit the title. He did however leave an extraordinary property.
Sir Vauncey would historically have been called an eccentric; partly out of respect for his position in society no doubt, and partly due to a lack of understanding of issues of personality and mental health. What evidence do I have? He was an obsessive collector, and apart from his taxidermy collection (mostly of birds), there are other collections and seemingly random objects to be found throughout the house. Motor cars and bicycles were not allowed entry to the estate, the ancient plumbing remained in place until after his death, and electricity didn’t arrive during his daughter’s lifetime either.
His relationships with his offspring were difficult; he preferred to communicate in writing with letters to his children delivered by servants and one of his daughters was exiled for daring to smoke a cigarette on the premises. Perhaps he feared for the thousands of cases of feathers, but there is still evidence of how seriously he took the risk of fire.
Perhaps his behaviour was due to his isolated life; he was educated at home and didn’t leave the estate for a university education which might have broadened his horizons, or perhaps it was due to being descendant (on both sides of his family) of an earlier “Isolated Baronet”. Some might see him as the result of cousins marrying, but such introversion could be symptomatic of any number of conditions such as anxiety, depression, or Aspergers. Whatever the explanation, his view of how the estate should be managed seems to have outlived him. When the National Trust took ownership they found much of the property exactly as he left it 60 years earlier, with the result that they now seek to preserve the property in exactly that state. The decay is part of the appeal, and while it can’t be allowed to progress there is no intention to restore either.
Not every room is a relic – clearly some were cared for to present an acceptable public face but within the collection is one particularly pristine object. Protected by subdued lighting and a wall of glass stands The State Bed, believed to be a gift from one of George II’s daughters to the 5th Baronet and his wife. As it was too tall to be installed in any of the bedrooms it remained packed in it’s original boxes for 250 years until discovered by the Trust.
One final twist to this tale. On my journey to the estate I heard news reports of Mike Ashley’s appearance before parliament to explain the treatment of employees working for his Sports Direct business. Ashley had been reluctant to attend because he is such an intensely private man apparently. The parallels with a family who built tunnels beneath their property so that servants and gardeners could move about without being seen were obvious.
*Some years after the Trust became owners an heir was discovered in Canada, and an apartment for their use is now provided at Calke Abbey.