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.
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…
While in others…
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.)
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).
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.