I have been wanting to visit Calke Abbey since 1985 when it was featured as a new acquisition by The National Trust on Blue Peter. I remember images of dustsheets, decay, toys and taxidermy. It was distinctly exhilarating to imagine a maze of rooms stuffed with curios.
A considerable amount of careful conservation work has been completed over the years. The house now appears to be organised as collections are displayed in categories and the rot has been halted to prevent further decay.
The story of the reportedly eccentric Harpur-Crewe family, which finally dwindled down to a remotely-connected America heir, is a story of aristocratic isolation and near extinction. Passions loomed large for successive Baronets who surrounded themselves with Art and specimens.
Even now, Calke is not a place for the faint-hearted, furnished as it is by death, beady eyes, horns and feathers. There are a few sad echoes of the last throes of human life in this somewhat dark and cavernous place. Impossibly large to make a home, the most recent inhabitants retreated to small apartments within the whole. Twenties music suggests an era of aristocratic decline. A solitary cut-out figure of a sole servant called Ruth (my namesake!) is shown with a long list of daily jobs chalked on her black surface. Life for her must have been very tough indeed. To show the effects of age over time, some parts of Calke are restored whilst others have sisal flooring, peeling walls and broken things, (especially the large and uninhabitable upper rooms).
My favourite part was the disorientating maze of tunnels under the house which revealed the sheer scale of the construction on the site. These started in the cellars and surfaced at the brewhouse! In many ways it is not a pretty house but it makes an impact on visitors and makes you glad to make your way outdoors to the orchards or cafes before finally retreating to that mercifully small and cosy place that you call home.