On a day out in South Derbyshire Mike Smith finds out the story behind intriguing Calke Abbey and its former estate village of Ticknall

Great British Life: The SaloonThe Saloon (Image: as submitted)

The strain of eccentricity that ran through several generations of the Harpur family of Calke Abbey, who were later known by the name Harpur Crewe, was particularly evident in the characters of the seventh and tenth baronets. The 7th baronet was known as the ‘isolated baronet’ because, as one of his tutors had noted, he had a ‘morbid taste for solitude’. After inheriting Calke in 1789, he communicated with his servants solely by letter and cut himself off from his social equals. He had a liaison with a ladies’ maid called Nanny Hawkins which produced an illegitimate daughter, and it was his subsequent marriage to Nanny that finally ostracised him completely from ‘polite society’.

The 10th baronet, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, also turned his back on public life and spent much of his time filling the house with specimens of eggs, shells, butterflies, insects and stuffed animals and birds. Whenever his wife entertained guests, he would escape to the woods in the estate. He banned his staff and his family from smoking because he had an intense fear of fire. When he suspected that one of his daughters had been smoking, he exiled her from the house. She never returned in his lifetime.

Sir Vauncey’s son Richard had a more outgoing character and, unlike his father, who would not even permit motor vehicles to enter the estate, he had a passion for cars, boats and aeroplanes. However, Richard was a sickly young man and died in his forties, predeceasing his father. Calke then passed to Sir Vauncey’s daughter, Hilda, who married Mr Mosley, the family’s solicitor. In 1949, the estate went to their nephew, Charles Jenny, whose bachelor brother, Henry, inherited it in 1981. To offset crippling taxation demands, the staff had already been cut to a minimum and many of the rooms in the house, particularly the former servants’ quarters, had been abandoned.

The National Trust came to the rescue in 1985, even though one critic of their acquisition saw the house as a worthless ‘pile of aristocratic rubbish’. Casting a different light on the property, Assistant House Manager John Parkinson said, ‘The National Trust viewed Calke as a rarity. The house had been virtually untouched in the 20th century, becoming an “un-stately home” that told the story of the decline of the English country house in very graphic terms. Of course, it also had a vast and varied natural history collection, even though half of this had been sold off in the 1920s.’

Great British Life: The Parish Church with the ruins of the east window of the north aisle of the old churchThe Parish Church with the ruins of the east window of the north aisle of the old church (Image: as submitted)

Despite the house containing many rooms that had long been abandoned or fallen into disrepair, it has a wonderful two-storey ‘Saloon’, originally designed as a grand entrance hall, and a dining room that has changed little since it was created in the late 18th century. Another treasure came to light in 1983, when an elaborate 18th-century state bed, complete with silk hangings, was discovered in a small closet. It had never been removed from its packing case.

Revealing another surprise, John Parkinson said, ‘Some years after the family left Calke, an heir was discovered in Vermont. He was Andrew Johnston, who was given the use until his death of some family apartments on the ground floor. These rooms have been opened up for the first time this year (on mornings only) and visitors are being asked whether they should be left untouched, be restored to the condition they were in when the Trust took over or be used as exhibition spaces.’

Another new attraction this year is an ‘explorer’s tent’ where manuscripts left by another relative, Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, a noted Egyptologist, are being displayed. Another project that should be completed next year is an ‘outdoor hub’, designed to enhance the experience of the many thousands of visitors who come to Calke to enjoy walks in the estate, rather than to visit the house.

Whereas the story of Calke Abbey is a sad tale of gradual decline, the history of Ticknall, its estate village, is very different. In the late 17th century, the village was home to 17 potteries famed for making ‘Ticknall Ware’. A century later, the place was a hive of industrial activity, with lime, bricks and tiles being its chief products. In this period, the population of Ticknall was at least 1,500. Today, the number of inhabitants has fallen to less than 700, comprising people who are lucky enough to live in a place that has become a highly attractive residential village.

Great British Life: Sheffield House and the Chequers public houseSheffield House and the Chequers public house (Image: as submitted)

Ticknall’s charms have lured many people to live there. Pauline Weeds came to the village from Doncaster 25 years ago with her Sheffield-born husband. The couple live in a very imposing three-storey house, which has eight symmetrically-arranged windows and is set back from High Street. Pauline said: ‘Our house is a former sewing factory. The neighbouring buildings are former estate cottages, but the unusual building across the road was never part of the Calke estate. It was built in the 1840s by George Sheffield, who was a doctor, and William Sheffield, who was a veterinary surgeon. They emphasized the size and independent status of their property by adding a false third storey that carries the name ‘Sheffield’ prominently on its parapet.’

Sheffield House is flanked by a much less pretentious building. This is the Chequers, a traditional village pub with thick stone walls, fixed benches and an open fire in an inglenook. A few yards further along the charming High Street, there is a second public house. This is the Staff of Life, which not only serves real ales and home-cooked food, but also has eight comfortable en-suite guest rooms. Five are in the main building and three are housed in some former cow sheds that were superbly converted six years ago by the pub’s owners, Christopher Nix and his wife Kaye, who has used her flair for interior design to great effect in the rooms.

A third Ticknall pub stands on Main Street. This is The Wheel Inn, whose interior has a contemporary feel and contains a restaurant offering a wide range of imaginative dishes. Main Street also contains the Ticknall Village Store, run for ten years by Debby Pezzak. As well as selling newspapers and continuing to serve as a convenience store, the shop has a very welcoming, recently-refurbished tea room, with fixtures made by Debby’s Cornish-born husband Martin, who works as a teacher.

Debby said, ‘We offer hot and cold food all day and every day, including take-away toasties, jacket potatoes, fresh rolls, hot cobs, paninis, and of course, Cornish pasties. We also serve traditional afternoon teas with a fantastic selection of our homemade cakes. In fact, our motto is “There’s always time for tea and there’s always room for cake”.’

Great British Life: A cottage in High StreetA cottage in High Street (Image: as submitted)

Three buildings dominate the hillside above Main Street: the Village Hall, the Methodist Chapel and the Parish Church. The Village Hall carries a plaque to John Smith, a local shoemaker’s son, who was a Sergeant with the Bengal Sappers and Miners and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry under heavy fire when ‘blowing in’ the Kashmir Gate in Delhi in preparation for an assault. The hall has a full programme of activities, including a dog-training class run by Jenny Mee of the East Midlands Dogs Trust, which was taking place on the day of my visit.

The Methodist Chapel, built in 1815, is a very imposing building that retains a gallery supported on cast-iron columns. The Parish Church is the work of Henry Isaac Stevens, who designed a number of other Derbyshire churches. It is a replacement for a medieval church which was rather inexpertly blown up, leaving a corner of the old tower and the east window of the north aisle standing.

The new church was ordered by the 9th Baronet, who also planted Corsican pines throughout the village to commemorate the marriage of his son, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, to Isobel Adderley. Now grown to enormous proportions, the trees are a very distinctive and attractive feature of Ticknall, as are a series of cast-iron, lion’s head water pumps, installed in 1914 by Sir Vauncey. Two of them are still in use and some villagers insist that a really good cup of tea can only be made by using water dispensed from one of the pumps.

Calke Abbey is open to visitors from 11am to 5pm (last ticket sold at 4.15pm). The Calke Abbey National Nature Reserve opens from 7.30am to 7.30 pm. The garden and stables are open from 10am to 5pm.