Calke Abbey: The Beauty of Decay

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I’ve wanted to visit Calke Abbey for so long, but being near Derby and us living down South, has meant that a trip just hasn’t been possible. But when I knew we were heading up to Alton Towers for a trip, I was really hoping that we could fit in a visit on our way home.

Calke Abbey is a study in faded grandeur. At every turn there is peeling paint, crumbling brickwork, and overgrown courtyards, telling the story of an eccentric and introverted family who never threw anything away and who craved isolation. The National Trust have taken a ‘repair not restore’ approach to its work at Calke, and this has created an estate filled with beautiful textures and a fairytale feel.

The sense of the scale of the estate hits you as you drive up the long and winding driveway to the car park. It really is huge, with sprawling grounds that extend for miles. The house is equally impressive, and if you do want to tour the house, you need a timed ticket.

We didn’t have a huge amount of time, so decided to head to the gardens to explore. You take a winding path through what used to be the grand formal pleasure gardens, but which are now long gone. The path leads you into the flower garden, which has been planted as a high Victorian flower garden land which gives a beautiful summer display.

Entrance to the Flower Garden at Calke Abbey. A green wooden door lies open, showing you the view through to the garden, which is covered in red and white flowers
The Auricula Theatre at Calke Abbey. A blue wooden plant theatre displays pelargoniums, in terracotta pots

We found the auricula theatre, which was filled with pelargonium pots of all colours, and then the boys led us to the show house – a greenhouse which was once heated and home to tender exotic plants, but is now planted as a fernery. I loved the industrial feel with all the exposed pipework, contrasting with the delicate texture of the ferns.

After coming out of the flower garden, Max discovered the Gardener’s tunnel – a 150 yard long tunnel, which allowed gardeners to come and go without being seen by the family. It was quite long and almost pitch black inside, and the boys loved making their way through it.

The place was filled with underground tunnels and rooms to explore. Under the Back Sheds we found more cellars, which linked up to tunnels, and we made our way down to the Ice House, where the ice would have been brought up from the ponds and stored.

We made our way into the Physic Garden, a huge space, filled with herbs and vegetables, and of course, more crumbling greenhouses to explore!

View into the Physic Garden at Calke Abbey. A green wooden door is set into a red brick building, with brick paving leading the way into the garden
Sweet pea tunnel in the Physic Garden at Calke Abbey
Greenhouse at Calke Abbey
Greenhouse at Calke Abbey
Greenhouse at Calke Abbey, with sunlight casting shadows across the flaking wall
The physic garden at Calke Abbey, with vegetable plot and scarecrow stood in the middle

At the back of the Orangery, we found the Gardener’s Bothy, which was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. An old potting shed, with blue paint peeling off the walls, rusting tools still hung on the walls, a grandfather clock, and a huge set of seed drawers. You couldn’t go in properly to explore, but I stood behind the rope for some time, just taking it all in.

The gardener's bothy at Calke Abbey. A potting shed, filled with old terracotta pots, rusty tools hung on the wall, a huge wooden seed drawer, an old grandfather clock, and blue painted walls which are flaking beautifully
The gardener's bothy at Calke Abbey, with old rusty tools hung on the wall and a wooden seed drawer to the side

I was actually allowed time to properly take this in, because there was also a (very thoughtfully placed) water pump, which amused the boys!

And then walking through the green door to the kitchen garden, we finally found what I’d been hoping to see – the orangery. I love an orangery, and this one has so much charm to it. It was in a poor state when the National Trust took over care of Calke Abbey, and they replaced the central dome, but left the crumbling plasterwork and paint.

I think you can probably tell by the sheer number of photos I took in here, I absolutely loved it. The textures and colours that come about when you allow things to decay is so beautiful. I could have spent hours in here, but sadly the boys had just about worn themselves out, and we had a long motorway journey ahead of us, so it was time to head home.

Inside the Orangery at Calke Abbey. A view down to the far door, with blue peeling paint above, and a huge palm tree to the side
Close up of blue peeling paint on plaster at Calke Abbey
View from the outside into the orangery at Calke Abbey. The panes of glass are misted up, and flaking paint and rust sit on the wooden panes
Nectarines growing in the orangery at Calke Abbey
Apricts growing in the orangery at Calke Abbey
Blackboard sign reading "Plant of the Week: peaches, apricots and nectarines" at Calke Abbey in the Orangery
Little boy running through greenhouse at Calke Abbey. White painted walls have peaches and apricots growing up them, and exotic plants stand in terracotta pots

Calke Abbey is described as the ‘unstately stately home’ and that seems to fit it perfectly. I loved the National Trust’s approach to restoration here – it’s such a contrast to lots of their other properties, and really allows the place to tell a story. I’d love to revisit one day to see inside the house, which sounds like it’s an equally beautiful and fascinating place to explore.

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