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Whilst visiting our son (who’s studying at Loughborough University) we took advantage of the ‘Heritage Open Days’ event at nearby Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Billed by owners, the National Trust as ‘The un-stately home and country estate’ because of its peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards, Calke Abbey is witness to the wider decline of country house estates all over Britain, especially after the First World War (avid viewers of the latest TV series of ‘Downton Abbey’ can get a taste of some of the issues – death duties, lack of staff, economic downturn).

Whilst some of the House and stables have been restored, there are still many other areas where old furniture, toys and a myriad other ‘heirlooms’ have been left to speak volumes of how the British landed gentry went through a major ‘downsizing’. Admittedly the family who owned Calke did amass a vast collection of curiosities and ‘hidden treasures’- there are fascinating collections of sea shells, rocks and pebbles for example.

The house was delightful and had some very friendly ‘in character’ guides to help tell the story. But the garden was the gem in my eyes. Extensive parkland with a number of beautiful mature trees, deer roaming and typical Victorian curiosities like the fernery give way to a massive walled garden, much of which is now just turned over to grass, but a significant portion of which houses a wonderful kitchen garden (with an access tunnel to ensure the gardeners weren’t seen from the house!). There is also an impressive array of original glasshouses and an orangery in which peaches and other tender fruit and veg are still grown. I particularly liked the Squash Tunnel made of rustic poles and featuring a range of different squashes. Approached by a colourful Dahlia border, there’s also a fascinating ‘Gardeners’ Bothy’, complete with old tools and equipment, seed trays and prize certificates from yesteryear! I was puzzled by one seed drawer, labelled ‘Borecole’. I hadn’t come across this name before and guessed it migth be some local corruption of ‘broccoli’. I now know it’s another term for Kale or a particular variety of Kale!

Walking through the pretty featureless,  grassed over walled garden you suddenly turn a corner and enter a more intimate, warm, walled garden with blocks of bright colours and interesting foliage. An amazing contrast, this formally laid out garden with a range of exotic plants as well as classic bedding, made me draw breath and smile like a Cheshire Cat!

This area has been superbly laid out and the colour, foliage and flower combinations are very impressive. There’s an ‘Auricula Theatre’ currently housing Pelargoniums (see the picture I posted of this earlier in the year) and a pool, all contributing to a peaceful spot where you can (and we did) sit and gaze at the wonder of nature – as coaxed and displayed by man of course! This was a truly inspiring afternoon, so if you get the chance, get along to Calke Abbey (by the way there was never an abbey here).

Further information:

National Trust Website

History- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

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