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Calke Abbey: The House that Time Forgot

Around Sir John Harpur's forgotten baroque mansion on Derbyshire's southern border.

Distance 3.7 miles (6km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 197ft (60m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Estate roads and field paths, a few stiles

Landscape Parkland and crop fields

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 245 The National Forest

Start/finish SK 352241

Dog friendliness On leads through farmland and abbey grounds

Parking Village Hall car park, Ticknall

Public toilets At car park


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1 Turn right out of the car park and follow the road to its junction with the A road through the village. Turn left by the Wheel public house, then right by the bridge to go through the gates of the Calke Abbey Estate. The tarmac estate road goes between an avenue of mature lime trees and through the Middle Lodge Gates. If you want to go inside the abbey itself you'll have to pay here.

2 Continue south east along the road, past Betty's Pond (left), then, as the road swings left, carry on along the grassy track that climbs to the south end of the park.

3 Take the left fork, which doubles back left, descending beneath a hilltop church towards the abbey, which appears in a dip to the right. After viewing the fine house, continue along the track past the red brick stables and offices. Cross the car park and go through its exit on the far right. Where the exit road swings left, leave it and descend north, down to the Mere Pond, a narrow strip of water surrounded by trees.

4 Turn right along a water's-edge path, then left between the end of the mere and the western extremities of another one, to climb through woodland to the north.

5 On meeting the lane at the top edge of the woods, turn left for a few paces, then right through a gate. After tracing the wall on the left, go over a stile in the hedge ahead to enter the next field. The path now heads north of north west along the left edge of crop fields, passing close to White Leys Farm. Just past a large ash tree, go over a stile on the left and follow a clear field edge track downhill through more crop growing fields.

6 On meeting a flinted works road turn left, following it through an area of woodland and old gravel pits (now transformed into pretty wildlife ponds). The winding track passes several cottages and meets the A514 about 500yds (457m) to the east of the village.

7 Turn left along the road through the village, then right by the side of the Wheel pub to get back to the car park.

Calke is not an abbey at all. The Augustinian order of monks did build one here in 1133 and dedicated it to St Giles, but since 1622 it has been the family home of the Harpurs and Harper-Crewes.

In 1703 Sir John Harpur had the present Baroque mansion built on the site of the abbey, keeping some of the old 6ft (2m) walls. This was a high society family, but things started to go wrong in the 1790s when Sir Henry Harpur took a lady's maid as his bride. Society shunned the couple and they, in turn, shunned society - the beginning of a tale of eccentricity and reclusiveness that would span two centuries.

Calke was a grand house with many rooms, and here was a family with money. When they tired of one room, they would just leave it the way it stood and move to another. For instance, when Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe took a bride in 1876, he locked up his bachelor room, along with the heads of stuffed deer he had shot as a youth. When the National Trust bought the house in 1985 they found a dust-laden, neglected, but intriguing place, filled with treasures of centuries gone by.

Ticknall is an interesting village. Passing through it you see some pleasing timber-framed red brick cottages. When you reach the gates of the abbey, you are confronted with a horseshoe-shaped bridge, arching over the road. Built in 1800, it was part of an old tramway system, which included a 137yd (125m) tunnel under the main drive to the abbey. Limestone from Ticknall's brickworks used to be carried by horse-drawn trams to the canal at Willesley. On the return journey the load would have been coal. The scheme was abandoned in 1915, now just the bridge remains.

The magnificent tree-lined drive sets the scene for this trip round Calke. There's fallow deer in the woods, as well as barn and tawny owls. Betty's Pond is the first of the several lakes passed on the route. The house, being in a dip, hides until the last moment. Its magnificent three-storey south front includes a four column Ionic portico. If the place is open it is well worth a visit to see, among others, the resplendent Gold Drawing Room and the 18th-century Chinese silk state bed.

The route heads north to Mere Pond, which is full of lilies and surrounded by attractive mature woods. It reaches its highest point on the fields of White Lees. Here you get glimpses of Staunton Harold Reservoir before you return to Ticknall.

Where to eat and drink

For a bar meal try the Staff of Life on High Street, Melbourne. There's also a tea room at the back of the Wheel public house on Main Street, Ticknall.

While you're there

Seeing nearby Melbourne is a must. Neat Georgian houses crowd round the Monument in the Market Place. There's a short history of the town engraved on a bronze plaque. The Parish Church of St Michael and St Mary is far grander than you would expect for such a small town. This church, however, was built in the first half of the 12th century for the Bishops of Carlisle, who wanted to be as far away as possible from their troubled Border Country.

What to look for

By Ticknall's 19th-century church you can see the remains of a medieval church, St Thomas a Beckett's, which had become too small. The old church was so strong that it had to be blown up with gunpowder.


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