Calke Abbey Eccentrics

Posted: 2009-06-16

There's nothing quite so historically amusing and rather endearing as the sort of eccentric nobleman (and noblewomen) that England seems to specialise in. I was reading 'Secret Britain', edited by Antonia Hebbert for the AA, yesterday, and ran across a reference to the Harpur-Crewe family of Calke Abbey, who rather take the cake for eccentricity.

Calke Abbey is an early 18th century stately home built on the ruins of a medieval priory, located near Ticknall, Derbyshire. It was built by John Harpur, and successive generations of Harpurs and Crewes created a reputation for reclusiveness. They were hoarders, and never threw away anything, and never altered their state rooms, with the result that Calke Abbey seems lost in a time warp. Indeed, a few decades ago a centuries-old bed hanging was found in the abbey, still stored in its original unopened packing case.

But that's just background. What got my attention was the reference to Sir Henry Harpur, a late 18th-century lord of the manor. Sir Henry was so reclusive that he earned the nickname 'the isolated baron'. He cut himself off socially by marrying a ladies maid, but that was nothing compared to his descendent, Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe, who cut himself off from his own family at Calke Abbey!

Sir Vauncey did not speak to his own daughters, who lived at Calke Abbey with him. Rather, he communicated by way of handwritten notes, sometimes delivered on a silver platter by footmen, and sometimes delivered by post.

I'll bet the dinner table was an interesting place to be at Calke Abbey! I feel much better about my own entirely lovable, slightly bizarre, and occasionally dysfunctional extended family!

Calke Abbey on Britain Express
Calke Abbey on the National Trust website
Secret Britain - out of print but you can still get used copies at

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