The history of England, as articulated through the annals of its aristocarcy, is an alarming apologue of eccentrcity, obssession and isolation. A class-bound country breeds...well, with itself, leading to a genetically restricted mixture of madness, money and macabre mores.
Calke Abbey is a kind of architectural elegy to the extinction of the rural peer, a giant version of the taxidermist's tanks that fill its rotting, forsaken rooms. A twelfth-century Augustinian priory (go figure) tucked away in Ticknall, Derbyshire, Calke was inhabited by the ambitious Harpur family from 1622 to 1980, suffering a slow and spectacular decline as its rooms fillled with a marvellous and mundane miscellany of art, fossils, shells, children's toys, books, butterflies and birds: the fallout of fruitcakes with fulsome funds.
Calke is a 3D map of mild psychosis, from the collections of Henry Harpur (1789), the baronet with 'an unhealthy taste for solitude' who married a lady's maid, to the christening present bought by Richard Harpur Crewe (1880) for his nephew, a silver-mounted ostrich egg with decorative boars' tusks.
Even the way the National Trust has decided to 'preserve, not restore' the house is a bizarre yet compelling Anglicism; history writ large as wreckage and weirdness. The massive, threadbare corridors of Calke are a thrilling, chilling hybrid of Satis House in Lean's Great Expectations and the Resident Evil video game, and the hoarded dead things still exert a powerful pull.
Indeed, the idiosyncratic, artistocratic English ghosts that shaped the house live on in modern bodies; think of singular, suicidal Isabella Blow, that curator of fashion and self-styled taxidermical mannequin with rich pelts on her shoulders and dead game on her highly bred head. Go to Calke in five inch heels and no knickers, and celebrate ancestral insanity with apocalyptic abandon.