Six miles south of Derby is a pavilion, incongruous and alone. Swarkestone Pavilion, as it is now known, probably dates from c.1631-2, close to a grand house built six decades earlier for Sir Richard Harpur, a successful lawyer and landowner. Sir Richard’s descendant Sir John Harpur married Catherine Howard, the Earl of Suffolk’s granddaughter; the couple’s arms appear on the shields on the front of the pavilion, which may have been built to celebrate their union. We don’t know for certain the identity of the designer, though it may have been John Smythson.
Investigations into financial paperwork from the time suggest that the ‘New Buildynge’ was a ‘Bowle Alley House’, somewhere to relax and perhaps to eat and drink while watching the progress of bowls matches below. However, Sir John died without an heir, the estate passed to the Harpurs of Calke Abbey (see below) and the great house was taken down by 1748. After a period acting as a site for the breeding and sale of livestock, the pavilion fell into disrepair. It featured as a location on a 1968 Rolling Stones album cover. Finally, the estate owners allowed the Landmark Trust to take it on and effect an almost complete rebuild.
Today the Pavilion stands as a proud example of late Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture and outstanding in its field, literally. It’s available as cosy self-catering accommodation for two, with the living room / bedroom and kitchen on the first floor and the bathroom inside one of the twin cupolas on the second floor.
A second, more substantial, part of the story is a further seven miles south: the semi-restored Calke Abbey itself. The original Augustinian abbey had long since disappeared – following the Dissolution of the Monasteries – by the time Henry Harpur bought the estate for £5,350 (something like £700,000 in today’s values) in 1622. Twelve generations of the family lived there including Sir John Harpur, who married the Hon Catherine Crewe in 1702.
Various Harpurs and Harpur-Crewes contributed to the house and estate’s development. One consequence of owning an enormous house is the urge to fill it. Calke Abbey became a collection of collections: natural history (taxidermy, insects, geology, shells, plants, minerals, fossils); a series of family portraits and other paintings; furniture, with a 17th-century Dutch tortoiseshell cabinet in the drawing room as a fine example; and two libraries, one bequeathed from a cousin with a deep interest in what we now call Egyptology.
However, the challenges of the 20th century were almost too much to overcome. As you return the unblinking gazes from the many animal and bird inhabitants of glass cases in the saloon and other rooms, bear in mind that you’re only seeing half the original collection. An heir to the estate had to sell the other half, to pay death duties, and reduced the number of staff while also living in a smaller section of the house to economise.
By the 1980s, the financial burden was too much. With Government help, the National Trust acquired Calke. Unlike many of its properties, the Trust planned to save and repair the house, and only partially to restore it. The result is deliberately inconsistent, with some rooms fully restored and others now structurally sound but looking as they did when the Trust took over.
This approach was contentious at the time and remains a subject of much debate. Whether it’s sustainable in the long term is also uncertain. As the official guidebook admits:
‘[E]ven with the current high levels of care, Calke is slowly deteriorating. Will the time come when we have to consider whether to restore Calke, rather than conserving it as it was found?’
Whatever your view on this question, wandering around Calke as it is today is a fascinating experience. Some rooms are undecorated and almost empty, others such as the dining room and the saloon restored to something resembling their best. Depending on your fancy, you can imagine that the inhabitants left in a hurry before the deterioration trapped them inside, or that they were planning to complete the restoration, but were interrupted.
Header image: interior, Calke Abbey. Below: the view from outside the house