Like an enormous, long-neglected cabinet of wonders, Calke Abbey is not your usual glitzy, wealth-encrusted stately home. Built around 1703, it’s been passed down a dynasty of eccentric and reclusive baronets. Very little has changed since about 1880 – it’s a mesmerising example of a country house in decline. The result is a ramshackle maze of secret corridors, underground tunnels and rooms crammed with old furniture, mounted animal heads, dusty books, stuffed birds and endless piles of brica-brac from the last three centuries.
Some rooms are in fabulous condition, while others are deliberately untouched, complete with crumbling plaster and mouldy wallpaper. (You exit the house via a long, dark tunnel – a bit more thrilling than one might like, given the state of the buildings.) A stroll round the gardens is a similar time-warp experience – in the potting sheds nothing has changed since about 1930, but it looks like the gardener left only yesterday. Admission to Calke Abbey house is by timed ticket at busy times. On summer weekends it’s wise to phone ahead and check there’ll be space. You can enter the gardens and grounds at any time. Calke is 10 miles south of Derby. Visitors coming by car must enter via the village of Ticknall. The Arriva bus 68 from Derby to Swadlincote stops at Ticknall (40 minutes, hourly, change to the 69 in Melbourne) and from there it’s a 2-mile walk through the park.
One stately home is never enough - so take a wander through the medieval masterpiece that is Haddon Hall.