Exploring Calke Abbey's parkland
PUBLISHED: 11:25 19 February 2014 | UPDATED: 09:19 04 March 2014
Pat Ashworth accompanies Calke Abbey's countryside manager on an arboreal journey back through time
It isn’t often that you can see more on a winter walk than on a summer one. But at Calke Abbey, the falling of the autumn leaves and the arrival of winter reveal some sights that you’d have to plunge through dense bracken to see in summer, if indeed you noticed them at all.
There is a lovely wilderness feel about the parkland at Calke, an estate that in the words of the National Trust ‘tells the story of the dramatic decline of a grand country-house estate.’ Great parts of it deliberately haven’t been neatened since its acquisition in lieu of death duties in 1985, something which Bill Cove, head warden, acknowledges is still an issue for some visitors but which, for most, is the big attraction.
He has worked here on and off since 1972. ‘In those days, it was just where I came to work. It was a big estate with a lot of arable land and we just farmed. The parkland, the trees, the wonderful things we’ve got here, I didn’t see all that,’ he says. ‘I was learning farming and driving machinery. It’s only when you go away and come back that you think, actually, this was a pretty special place to work. Nobody really knew we were here.’ The late Norman Clarke was Bill’s farm manager and then became the Trust’s first head warden. When he died in 2008, Bill came out of 12 years self-employment to take on a job he knew he would love.
And he does. We leave the impressive new car park necessitated by the big increase in all-year-round visitors and descend towards the ponds, pausing to take in the silence, the buzz of hornets and the occasional birdsong of this stunning little valley. It’s here that Bill starts the annual dawn chorus walks that he has been leading for the last 16 years on a Saturday and Sunday in May. ‘Normally, 30 or 40 turn up each morning,’ he says. ‘There’s no noise to disturb. At first, it’s just a wall of sound, and then you can point there, and there, and there, and all these different sounds are coming. It’s beautiful.’
The 200-year-old horse chestnuts planted as an avenue on this downward path were nearing the end of their life even before the die-back disease that has ravaged the population all over the country. Now the Trust has to decide whether to fell the remaining ones, which are also dying, and to decide what might fill the gap, given that it can’t be horse chestnuts. The park, which has a 100-year planting plan, is famous for its oak trees, so that could be a contender.
I’m always awed by the notion that the people who plant trees are not those who will see them come to maturity. It seems extraordinarily selfless. Bill agrees. ‘The people who planted the wonderful avenues here had no chance of seeing them,’ he says, something that will become even more evident later in our journey. We make our way past the biggest pond – ‘See, a heron!’ he points out with pleasure – on a sweet-smelling path of beaten earth. The oak trees are heavy with acorns this year, attracting a population of wild fallow deer who come into the parkland at night and retreat before dawn into the surrounding wilder woodland.
Bill readily recognises the ‘pssss pssss’ sound I can hear on a nearby oak to be a tree creeper. It’s stopped on its climb uphill and is watching us, he says. ‘All it does it go uphill,’ he observes. ‘So if you hear one, just stand still and watch it go up somewhere else. They work their way up one branch and then fly down and go up another: they never turn and go downhill. Hang about long enough and you’ll always see it.’ I learn that the long, thin, probing, slightly curving beak is purpose-made for poking for spiders and insects and for making nests behind folds of bark where it has peeled away. Awesome.
We are bearing to the right and rising up a slight incline towards the woods proper. Some summer visitors get no further than the great, green expanse of grass in front of us as we turn, and why not, says Bill: what better place for children to play or for flying a kite? Here on the edge of the woodland, away from pasture and so from grazing pressure, the branches of the great oak trees brush the ground beneath. The gate into the woods is fittingly dedicated to Norman Clarke: ‘It’s next to the pens where we lambed the sheep, and sheep were his big love,’ Bill says with affection. There is still a flock of 70 or 80 Portland sheep here, as there has been since 1760.
There’s a bit of mystery to unravel as we pass through a spinney of much newer trees and catch a glimpse of brick wall, incongruous with the stone that otherwise characterises Calke. There’s also a filled ha-ha in evidence. It’s only in winter that this brick rubble of the old Home Farm comes to light, started around 1720 and evidenced from the very few plans and maps that exist. ‘The thing with Calke is that they were very poor at keeping records,’ Bill observes. ‘Some estates have detailed records going back many generations. We just have occasional documents that give us clues. That was the nature of the [Harpur-Crewe] family: it wasn’t their priority to leave stuff for other people to find out about.’
Calke Abbey stands on the site of a mediaeval religious house, though that existed only briefly, and the Harpurs acquired the estate in 1622 for the sum of £5,530. They could well have fallen in love with the sudden, open view that still presents itself on emerging from the spinney on to the small, gravelly upper car park (known as the Fishermen’s car park). From here, you can see right across the valley and estate to the distant ridge that is Piston Hill, one boundary of this great estate, naturally bounded on another side by the Staunton Harold Reservoir and by the Ticknall to Ashby road on the other.
Dead trees lie where they fall unless they are impeding a path, and Calke, a national nature reserve, is Britain’s 10th best site for invertebrates living on dead wood. It hosts over 350 types of beetle. But that isn’t what attracts children to scramble over the great fallen oak that dominates the top of the hill here. It’s easy to see why they call it the Dragon Tree: head, eyes, nostrils and tail are all clearly imaginable from the structure. A perfect little silver birch is now growing out of the top of it as if to illustrate the wonder and audacity of trees.
We’ve passed an open line of trees where just one great beech is still present: all the rest have fallen since the 1970s. When Bill started work here in 1972, those beech trees were home to the 60 nests of a heronry. He remembers that when the heronry disappeared, it was said that a new gamekeeper had shot the birds, but during the decade that followed, the beeches all fell. ‘It’s like a rookery leaving. They know the trees are not moving like they should,’ Bill observes.
Now we’re looking at the oldest tree in the park, the 1,000-year-old Old Man of Calke. A tree has to be six metres in circumference to earn the title of veteran: this one is over ten metres in girth and could be as old as 1200 years. ‘Nobody really knows, but put it in the context of the history I learned at school – 1066 and all that – it’s been here all that while. I find that amazing,’ says Bill. On the opposite side of the path, there’s another giant ancient oak, its swirling bark pattern like the eddies of water.
The different grasses of the heathland we are passing on our left are a reminder that this site is not so distant from Charnwood Forest. Another arboreal mystery presents itself with the appearance of a giant redwood, incongruous among the native oaks, limes and sweet chestnuts. This is obviously a planted area high above the ponds. ‘Imagine where the family might come on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the 1700s and 1800s,’ Bill suggests.
‘Down below here, there’s a ford with sandstone slabs laid with just enough room for a horse to walk in six inches of water. There were steps from there up to Lady Catherine’s Bower, and it’s only in winter that you can see here the stone remnants of what would have been a summerhouse. Where the rest of the parkland wouldn’t be touched, suddenly you’d come upon this planted garden.’
And now for the piece de resistance of this winter walk. With the bracken died down, you can duck under the trees and visit the most extraordinary lime tree in the world, a great, sprawling, living Triffid of a tree, whose branches, trunks and roots are so spreading and interlacing that it’s hard to tell what’s what has sprung from what; which is the mother tree, which the infant. They grow by layering, Bill explains of this marvel. ‘That bit’s still alive, being fed back this way; this big bit here is dying off but will rot and leave a stub and that will be an independent tree, going up and up... It’s happened lots of times, like putting out tentacles... One child in a school party said in delight, “Look, the tree’s got a belly button!”’
More beech and oak trees along the path are remnants of avenues planted across the park in 1712, designed to align with the axis of the house. ‘Maps of the late 1700s show these double avenues just radiating away from the house in all directions. You can imagine the planners sitting and drawing line plans, like an imagined aerial photograph,’ Bill reflects. ‘But nobody could actually see that view and I find that fascinating.’
Calke’s herd of fallow deer watch us without curiosity from their enclosure as we complete the circle and return via the pond to where we started. The fact that they are in good condition this year is also down to the trees – ‘A good conker year does them so much good,’ Bill comments as we watch two young bucks tucking into the shiny hoard. Trees... You really have to hand it to them.
Bill Cove leads a walk every Thursday afternoon at 2pm, among a variety of other Ranger-led or individual walks that can be done at Calke. You can also download the Ancient Trees Walk from the website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/calke-abbey