First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Soft autumn sunlight lay over south-west Derbyshire, tipping the hedges with scarlet berries and showing up the medieval ridge-and-furrow in the fields around Ticknall. Once across the old limestone tramway and into the broad acres of Calke Park, it was all a gentleman’s idealised landscape of graceful old oaks and chestnuts, in whose shade fat white sheep grazed the parkland meadows.
Acres of land and quarries of limestone made the Harpur family’s fortune, and the park they laid out around their Palladian house of Calke Abbey in the 18th century is a dream-like place to wander on a soft autumn day. We followed the National Forest Way as it wound past enormous gold-crowned oaks, bulbous with age, and the long ponds below the house and stables.
The Harpurs (later Harpur-Crewe) were famous for their love of racehorses, their lack of impact when they tried their luck in the political world, and their almost pathological craving for solitude. All they wanted was to be left alone in their great park and house.
When the National Trust acquired the property in 1985 in lieu of death duties, it was as a time capsule, perfectly illustrating the decline of the English country house in the 20th century. There’s no Downton Abbey glamour or polish to Calke Abbey. This is a family house where spending trickled to a stop. Low-wattage bulbs dimly light the mounted heads of favourite cattle, caskets of mineral collections and ancient cartoons pasted onto the wallpaper. It’s all tremendously subfusc and poignant.
From the great house in its hollow we found our way along a back road to the shores of Staunton Harold reservoir, a lion-shaped sheet of water where hundreds of greylag geese trumpeted to the cloudy heavens. In Calke Abbey’s deer enclosure a couple of magnificently antlered fallow bucks were restlessly pawing the ground in anticipation of the rutting season.
Out across stubble fields, and in among the iridescent grey ponds, the steep hummocks and canyons of Calke Limeyards, where limeburners once slaved at the kilns for the Harpur-Crewe family. We ducked through a tramway tunnel towards a chink of green and gold light at the far end, and came out into fields around Ticknall where medieval peasants ploughed the ridge-and-furrow when monks still sang their vespers at Calke Abbey, long centuries before the Harpurs had ever been heard of.
Start: Staff of Life PH, Ticknall, Derbyshire, DE73 7JH (OS ref SK351238)
Getting there: Bus service 61, Derby-Swadlincote
Road – Ticknall is on A514 between Derby and Swadlincote.
Staff of Life PH is on corner of A514 and B5006 road (‘Smisby’).
Walk (6 miles, easy, OS Explorer 245): From Staff of Life PH, left along B5006. In 100m, left (fingerpost) across 2 fields (yellow arrows/YA) to cross tramway path (353235). Cross next field; turn right along gravelled cyclepath. In 250m, opposite Middle Lodge, through gate (357232, ‘National Trust’ sign): emerge from woodland; bear right down left side of driveway. In 200m, pass yellow-topped post/YTP (359229, ‘National Forest Way’/NFW); follow path through trees. In 400m, just before Betty’s Pond, hairpin back on your left at YTP (363228; yellow, blue, pink arrows) up path and steps. At top, right for 100m to ‘Old Man of Calke’ oak (363229).
Return to pass east end of Betty’s Pond. Through gate; bear left on narrow path beside long pond. In 250m, bear right at gate (365228) up steps. In 100m, hairpin left, through gate and car park to Calke Abbey.
Follow path down right side of stable block (NB shop, restaurant). Through gate (367226); on down drive with wall on left; pass church (369223) and on to road (373223). Left; in 450m, at end of road, ahead through wall gap (375226, ‘Maroon Walk’, NFW), down to Staunton Harold reservoir. Left along shore; right across weir (372228). Follow path anticlockwise round edge of deer enclosure. In 700m, through gate; ahead past info board (368233); in 50m, right through gate (YA); left over stile.
Half-right across fields past White Leys house. At far side of second field, path enters hedge. Follow path to right; continue with hedge on left. Over stile (YA) and on with hedge on right. In 300m, path bends right into trees (362236). In 200m look left for gate and stile down a slope. Through gate (NT); follow trail (NT markers) through Calke Limeyards. In 400m, through arch; continue along trail to go through Ticknall Tramway Tunnel (356237). In 200m, right through gate (353235); retrace steps to Ticknall.
Lunch/Accommodation: Staff of Life, Ticknall (01332-862479, thestaffoflife.co.uk) – excellent village pub with rooms
Calke Abbey (NT): 01332-863822, nationaltrust.org.uk. House open mid Feb-end Oct; park, restaurant, shop open all year.
Info: Swadlincote TIC (01283-222848)