Peter Pickering - Words and Worlds Interwoven

In those formative years, Home Farm epitomised the quintessential rustic retreat—charmingly primitive, devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity. Instead, it relied on the steady hum of a diesel generator to meet its energy needs. It was a simpler time, set against the backdrop of the yet unaltered landscape before the Staunton Harold reservoir was developed, which later transformed the area with its serene waters and peaceful aura. This natural setting, coupled with the rich history of the estate, created an enchanting environment that profoundly shaped my appreciation for rural life and heritage.

Approaching Home Farm was like entering a realm straight out of a children’s fairy tale. Each visit transformed the familiar world into one of enchanting pastoral scenes reminiscent of a vibrant storybook illustration. At the end of a winding drive, the farmhouse emerged, nestled amidst a lively tableau of rural life.

Sheep dotted the green fields, munching contentedly on the lush grass, while ducks traced elegant paths across a shimmering pond. Geese contributed a raucous chorus to the farm’s soundtrack, their honks echoing cheerfully in the air. The scene was further animated by mischievous goats who roamed freely—often too freely, as evidenced when they once devoured Aunty Eve’s curtains in the lounge, leading to their comedic expulsion from the house.

Near the kitchen, a Jersey cow became a regular fixture, ambling up to the window in anticipation of the treats we happily provided. Not to be outdone, a friendly donkey also made frequent appearances, always eager for a snack or a pat, endearing itself to everyone with its gentle disposition.

Each element of Home Farm—from the animals to the idyllic landscape—wove together to create a living tapestry that charmed all who visited, leaving enduring impressions of timeless joy and simplicity. Amidst this idyllic setting, my cousins, Sally and Christopher, lived a life that seemed straight out of a fairy tale. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy for their daily adventures in such a magical place. My visits to Home Farm were not only a joy but a deep dive into a simpler, yet profoundly rich way of life. It was during these visits that I explored every nook and cranny of the Calke Estate, discovering hidden treasures and collectibles, remnants of a bygone era that had been tucked away in the storied rooms of the property. These items, now cherished mementos, serve as a tangible connection to those halcyon days at Home Farm, each with its own story to tell.

My visits to the Abbey were always a highlight, especially when Uncle Norman had tasks to attend to around the grounds. These moments presented the perfect opportunity for a curious child like me to embark on grand explorations. The Abbey, and its extensive outbuildings, with layers of history and mystery, was a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. I vividly remember the thrill of sneaking into the upstairs rooms of the buildings behind the Abbey, which were packed with fascinating heirlooms that seemed to whisper stories of times long past.

During these exploratory missions, I couldn’t resist the temptation to claim a few small items for myself—treasures that seemed to call out for someone to appreciate their forgotten beauty. These adventures were some of the most exhilarating times of my youth, filled with the joy of discovery and the pulse of history coming alive.

One of my most extraordinary discoveries at Calke Abbey was a Chinese silk bed, a marvel of artisanal skill that Uncle Norman once revealed to me. This exquisite artifact was meticulously preserved within a large wooden box, unceremoniously placed in a secluded corner of an upper floor typically used for storing corn. The delicate silks of the bed seemed to murmur tales of distant lands and ancient caravans, evoking images of the Silk Road and its rich history.

Lost Treasures and Lingering Dreams: My Enduring Affection for Calke Estate

At the time, the full significance of this find was beyond our comprehension; its true worth was something none of us could entirely appreciate. This bed was not merely an antique; it served as a gateway to a profound cultural heritage, a tangible connection to a bygone era of exquisite craftsmanship and international commerce.

Today, recognising its extraordinary value and rarity, this unique piece is safeguarded under the most careful conditions inside Calke Abbey itself. It is said to be priceless and irreplaceable, now displayed in a specially designed enclosure that maintains strict control over temperature and humidity, ensuring its preservation for future generations to admire and study. This measure highlights the bed's significance not just as a relic, but as a cultural treasure, embodying centuries of history and artistry.

In the riding school, seasonally used for storing potatoes, a large wooden rowing boat was suspended in the rafters, fired my imagination each time I saw it. I was captivated by its sturdy clinker build and the stories it must hold within its weathered timbers. I begged endlessly to claim it as my own, envisioning the adventures I could have on the nearby ponds and lakes. However, I was never allowed to bring it down, a decision that only added to the boat's mystique and my fascination with it.

There were several carriage houses and the carriages themselves were a sight to behold—true works of art with their intricate craftsmanship and elegant design. They weren't merely functional but were a testament to a bygone era of opulence and grandeur. As a child, I spent countless hours exploring these majestic carriages, my imagination captivated by their history and the stories they held. Even at a tender age, my fascination with history was profound, sparked by the tangible links to the past that surrounded me at Calke Abbey. These experiences not only enriched my childhood but also deepened my appreciation for heritage and the preservation of historical artifacts.

These experiences at the Abbey were not just mere child’s play; they were formative adventures that deeply influenced my appreciation for history and antiques, shaping the person I would become.

As I grew older and gained more hands-on farm experience, Uncle Norman began to trust me with casual paid work around the estate. This opportunity was not only enjoyable but also invaluable, especially as I prepared for my journey to Australia with little financial cushioning. The extra income from these farm duties became a significant blessing, easing the burden of my impending travels.

I vividly recall the end of one particularly lively week of work, when Uncle Norman handed me a pay packet that felt unusually heavy. Surprised by the heft of the envelope, I couldn't help but exclaim, "Goodness, did I earn all that?" His response, delivered with a mischievous glint in his eye, was a hearty, "No, ya bloody didn’t!” But his chuckle immediately followed, revealing his jest. This was typical of Uncle Norman, whose humour and warmth permeated his interactions.

He was known for his playful banter, often using his signature catchphrase, "And that’s how it was," to end conversations on a lighthearted note. This phrase became synonymous with his personality, reflecting his straightforward, no-nonsense approach to life, sprinkled with a generous dose of humour. These moments, filled with laughter and camaraderie, not only enriched my experiences on the farm but also deepened the bond between us, leaving me with cherished memories that I carried with me to Australia.

Uncle Norman played a pivotal role in enlivening the grounds of Calke Abbey by persuading the estate’s Agent to host the Ashby Show in 1965. This annual event, a staple of local tradition and festivity, transformed the usually quiet estate into a vibrant showcase of community and culture. The eccentric Charles Harpur-Crewe, the owner at that time, who was initially reluctant, found himself thoroughly enjoying the festivities. He particularly relished the experience of being paraded around the arena in a horse-drawn carriage, a spectacle that drew the admiration of gathered crowds. The sight of Charles, animated and smiling, was a rare and delightful deviation from his usual solitude.

In 1972, I embarked on what was meant to be a brief holiday to Australia, leaving behind my cherished silver Jaguar 3.4 MkII. With hopes of returning soon, I had the car carefully stored on blocks in one of Calke Abbey's old carriage rooms, preserved for my eventual return. However, life’s unpredictable nature took hold, and it was many years before I made my way back.

Upon my return in the early 80’s, filled with anticipation, I attempted to revive the Jaguar, a symbol of my former life and passions. Sadly, time had not been kind to it; the vehicle’s engine was seized and beyond economical repair, a victim of time's inevitable march. Reluctantly, I asked Uncle Norman to handle its sale for scrap, a decision tinged with a sense of loss for what had once been a proud and elegant machine.

My connection to the picturesque landscapes of Derbyshire traces back to my Uncle Norman Clarke, who served as the dedicated farm manager at Home Farm, nestled within the sprawling Calke Estate adjoining the village of Ticknall, today a National Trust property. During my school holidays, I eagerly grasped every chance to escape to this rustic haven, revelling in the traditional charm and vibrant life both at the farm and the wider Calke Abbey Estate.

I had always cautiously avoided Charles Harper-Crewe, whose reputation, peculiar ways and unusual demeanour made him a daunting figure for a young visitor. And then following his death in ’81 his notoriously quirky beneficiary, Henry Harper-Crewe (formerly Jenney). Known for his idiosyncrasies, Henry was an enigma, wrapped in the rich tapestry of Calke Abbey’s eccentric, eclectic legacy—a very odd bird indeed, whose interactions were as unpredictable as they were memorable.

However, during my visits to the Abbey I occasionally found companionship in Miss Airmyne Jenney, Henry's sister,—who kindly spent time with me, mostly in the kitchen where warmth and the aroma of cooking filled the air. She also guided me through the house, sharing stories and insights that added layers to my understanding of the Abbey’s history. Her kindness was a comforting presence amidst the vastness of the estate.

In response to a bold and daring theft in the early 70's that stripped all the lead from the Abbey's roof, Henry conceived an inventive strategy to ward off further criminal activity. Understanding that a visible sign of occupancy might dissuade potential thieves, he decided on an unusual but visually striking deterrent. The solution was to purchase a brand-new XJ6 Jaguar. This luxury car was not chosen for its speed or engineering but as a statement of presence. Its gleaming chassis and elegant lines were intended to convey that the Abbey was still very much in use and under watchful eyes. Positioned prominently in front of the house, the Jaguar served as a tangible declaration of vigilance.

Rather than racing down country lanes or parading through town squares, this Jaguar found its role as a sentinel, quietly guarding the estate from its stationary post. Over the years, it was so seldom driven that it accrued barely any mileage, remaining in near-pristine condition. This striking use of a luxury car as a static defence symbolises the unique measures taken to protect the historical integrity, privacy and contents of Calke Abbey. After Henry’s passing, Uncle Norman acquired the Jaguar. Its odometer testified to its life mostly spent in repose, in front of Calke Abbey.

Henry Harpur-Crewe

Growing up, part of my childhood was spent on my grandfather's farm, The Grange, located in the pastoral village of Barrow-on-Trent. This idyllic setting was the backdrop for many of my earliest adventures and lessons in the rhythms of rural life. One particular summer in the early 60's stands out in my memory, marked by an unexpected rescue mission during the hay mowing. I discovered some vulnerable duck eggs, abandoned and in danger of being crushed by the machinery. Seizing the moment to save them, I placed the eggs under the care of a broody hen who, with time, hatched them into a lively group of ducklings.

As these ducklings grew, they became a fluttering fixture on the farm. When the time came to consider their future, I initially thought of selling them at the Uttoxeter market—a typical enough plan for a farm boy looking to make a small profit. However, my grandfather, ever the visionary, proposed a different fate for them. He suggested that these ducks would find a better home at Calke Abbey, believing they would thrive on the expansive estate.

Eager to see this new chapter for my ducks, we journeyed across the iconic Swarkestone Bridge, through the quaint village of Ticknall, and arrived at 'Middle Lodge' on the Calke Estate, the home of gamekeeper, Agathos (Ag) Pegg. Ag Pegg, a stalwart figure, agreed to my grandfather's plan. We released the ducks into the open, where they took to their freedom with vigorous flaps of their wings, skimming just inches above the lush grass of the estate. Watching them claim the vastness of Calke as their own was a breathtaking sight, their silhouettes a dynamic dance against the green backdrop.

Flush with excitement and anticipating a monetary reward for my efforts, I awaited Ag's compensation. Instead of the expected cash, he handed me a box of 25 12-bore shotgun cartridges—a currency of sorts in the countryside but a disappointment to a young boy dreaming of spending money. Crestfallen yet too respectful to protest, I accepted the unconventional payment. Reflecting on it now, this experience was one of my many rustic lessons in value and reward, shaping my understanding of rural economies and the unexpected forms that payment can take.

Calke Abbey left an indelible mark on my heart, a symbol of heritage and history that deeply influenced my formative years. After relocating to Australia, I quickly realised the vast opportunities that lay before me in this new land. As years passed and my successes accumulated, a bold thought began to take shape: could I, perhaps, amass enough wealth to acquire Calke Abbey itself?

My ambitions were further fuelled by the popular TV series "To The Manor Born," which painted an idyllic picture of aristocratic life that appealed to my sense of adventure and nostalgia. I envisioned myself back at Calke, not just as a visitor, but as its lord—Master of the Hunt, with hounds at foot, or leading game shoots through the sprawling estate. The title Lord Peter Harpur-Crewe seemed to fit this dream perfectly, adding a touch of nobility that was both grand and fitting. My story would not have been unlike that of Richard DeVere of Grantleigh Manor, a humble immigrant grocer who’d found success.

However, reality interjected with the news of Henry's death and the subsequent financial burdens that fell upon the estate. With my background in property and property law, I knew there were ways to plan for and circumvent such hefty death duties. If only I had been there, perhaps I could have advised Charles, perhaps I could have helped preserve the estate's legacy. But by then, I was well-established in Australia, thriving in a country that offered boundless possibilities, and the thought of returning to England became less appealing by the day.

This crossroads led me to ponder how different my life might have been had I chosen to pursue the ownership of Calke Abbey. Would I have been happy as Lord Peter Harpur-Crewe, embedded in the traditions of the English countryside? Or was my true calling here in Australia, where I had built a life of undeniable success and fulfillment? These reflections often visit me as I consider the twists and turns of fate that led me to where I am today—a life rich with achievements, yet always linked to the haunting beauty of Calke Abbey Estate.

Montage - me, many years ago in my fox-hunting days.