Lidar in lockdown: rediscovering a lost landscape at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Published: 28 June 2021

Last update: 28 June 2021

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This blog post is written by Calke Abbey archaeology volunteers, Archaeology volunteer team Calke Abbey archaeology volunteers Archaeology volunteer team
View of Calke Abbey in spring

It was a Roman road that first led to Calke Abbey, or more precisely, three possible Roman roads. Volunteers Paula Whirrity and Adrian Farnsworth have been exploring the lost Roman routes of Derbyshire and Staffordshire together for 20 years, and these three possible roads just happened to converge on the Calke estate. Their investigations to find out more about the area led to discoveries of a more recent date – including elements of a baroque landscape, designed during the early 18th century.

Old maps and a 'Hanging Garden'

As part of our usual research we were looking at old maps, aerial photographs, and more recently, using Lidar data – a remote sensing technique which uses laser scanning to map landscapes in three dimensions. One of our resources was a 1761 map of Calke Abbey, held in the collections of the Derbyshire Record Office

Map of the Calke lordship including the park and gardens, 1761, (D2375/E/M/2/1/1), attributed to Samuel Wyatt. The 'Hanging Garden' is highlighted in red
Calke Abbey Map 1761
Map of the Calke lordship including the park and gardens, 1761, (D2375/E/M/2/1/1), attributed to Samuel Wyatt. The 'Hanging Garden' is highlighted in red

On the high ground to the south of the house the map showed a square garden with eight paths radiating from a central point. This was not really relevant to our Roman-period research, but we also noticed in passing that this same feature survived as low earthworks visible on the modern Lidar imagery. When we visited the site, we were a little taken aback - the map did not convey the overwhelming scale of this garden on a hill.

A Lidar image showing the earthworks of the Hanging Garden. The arrow indicates the central point, surrounded by radial paths
Lidar scan showing garden feature
A Lidar image showing the earthworks of the Hanging Garden. The arrow indicates the central point, surrounded by radial paths

Researching the landscape

Later, when browsing National Trust Heritage Records Online, we discovered that these earthworks had not been recorded. Although the area was noted as '(Site of) Hanging Garden' - 'Hanging' because of its position on a slope - the slight earthworks had not been detected in what is for much of the year a wildflower meadow.

We subsequently found out that in the later 18th century explosives had been used to 'landscape' the area in front of the house. It had been assumed that this had obliterated the garden. Some friends suggested that we should let the National Trust archaeologists, Rosalind Buck and Rachael Hall, know that we had spotted the garden earthworks, and so we sent off a quick email to them. Their response was immediate and enthusiastic, and this enthusiasm rubbed off on us.

The wildflower meadow in the foreground, showing just part of the Hanging Garden site. This covers the slight earthworks
Part of the Hanging Garden at Calke Abbey
The wildflower meadow in the foreground, showing just part of the Hanging Garden site. This covers the slight earthworks

These same friends had previously carried out a resistivity survey across a nearby site next to Calke House - and by September 2019 they and others were on site with us conducting a new resistivity survey across the rediscovered Hanging Garden. During this survey we got to know the garden staff at Calke. We also met the National Trust archaeology volunteers, and were invited to join them.

For the time being we postponed our Roman road research and began to find out as much as we could about the baroque landscape at Calke in the18th century. We looked at how it related to the 1761 map, surveyed during the Park's transition from the baroque to the English Landscape style.

By around 1800 the baroque gardens at Calke had been swept away and the English landscape style established
Deer in the parkland at Calke Abbey
By around 1800 the baroque gardens at Calke had been swept away and the English landscape style established

By December 2019, our report was written summarising the Lidar and resistivity results, further resistivity was being considered, and by February an archaeological fortnight was being planned for the summer of 2020. The parterre paths were to be mown in amongst the wildflowers, and the centre of the Hanging Garden was to be excavated. We were all looking forward to an exciting, enjoyable and rewarding summer in the beautiful landscape at Calke.

Then the arrival of coronavirus and lockdown put a stop to all of these activities, and we found ourselves unable to carry out any further work on the ground. The use of Lidar, aerial photography and maps, all combined in modern mapping software, came to our rescue, allowing us to continue our research during and between lockdowns.

Aerial views and laser scans

In the meantime, we had become fascinated by the charming and detailed bird's eye view illustrations of English country houses and estates, produced during the early 18th century by engravers Johannes Kip and Leonard Knyff. The possibility of a wider lost baroque landscape at Calke was intriguing.

Kip and Knyff's illustration of neighbouring Staunton Harold engraved during 1675-1720
Kip and Knyff engraving of Staunton Harold
Kip and Knyff's illustration of neighbouring Staunton Harold engraved during 1675-1720

One possibility we had come to suspect was the use of a square grid, three chains on a side, underlying the design of the baroque landscape at Calke. We were able to establish considerable evidence for this suspected grid without ever visiting the park and have since completed a report detailing our findings.

Our interest with Calke has grown beyond the history of its baroque landscape, and Lidar has allowed us to continue our research from home. It has led to the discovery of a number of lost features - some now written up, some still in the pipeline. These include a series of possibly pre-baroque ponds, a group of lost ornamental water features, an industrial area - perhaps an early brickworks, an 'Ancient Double Ditch made by the Priory Tenants' shown on a sketch map of 1775 but now invisible on the ground, and what may be a lost entrance feature on the western approach to the house. Dozens of other new features remain to be investigated.

Calke Abbey lidar with grid

Lidar image of Calke overlaid with the three-chain grid used in our research. © Defra / Paula Whirrity & Adrian Farnsworth

Lidar image of landscape feature at Calke

Lidar image of the elliptical grooves, banks and ditches, their purpose yet to be identified. © Defra / Paula Whirrity & Adrian Farnsworth

Lidar image of possible clay pit at Calke

Lidar image of a possible baroque feature in the South Avenue, currently identified as a clay pit. © Defra / Paul Whirrity & Adrian Farnsworth

Lidar is also allowing us to reassess some already known features. A 'hollow way' we had noted when visiting the park, and previously recorded as such on National Trust records, surprised us when viewed on Lidar. It turned out to be a complex, apparently designed feature of large elliptical grooves and a series of associated banks and ditches, which is still baffling us and anyone else we have shown it to. Similarly a feature recorded as an old clay pit, when viewed on Lidar, strongly suggests a designed ornamental feature.

Beyond lockdown…

We want to get back to Calke as soon as possible. We miss the days pacing backwards and forwards in beautiful surroundings with the resistivity equipment, talking with visitors, searching the real landscape, and eating flapjacks in the National Trust café. Until we can return, and work safely as a team with our friends, we know from looking at the Lidar which is on screen in front of us now, that there is still a great deal to be discovered from home.

We may even get back to the Roman roads which first took us to Calke.

Talking with a visitor before lockdown. The site of the Hanging Garden stretches from the ha-ha wall down to the house in the background
Talking to a visitor
Talking with a visitor before lockdown. The site of the Hanging Garden stretches from the ha-ha wall down to the house in the background

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