Conservation and cleaning at Calke

Winter cleaning at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Unlike many stately homes, Calke Abbey tells the story of a country house in decline, therefore many of its rooms are seemingly abandoned, dusty and a little ‘un-stately’. But behind closed doors, there’s a whole team of conservation assistants and volunteers working to keep Calke ‘clean’ and well preserved. So, what does this involve?

Spring cleaning… every day!

During the open season, the house team can be found vacuuming the visitor route, which takes a massive three hours each day! The wooden floors are then dry mopped to keep them clean and prevent damage, and over 100 windows and 32 fireplaces are vacuumed each month. When did you last vacuum your windows?

True to Calke’s spirit of decline, the abandoned rooms are left to accumulate dust – the house team dust those rooms just once or twice a year. In the show rooms, however, the surfaces are dusted every day, and all the objects get a full dusting every week.

Usually, we have a team of volunteers doing all sorts of vital jobs around the house, from collections cleaning and conservation work, to collection management and inventory logging. While we're currently operating a small team during lockdown, we can't wait to welcome out volunteers back soon – they help us keep Calke alive. 

The big winter clean

While the house is closed over the winter, there’s a hub of activity behind closed doors – we call it ‘the big winter clean’. This involves thoroughly cleaning every room on the visitor route, from the collection items themselves to the walls and carpets around them. Some of the rooms have such high ceilings that we have to build a scaffold to clean the high walls and collections, such as in the Saloon.  

Almost all of the show-room furniture at Calke has an individually designed, shaped, and handmade dust-cover. During the winter months, after the collection has been through its deep clean, it is vital to cover the furniture to ensure it is not exposed to any unnecessary light or dust.

In order to do this effectively, each piece of furniture must have a perfectly fitted dust cover. Calke’s dust covers were made many years ago by a team of textiles volunteers, who made each slip the perfect size and shape for its item. 

The collection is cleaned and covered to protect it over winter
Waking the house after winter at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
The collection is cleaned and covered to protect it over winter

Specialist conservation

Alongside the routine cleaning of the house, sometimes we come across collections that require the attention of specialist conservators. This work is usually carried out during the winter while the house is closed.

Conservators cover all manner of specialisms, helping us to take close care of specific collections of items, such as watercolours, prints and archives (a paper conservator), clocks (horologist), and even conservators who help us assess what’s eating our collection (pest and environmental conservators).

Most of the time they instruct us on how best to avoid damage to these items, but time to time when an item has been badly damaged or decayed, they do repair and preservation work to ensure the item’s condition stays stable.

Keeping the metalwork… rusty?

Did you know we have a team of metalwork volunteers at Calke? They help us to keep the metal objects and fittings in the exact state we found them in.

Using a special paste made from white spirit and renaissance wax, the team clean and treat the metalwork to provide a protective layer which preserves the current level of decay for up to five years. It’s all part of keeping Calke preserved in a state of decline!

Books, books, and more books

While the rest of the collection is cleaning during the winter, we have a separate system for cleaning the books in the library (yes, we clean the books!).

This work is sometimes done when the house is open – if you’re lucky, you might see the conservation team in action on your next visit.

Spring cleaning during the winter at Calke Abbey
Conservation at National Trust Calke Abbey | Midlands
Spring cleaning during the winter at Calke Abbey

Thank you for your support

Despite the house being closed for most of 2020, the house team have been working hard all year to look after this special place and its vast, unique collection.

It’s thanks to your continued support that we’re able to continue this work to protect and preserve Calke Abbey. Thank you.