Beset by Crushing Taxes, a British Bachelor Goes Public with His 86-Room Time Capsule

updated 09/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

British country squire Henry Harpur-Crewe, 63, feels that the label "eccentric," if applicable to past members of his family, is not entirely fair to him. "Of course, we're all eccentric in a way," he concedes, "but I do think it's been rather overdone."

Hardly. Henry spends most days of his life within a marvelous monument to his family's eccentricity, an 86-room Palladian pile called Calke Abbey, nestled in the Derbyshire countryside. Each of the past four generations of owners has lived as its forebears did, changing virtually nothing about the 281-year-old place and rarely even venturing beyond the Abbey's grounds. As the inheritance money ran down, they closed and shuttered most of the rooms and outbuildings, leaving the contents almost exactly as they were 100 years ago and more.

The grand saloon, remodeled in 1841, was hardly used at all, nor was the high Victorian drawing room, its mint-condition furniture resting beneath dustcovers. The Abbey's bakery, brewery, stables, tack room and blacksmith's shop, with their paraphernalia, look as though the resident workers had just popped out for a pint. In a garage a fire engine stands ready to be hitched to horses.

Henry, who never managed to graduate from school and spent much of his life tending the poultry at the Abbey, inherited the rambling artifact with its 12,000 acres from his brother, Charles, in 1981. He also inherited a numbing tax bill of almost $12 million that might have forced him to sell out and leave the house to be torn down. But Henry has struck a deal with Britain's National Trust, dedicated to preserving such rural landmarks, by which the tax bill is settled: The trust gets the Abbey for public display and Henry gets an apartment in the place—plus up to $6 million in pin money.

The trust sees Calke as a prize—not just another mansion on its uppers. A spokesman calls it "the house where time stood still," a mummified sampler of old English country life. Every corner holds a trove of bric-a-brac—the makings of the ultimate tag sale. There are children's games from years gone by, stamp albums, helmets, ostrich plumes, guns, swords, Victorian skating boots, party invitations from the Edwardian era, lead soldiers with their paint still bright, trays of mounted butterflies and cabinets of stuffed birds. The drawers in one bedroom open to lace petticoats, shawls, fans and dolls in pristine condition. The walls of another bedroom, belonging to Henry's grandfather, Sir Vauncey, are studded with deer heads whose supporting plaques bear Sir Vauncey's proud inscription: "Killed by Me."

Though Henry is happy that his beloved Abbey has been saved, he holds clear misgivings about the changes that going public will bring. "With all these people messing around," he says, "there's no telling what they'll do. I look forward to its being restored, but not overrestored." A trust expert in memorabilia vows, with careful choice of words, that his crew will "resist the temptation to correct eccentricity."

Calke was built by Sir John Harpur between 1701 and 1703 on the site of a Franciscan friary and handed down through the family. Sir Vauncey, who held the place from 1886 till he died in 1924, kept the 20th century at bay. Even after his death no automobile got through the gates until 1949, and electricity was not installed until 1960. By then Calke had passed to Charles, a true Harpur-Crewe who stayed at home except to hoist a pint with local villagers.

According to Benjamin Hyde, 77, a handyman in residence for 63 years, Charles was "a real village man who loved to go for a drink at the local pub. He didn't mix with the upper class and landowners." Charles died of a heart attack, apparently while out setting mole traps. "He must have been rushing back to the house during a thunderstorm," speculates one intimate. "His body was found at the foot of an oak tree, and there were injuries to his head. It looked as if he'd run straight into the tree with his head down." The shock may have brought on the fatal coronary that gave the place to his brother.

Henry now uses only eight rooms for his living quarters. And whereas 27 servants once bustled about the house, Henry scrapes by with three part-time cleaning ladies and two handymen. He does most of his own cooking, including pheasants and rabbits he shoots. Described by Hyde as "a lot more social" than his brother, Henry owns two racehorses and dabbles in local charities.

Neither Henry nor Charles ever married—nor did Henry's surviving older sister, Pip, who left the Abbey years ago and lives in nearby Buxton. Henry's marital hopes "just conked out," he says. Yet if Henry outlives Pip, the fact that he is without offspring does not mean there will be no heir to the Abbey. Henry, who weathered a heart attack himself five years ago, reckons on some distant relative "floating around the U.S. or Australia. Don't worry!" he exclaims. "If I die in the morning, someone will come forward."

Meanwhile, at least one relative, his second cousin, Joy Marson, 79, the wife of a retired air vice-marshal, is keeping tabs on Henry. Recently, during a visit at Calke, she remarked that the family had become "like an old tree...or an extinct animal." What the rarefied Henry and Charles had most needed during their youth was a "good red-blooded barmaid running around"—someone to put some life in them. Yet Joy insisted that she had no desire to play Cupid at that point. In fact, she teased, she and her husband, John, 78, had come to Calke to see that Henry didn't get into any late-inning mischief, "like marrying the vicar's daughter."

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