Wanderer at Large: Leicestershire

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the Eastern Midlands including Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Huntingdonshire.

Belvoir Castle by Tancread. CC license BY-NC 2.0

Leicestershire is a landlocked county in the English Midlands covering about 800 square miles and with a population of just over one million. The River Soar flows northward through Leicester before emptying into the River Trent at the point where Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire meet. A large part of the north-west of the county forms part of the National Forest.

The city of Leicester is one of the oldest cities in England, first recorded c2000 years ago as Roman Corieltauvorum, the capital of the local Celtic tribe Corieltauvi. Foxglove is the county flower. Leicestershire is considered to be the birthplace of fox hunting. The symbol of the county, cricket club and football club is the Fox. Leicester City football club (the Foxes) found global fame in 2016 when they won the Premier League for the first time in their history: a remarkable achievement for a ‘provincial’ team.

Traditional Leicestershire industries included hosiery, bellmaking, lead roofing and stained glass. Triumph Motorcycles are still (just) based in Hinckley. Another famous Leicestershire-based company was Thomas Cook. Cook was a devout Christian businessman who a organised trip from Leicester to Loughborough for 500 people to attend a temperance fair in 1841. By 1851 he was organising trains for visitors to attend the Great Exhibition in London with a trip that included rail and entry ticket. Over the next 150 years, Thomas Cook became globally successful selling package holidays. Just a year ago it went into liquidation, but some entities of the Thomas Cook Group still exist.

The majority of Leicestershire’s land is given over to farming. There are 2,700 farms on over 200,000 acres. They employ around 7,000 agricultural workers and contain about 300,000 sheep, 120,000 cattle and 60,000 pigs. Local farmer Robert Bakewell (1725–1795) of Dishley, near Loughborough, was a revolutionary in the field of selective breeding. Bakewell’s Leicester Longwool sheep were much prized. The descendants of Bakewell’s sheep include the English Leicester, Border Leicester and Bluefaced Leicester.

Belvoir Castle
Belvoir Castle (pronounced beaver) is the fantastically Gothic stately home of the Manners family and remains the seat of the Dukes of Rutland. Robert de Ros was granted a licence to crenellate the original Norman castle in 1267 but within two hundred years it was in ruins. In 1508, the manor and castle passed to George Manners, 11th Baron de Ros. His son Thomas was created First Earl of Rutland and started construction of a new castle which was completed in 1555.

A royalist stronghold during the Civil War, King Charles I spent a night here on his way into Lincolnshire. In 1649, the castle was destroyed by Parliamentarians. A third castle, designed as a family home, was completed in 1668. In 1799, the fifth Duke and Duchess rebuilt the castle in the Gothic Revival style but it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1816. It was rebuilt largely to the same designs and completed by 1832.

Highlights include the Elizabeth Saloon, Regent’s Gallery and State Dining Room. The castle sits in an estate of almost 15,000 acres. The mausoleum in the grounds is the burial place of the Manners family. The castle has been a filming location on many occasions including for The Da Vinci Code, The Young Victoria and The Crown. Why not take afternoon tea here? It is claimed that this English tradition was invented in Belvoir in the 1840s.

Ashby Castle
The town was of Ashby in Leicestershire became a possession of the French La Zouche family during the reign of Henry III. Ashby Castle is arguably the last medieval castle to be built in England. In 1474, Lord Hastings was awarded a royal licence by the Plantagenet dynasty to fortify the castle at Ashby-de-la-Zouch. In 1503, It was visited by King Henry VII, and thus given the Tudor royal stamp of approval. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here in 1569 and also spent her last nights before her removal to Fotheringay Castle in 1586, where she was later beheaded.

In the early 1600s, there were frequent royal visits by the Stuart dynasty. King Charles I visited the castle twice during the Civil War in 1645, including the night following his defeat at the Battle of Naseby. In 1646, it remained the chief Royalist garrison in the country and was under the control of Colonel Henry Hastings. It fell after a long siege and was slighted (put out of action) by Parliamentary forces.

Ashby Castle found fame again in 1819 when the Scottish romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott set Ivanhoe in the castle. In the novel, the town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch hosts an archery competition held by Prince John, in which Robin Hood competes and wins.

Calke Abbey
Calke Abbey is a Grade I listed baroque mansion but is presented as an English country house in decline. An Augustinian priory was built on the site in the 12th century but destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. In 1622, the estate was bought by the Harpur family, and the current house was built in 1704 by the 4th Baronet Harpur.

In 1985, after over 350 years with Harpur family, it was handed over to National Trust owing to the dynastic line dying out and crippling debts. However, in a story that has echoes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, an heir was recently discovered, a distant cousin of the family. His name was Andrew Johnson and he was a timber merchant of Vermont, USA. He has been given use of an apartment in Calke Abbey, which he and his family have used on occasional visits.

Bottle Kicking & Hare Pie Scramble
On Easter Monday, near Market Harborough, the villagers of Hallaton and Medbourne take part in the traditional local pastime known as the Bottle Kicking & Hare Pie Scramble.

In the afternoon, a parade, led by bagpipes and drums, leaves the Fox pub via the Hallaton village green to the church where a pie is broken into pieces and thrown into the crowd. The crowd are then led to the top of the hill where the bottle-kicking starts. The two teams of Hallaton and Medbourne kick and run with each bottle until they are taken either over the fields into Medbourne, or down the hill and across the brook behind the Berwick Arms to Hallaton. The Hallaton team is exclusive to villagers but the Medbourne team is open to all.

Leicestershire – always a foxy little day out. (Melton Mobray and Staunton Harold will be covered separately).

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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