If you’ve never considered the Midlands as a holiday destination, maybe it’s time you looked again, says Gillian Hook
Honey-coloured buildings, picturesque hamlets, stunning countryside… No, not the Cotswolds but, perhaps surprisingly, Northamptonshire in the Midlands. If you thought of the area as just commuter belt, you’re missing out on so much. It’s true that the M1 roars through the county, the A1 is close by and it’s an easy hour’s rail journey to London. But travel off the main highways and you’re soon on quiet country roads winding between wheat fields and forests, thatched cottages and classical architecture, ancient monuments and historic houses.
The local building stone is a pale honey colour, giving villages a golden glow. As you meander through their narrow streets, look out for artisan shops, cosy pubs and celebrities who have made these hamlets their home.
Not for nothing is this area known as the county of ‘spires and squires’, as it is here that some of the most beautiful stately homes in the UK can be found, including the Althorp Estate, the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales, and her resting place. It is also home to Rockingham Forest, a collection of ancient woodlands that were once William the Conqueror’s favourite hunting ground. Here you can see red kite, which were reintroduced to the forest in the 90s, soaring leisurely above the trees and arable fields.
For more wildlife, travel north to Rutland, the UK’s smallest historic county and home to Rutland Water Nature Reserve, which plays host to nesting ospreys and where visitors can enjoy a plethora of activities.
So, if you’ve only ever sped past Northants, perhaps it’s time to take the exit ramp and check out this gem of a region.
Created by former Gardeners’ World presenter Geoff Hamilton, Barnsdale has 38 specially designed gardens, a cafe that uses garden produce, a shop and a nursery. barnsdalegardens.co.uk
This pretty, traditional market town blends a wealth of history with a myriad shops and eateries. There’s the Norman-era Oakham Castle, Oakham School (1584) and the Grade II-listed Victoria Hall, not to mention the Oakham Signal Box on which Airfix based its model railway boxes. But if it’s stylish shopping and fine dining you’re after, head to Mill Street for boutiques, salons and artisan shops, plus an abundant mix of cafes, bars and restaurants, while on market days visitors can choose from the finest local produce. discover-rutland.co.uk/oakham
Built more than 400 years ago by William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, Burghley is one of the largest and grandest surviving houses of the 16th century and boasts an extensive collection of fine art, grand state rooms and Capability Brown-designed gardens and parkland. Check out the Garden of Surprises, which includes a mirrored maze, a shell grotto and the moss house; or enjoy a tranquil walk next to the lake in the Sculpture Garden where the works are displayed alongside sweeping borders and drifts of wildflowers. For refreshments, there is a restaurant and café, plus a shop. burghley.co.uk
Created in the 1970s, this is one of the largest man-made lakes in Europe, set
in more than 3,000 acres of beautiful countryside. There is plenty for everyone here, including cycling the 23-mile, mostly traffic-free, circuit around the shore. Keep an eye out for the resident ospreys – who prior to 2001 had not bred in central England for more than 150 years – as well as the thousands of waterfowl at Rutland Nature Reserve, one of the most important sanctuaries in Britain. On the route, you will discover the award-winning Horse & Jockey pub, with its many bike racks, and the striking Normanton Church. You can hire bikes at Rutland Cycling in Whitwell. discover-rutland.co.uk/ listing/rutland-water/
Local community group Transition King’s Cliffe has produced three leaflets on cycle rides in the local area to whet your appetite – they can be downloaded from transitionkingscliffe. org.uk/transport. Each has a hand- drawn map, photos and details of the route, as well as the wildlife to watch out for, and a list of local cycle shops. If you stay at Hall Farm (see overleaf), bikes and riding gear are provided for free, so you can make the most of the area.
Part of the former royal hunting forest of Rockingham Forest, this 750-acre wood is now managed by Forestry England and has a five-mile scenic woodland trail suitable for all the family – plus there’s a cafe at the end to refuel! There is an easy ‘green’ route with gentle hills, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, there are ‘blue’ sections that
are a little more challenging. Bikes can be hired next to the cafe. forestryengland. uk/fineshade-wood
Where to stay
The Hayloft, Hall Farm, King’s Cliffe
Dating back to the 17th century, this former farm building has been tastefully converted into a luxurious first-floor home-from-home, with tall airy rooms complete with beams. Inside is everything you could possibly need for a self-catering break, all done with quality and style. There is an open-plan kitchen, dining and comfortable sitting area (pictured below) with a mix of antique and contemporary furniture and original artworks on the walls. With windows all around the walls and in the vaulted ceiling, light floods into this space. The same is true of the bedroom, which is up another few steps and boasts a comfortable super-kingsize bed (or two singles) with ensuite shower room. You get all your bedding, towels, etc, and folded neatly on the bed are more towels, a dressing gown and slippers, because residents of The Hayloft get exclusive use of the wood-fired hot tub tucked
away in the garden. Also outside is a ‘snug’, where you can lounge on comfortable sofas with a bottle of something chilled, or dine alfresco.
There is also a pond area, and hosts Geoff and Sarah invite you to wander around their own garden. No pets are allowed, but there are two resident terriers who will make you feel very welcome! Geoff even makes his own delicious ice cream and you are encouraged to help yourself from his stock.
Castle farm guest house
For a B&B option, this former Victorian farmhouse is next to Fotheringhay Castle and has lawns running down to the River Nene. Choose from five ensuite rooms (two doubles, three twins). Three nights cost from £480. Call 07762 516735 to book or visit castlefarm- guesthouse.co.uk for details.
The George of Stamford
If you prefer to be waited on hand and foot, this four-star hotel is a former coaching inn thought to be 1,000 years old, with 45 individually designed rooms, an oak-panelled restaurant and a bar. Three nights cost from £1,015. Call 01780 750700, or visit georgehotelofstamford.com to book online.