Lush countryside, stately homes and glorious cathedrals
On a clear day, they say you can see five counties from the tower of Rockingham Castle, which is slightly ironic given that this enchanting family home is nestled in an area known as Hidden England. But although Rockingham may have a pigeon’s eye view across the surrounding landscape, not everybody discovers Rockingham, which is a shame. If, like me, you love historic homes, stunning gardens, and a good tea room, you’ll love this Leicestershire gem.
Hidden England is made up of eight heritage attractions which have joined together to promote a compact area of countryside that’s packed with lovely places to visit but which often gets overlooked as people cut through at speed on the north-south A1. Rich in English history, Hidden England spans Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Cambridgeshire and Rutland, a delightfully rural area dotted with beautiful villages – don’t miss Rockingham with its chocolate-box pretty red stone cottages.
Most of the eight sites are within an hour’s drive of each other, so you can visit individually or stay a night or two take advantage of a multi-ticket – available on-line – for 4, 6 or 8 visits at a discount price. Most of them are still much loved family homes too, together sharing over 1000 years of history.
Rockingham, for instance, was started by William the Conqueror but has been in the same family since Tudor times, a dynasty that features again at magnificent Burghley House, given by Elizabeth I to her trusted Lord High Treasurer William Cecil. Tour 18 sumptuous state rooms, stroll through the vast park, and prepare for the unexpected at the modern Gardens of Surprise.
Still on the Tudor Trail, Grimsthorpe Castle was rebuilt in just 18 months expressly to host Henry VIII and his entourage, but today holds an extraordinary collection of redundant royal trappings across the centuries, thanks to a hereditary royal office held by the family. Red-brick Doddington Hall retains its original Elizabethan layout and features wonderful gardens, including a Kitchen Garden that grows produce for the tempting farm shop.
The country homes of Hidden England are horticultural heaven for garden lovers. Over at Rockingham, a rose garden now tops the old Norman motte, directly above the extraordinary ‘Elephant Hedge’ shaped out of yew trees. I also loved the topiary garden separating lawns from woodland at Grimsthorpe. There are gardens too beneath the 19th century façade of hilltop Belvoir Castle, rebuilt after a fire in 1816 and full of covetable collectables including an imperious portrait of Henry VIII. And if you can’t resist a garden makeover, be stunned and inspired at Easton Walled Gardens where Ursula Cholmeley, a regular contributor to Country Life, has restored a 12-acre garden from a wilderness.
Two magnificent cathedrals bring an extra dimension to Hidden England. For 300 years, Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building in the world and reputedly Europe’s third largest medieval building. And Peterborough Cathedral has not one but two royal connections – last resting place of Katharine of Aragon and also of Mary Queen of Scots who was executed nearby at Fotheringay, until her son James I moved his mother’s body to Westminster Abbey.
There’s accommodation in the area to suit all budgets, but Hidden England works closely with four partner hotels. I stayed at Barnsdale Lodge at Exton, close to beautiful Stamford and picturesque Rutland Water. The former BBC Gardeners’ World plots at Barnsdale Gardens are just down the road and a must-see for plant lovers.
Once a farm on the Gainsborough Estate, this delightful hotel is built around a pretty courtyard which has tables for fine weather. The 46 rooms in the main hotel all have views of either courtyard or countryside. But I stayed across the lane in one of their Rutland Retreats, luxury log cabins built from sustainable timber and with the emphasis firmly on energy saving and the environment. Each has two or three bedrooms with blissfully comfortable beds, a spacious living area, and a fully equipped kitchen that offers the option to self-cater or eat in the hotel.
But I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to test the hotel’s excellent reputation for food, so I left my Rutland Retreat crockery unused and instead enjoyed an excellent dinner in the Garden Room conservatory. There’s also a smaller, cosy restaurant and bar area for dining, depending on your mood. Afternoon tea is clearly popular too. The hotel offers various packages throughout the year and I’m certainly planning to take advantage again soon and discover more of this delightful area.