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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.
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