Leicester’s development from a small county town to the sprawling industrial city of today was prompted by the coming of the railway in the 19th century, for this provided easy access to the coalfields. The stocking frame was invented in Leicester, where hosiery and footwear are still strong trades. At the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1841, Thomas Cook’s first organised expedition took place from here to Loughborough.
There was a settlement here in Roman times: the Jewry Wall is believed to date from AD 130, and excavations have also revealed a public bath and shops. Of the Norman castle only motte and great hall remain, the latter used as a law court. St Mary de Castro, the church of the castle, is also basically Norman, and St Martin’s Cathedral has its origin in a 13th century church. The richness of the city’s history is reflected in its many museums: Newarke House Museum concentrates on the period from 1500 to the present day, while the Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery includes exhibitions on ceramics, natural history and Egyptology, together with a notable collection of German Expressionist paintings.
The Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment is housed in the 15th-century Magazine Gateway, and the Wygston’s House Museum of English Costume in a building which is basically late medieval. Giant beam engines are displayed in the Leicester Museum of Technology, and the results of various digs in the Jewry Wall Museum. The medieval Guildhall survives, as does the 18th-century mansion of Belgrave Hall. Leicester University founded the country’s only School of English Local History.
Ashby de la Zouch
Originally a Danish settlement, Ashby acquired its full name with the arrival of the Breton family of La Souche in the 12th century. The town became a spa in the 19th century, but contains Elizabethan half-timbered houses as well as bow-fronted Georgian shops. Behind the main street are the ruins of the 15th-century castle. Nearby the Tournament field was the setting for the pageant in Scott’s Ivanoe.
Looking across the Vale of Belvoir (pronounced ‘Beever’) towards the Leicestershire wolds, the castle stands on a ridge surrounded by dense woodland. In the 16th unded century the original 11th-century fortress was given to the Manners family, who later became Dukes of Rutland It’s present mocked-medieval appearance is largely the early 19th century work of Jamgs Wyatt Th interior is famous for its Gobelin tapestries and for its paintings which include works by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Holbein. It alsohouses the Regimental Museum of the 17th and 21st Lancers. The grounds – particularly the water gardens are splendid and regular demonstrations of jousting and mock battles are held.
Today Loughborough is involved in hosiery manufacture and engineering industries, but it is internationally famous for its bell foundry, brought here from Oxfordby John Taylor in 1858 and responsible for casting Great Paul for St Paul’s Cathedral. All Saints Church (dating from the 14th century, but restored by Sir Gilbert Scott in the 19th) has memorials to the Taylor family and, appropriately, a peal of 10 bells. A Victory Peal of 5,041 changes was rung here in 1919, and the War Memorial built in Queen’s Park in 1923 took the form of a tower containing a carillon of 47 bells.
Loughborough Central contains a museum and locomotive depot.
John Wyclif, the reformer who attacked the wrongful use of papal power in politics, was rector at the parish church of Lutterworth from 1374-84 and is commemorated by an obelisk. The church itself was much restored in the 19th century, a massive tower replacing the original spire, but it still contains some 15th century wall paintings. Wyclif worked on the first English translation of the Bible here. He was buried in the churchyard, but his body was later exhumed, cremated and the ashes cast into the River Swift.
A tree-lined avenue marks the entrance to this small stone-built town, where markets have been held since 1285. The present market is one of only seven in England which are privately owned. The Dixie family came to live in the local manor house in 1567 and are still there, the parish church has many Dixie memorials and the local school was endowed by the family.
Market Bosworth lies 1 mile north of Bosworth Field, where in 1485 the Wars of the Roses were brought to a close when Richard III was slain by Henry Tudor. The battlefield has a battle trail and an information centre.
Deep in hunting country in this case, the Fernie Hunt, Market Harborough was the creation of Henry II. Some say that the church of St Dionysius was founded by John of Gaunt though the decorations and the Perpendicular style of architecture suggests that this is unlikely. Every November, the bells are rung to celebrate the rescue of a merchant who lost his way on the Welland marshes in 1500. The ringers receive the modest reward of ‘one shilling for beer’. At West Langton, four miles north west, Langton Hall, dating from the 15th century, contains a fine collection of furniture.
Pork pies, Stilton cheese, and the Quorn Hunt are Melton Mowbray’s most famous contributions to English life. On a more spiritual level St Mary’s Church, with its 100ft tower, is one of the finest parish churches in Leicestershire. Alongside is a house given by Henry VIII to Ann of Cleves ‘so long as she remained in England’. However, the ‘Flanders mare’ bolted and there is nothing to suggest she ever lived in the house. At Thorpe End is the Melton Carnegie Museum of Local History.
Stanford Hall, on the Leicestershire bank of the Avon, was built by Sir Roger Cave between 1697 and 1700. It is possibly the most handsome house of its period in the county. The contents include a fine collection of paintings, furniture and old family costumes. In a nearby meadow, a pillar marks the spot where P S Pilcher crashed and was killed while trying to fly in 1899. He had reached an altitude of 50ft. A replica of his machine is in the vehicle museum attached to the house.
Wymondham has an early English Church displaying some fine carving in the nave and containing a 14th-century arish room. It is said that Stiltonciheeses were originally made here and Stilton to be sold to then taken to he Great North Road.