With villages of thatch and golden stone, welcoming countryside and more than its fair share of intriguing country houses and gardens, Northamptonshire offers a journey of discovery to rival more famous tourist hotspots, says James Alexander-Sinclair
People miss Northamptonshire; they drive through it without noticing that it is there. Sometimes they mix it up with Hampshire or Northumberland, but it has little resonance with most people. There is no big landmark with which it can be associated. Devon has coastline and cream teas, Cheshire has cheese and footballers, Sussex has chalky downs, Cumbria has fells and lakes, while Northamptonshire has…? Well, rather a lot actually but, being a modest and retiring county, we do not like to brag. This is a gentle county of rolling pastureland, stone villages and tall spires: in short it is the essence of an English shire.
On the bookshelf in my office is an old Shell guide to Northamptonshire, written by Juliet Smith (who is now Lady Juliet Townshend, Lord Lieutenant of the county) in 1968. In it she describes the shape of the county as “rather like a diving seal, its head plunging into the fringe of the Cotswolds, its tail in the Fens to the north-east and one flipper thrust out into Buckinghamshire”. I like that description and in particular the delightful analogy of using a sea creature to describe a completely land-locked county in the middle of England.
Just passing through
This position means that people have always been passing through. The county is crisscrossed by pathways both ancient and modern. For example, the greatest of the Roman roads, Watling Street, bisects the county, north to south. There are stories of ghostly legions tramping through garrison towns such as Towcester (Lactodorum) on their way from Kent to Shropshire. The great battle in which Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, was defeated very probably took place just south of Towcester.
Going west to east, there is the Welsh Lane, which marks the great droving route along which cattle were driven from Wales. We also have the Grand Union Canal, which brought the fruits of the Industrial Revolution through here: buttons, guns and millions of pins travelling from Birmingham to London on narrowboats. Finally, a mere 50 or so years ago, the first motorway, the M1, cut through Northamptonshire. You can see why we like to think we are in the middle of everything.
As well as all this transit, many stayed to live and work here, and who can blame them? Historically, the biggest industry was shoe making: all the smartest boot- and shoemakers were based in and around Northampton in an unbroken chain, right back to the early 13th century and a chap called Peter the Cordwainer. The town supplied 4,000 pairs of shoes to the Parliamentary army and most of the boots worn in both world wars. Northampton Town Football Club is nicknamed the Cobblers as a result, while the Parliamentarians, incidentally, did not pay their invoice.
Most of this county is, however, not about conurbations and industry but about the countryside. We have no mountains, but we have the most amazingly fertile rolling pasturelands, famous for the quality of cattle raised upon such rich grazing land. Or, to see wildlife, you could wander around Pitsford Reservoir which, as well as supplying the good folk of Northampton with water, has nature trails and all manner of wildfowl and birdwatching. If you take a drive (or even a walk if you are feeling energetic) from the southern tip (the flipper) where it touches the flatlands of Buckinghamshire to the north-eastern end, you will get a pretty good idea of the treasures the county has to offer.
You start with a bang – or at least a throaty roar – at the home of British motor racing, Silverstone. Every summer this becomes the busiest place on Earth for a short weekend as the area is swamped with petrolheads from around the world flocking to the British Grand Prix. Residents tend to keep their heads down that weekend as the traffic is appalling.
But from there on, your journey will be much more peaceful. Northamptonshire is studded with fine houses and exciting gardens – you can flit from Althorp (the family home and last resting place of Princess Diana), to Coton Manor (possibly the epitome of the perfect English garden) to Cottesbrooke Hall (model for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and home to a staggering collection of sporting art) to Holdenby (site of Charles I’s 1647 house arrest). On that subject, if I might digress for a moment, we are big on the English Civil War, as the king’s headquarters at one point was up the M40 in Oxford, so much of the actual Parlimentarian versus Royalist blood was shed in this county. The decisive Battle of Naseby was fought here in 1645. There is a memorial monument and the lay of the battlefield is still pretty visible.
There are pretty villages, such as Eydon, Great Brington or the beautifully named Collyweston, with thatched cottages built from the distinctive local ironstone – very much darker than Cotswold stone, more like gingerbread than honeycomb. You can also relax and enjoy canalside lunches along the Grand Union, or, if you feel an urge for vigorous exercise then there are cycle routes along the Nene Valley between the towns of Higham Ferrers and Irthlingborough.
Fine art and glorious gardens
I could go on for quite a while but, just for the sake of brevity, let me tell you about just two places that you really must visit when you come to this fine county. Firstly, you should head to Boughton House, which is a vast palace near Kettering. Quite apart from a handsome Rembrandt and other artworks from the Duke of Buccleuch collection, it also has a most remarkable modern garden, named Orpheus, designed by landscape architect Kim Wilkie. It consists of the most beautiful hole in ground upon which you will ever gaze and is surrounded by razor-edged reflective canals.
Secondly, visit the Rushton Triangular Lodge, which was built by a remarkable fellow called Sir Thomas Tresham who was caught up in the Reformation and spent 15 years in prison in the late 16th century for refusing to renounce his Catholicism. When he was finally let out of chokey, he immediately built the very ornate triangular folly to illustrate his faith. The place absolutely dripping with religious symbolism: some quite obvious (the triangle representing the trinity) and some extraordinarily obscure, such as inscribed dates that, when subtracted by the date of construction, are thought to refer to the year of Jesus’s death.
You will have noticed from this whistle-stop tour of the county that we majoron historic houses. There are manymore that I have not had space to mention (including Kelmarsh Hall, Rockingham Castle and Lamport Hall). Northamptonshire hides its many lights under a bushel. This is first and foremost a county for living in rather than visiting. We do not have the miniature villages and picnic spots so beloved by tourists in surrounding counties, but then neither do we have the queues of coaches and shops full of tat. By all means come and enjoy the county, breathe the air, walk the gardens and marvel at the architecture – but don’t tell everybody; we quite like being a well kept secret.
John Clare (1793-1864) is arguably the most famous person to emerge from Northamptonshire (if you exclude Des O’Connor). He was a great poet who was born in Helpston (near Peterborough) and sadly died in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.
Clare was a relatively ill-educated agricultural labourer who turned his love and familiarity with the countryside into poems and sonnets. His early poems were incredibly popular – even outselling John Keats – but he gradually descended into depression and alcoholism, his life divided between the glamorous world of London literary society and the rural poverty of his home. He found it increasingly difficult to support his family and as his poetry began to lose popularity, he slipped into long bouts of mental illness, resulting in his confinement in an asylum near Epping Forest.
In spite of all this personal tragedy, he is widely acknowledged as one of our finest poets, and his cottage was bought and restored by the John Clare Trust in 2005 and is now open to the public every day. There is an exhibition of his life and work and the gardens have been replanted using varieties that John Clare would have known well.