Known as “The Rose of the Shires” but a county that still doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves, Northamptonshire offers some truly wonderful scenery. Located in the East Midlands of England, this is where long stretches of unspoiled countryside is punctuated by storybook villages filled with thatched roof cottages, romantic parks, historic markets towns, peaceful canals, and handsome Elizabethan manors. If you’re looking for the perfect rural getaway or just a dazzling day trip out, here are the best and most beautiful places to visit in Northamptonshire…
1. Stoke Bruerne and the Grand Union Canal – one of Northamptonshire’s beauty spots
For those of us who love watching rivercraft cruising down rivers and entering and leaving locks, the Grand Union Canal is not to be missed. This canal was used to transport goods between London and Birmingham, and one of the best places to encounter it is the village of Stoke Bruerne, which has a museum devoted to the Canal and this is one of the prettiest spots to visit in Northamptonshire especially if you’re a canal fan.
If you take the towpath north from Stoke Bruerne, you will come across the Blisworth Tunnel, only wide enough to take a narrowboat barge and nearly 3000 metres long. To navigate tunnels like these, the boatmen “walked” the tunnel, pushing the boat with their feet, often with the assistance of a horse pulling the boat from the towpath.
2. The Welland Valley – one of the most stunning places to explore in Northamptonshire
The Welland Valley is shared between Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and Rutland. It is mainly undulating meadows with few trees, offering broad vistas, and is likely to remain that way, as much of it is floodplain. The River Welland forms a natural border between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire and it is possible to walk along it or take a barge trip through the several locks.
Don’t miss the Welland Viaduct, which crosses the valley and the Welland River between Harringworth in Northamptonshire and Seaton in Rutland. This fine example of Victorian engineering is a masonry viaduct one kilometer long. If you want a great view of the Welland Valley, visit Rockingham Castle near Corby.
3. Oundle – a very pretty historic market town to visit in Northamptonshire
Britons have been living in this area for thousands of years, notably a Saxon tribes, the Undalas, from where the town’s name derives. It is a picturesque market town the streets lined by Georgian houses built of limestone and in fine repair and is a charmingly beautiful place to visit in Northamptonshire. Oundle is also famous for its public school, which was founded in 1556 and boasts an impressive array of buildings dotted around the town. Unusually for a British public school, Oundle is co-ed.
If you are planning a stay in Oundle, the Talbot Hotel is the place for you, if you have a strong constitution. The wooden building was rebuilt in 1626, using stones from Mary Queen of Scots’ castle, Fotheringhay, which was close by. Her ghost is reputed to haunt the place, especially the oak staircase, down which, it is said, she walked her last steps to her execution.
Apart from enjoying the beauty of the town, from Oundle there are several excursions you can make to Barnwell and Lyveden. At Lyveden there is an enigmatic unfinished lodge, erected by Sir Thomas Tresham, who erected the Triangular Lodge at Rushton. The gardens surrounding the Lodge are a fine example of Elizabethan landscaping, with moats and terraces. Both the gardens and the lodge are filled with allegorical allusions to Sir Thomas’ dedication to the Catholic church.
Near the village of Barnwell, you can see the ruins of Barnwell Castle. Built in 1132 as a motte and bailey castle, there is still enough remaining to conceive what it looked like originally. Adjacent Barnwell Manor was built in the 1700s for the Duke of Gloucester.
After viewing the architectural gems that Oundle and its vicinity have to offer, you can relax in Barnwell Country Park, which is nearly 40 acres of a family-friendly park that offers lots of diversions, from walking around its lakes to birdwatching and orienteering.
4. Castle Ashby – a beautiful Elizabethan manor house and 18th-century gardens
Confusingly similar to Canons Ashby, but further to the east is Castle Ashby village, where Castle Ashby House is to be found. The house dates back to 1375, but was rebuilt by Henry Compton, the first Baron, in 1574, and remains in the family. The gardens are extensive and open to the public, although the house is not, but can be visited on request. It’s a stunning place to explore in Northamptonshire.
5. Salcey Forest – a pretty former medieval hunting forest in Northamptonshire
This ancient hunting forest is not far from Northampton and offers a variety of ways to explore it, from walking trails to bridle paths. There is also a treetop walkway which is easy to navigate.
The stars of the show are the ancient oak trees, known as the “Druids”, some of which are six hundred years old. An ideal family retreat, Salcey Forest is also dog-friendly.
6. Rushton Hall and the Triangular Lodge – a gorgeous an ornate country mansion turned hotel
Although Rushton Hall is a luxury hotel and spa today, it has an interesting past and is a great place to visti in Northamptonshire. Starting in the fifteenth century as the home of the Tresham family. They were a devout Catholic family, which led to Sir Thomas Tresham’s incarceration for 15 years for his faith. On his release, he built a folly in the grounds of the Hall, which contains many symbols attesting to his faith.
This triangular building was built from 1593 through 1597 and contains numerous allusions to the Holy Trinity, such as three walls 33 foot long, three triangular windows, and three stories. Thomas’ son, Francis was a Gunpowder Plot conspirator who ended his days in the Tower of London. In the nineteenth century, the hall was sold to Clara Thornhill, whose friend, Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor and modelled Haversham Hall in Great Expectations on Rushton Hall.
7. Abington Park – Northampton’s oldest and most popular park
Abington Park is situated in Northampton. Abington was a medieval village that no longer exists, although some of its roads can still be seen in the Park. There is a sixteenth-century manor house that has had a chequered past, including nearly 50 years as a lunatic museum.
Today it includes a museum depicting the social history of Northampton. The Park itself offers pleasant walks; it has two lakes and the church of St Peter and St Paul, as well as an 18th-century building for housing pigeons.
8. Rockingham Castle – an amazing Norman Castle to visit in Northamptonshire
Easily one of the best castles to visit in England, people have been living on the site of Rockingham Castle during and since the Iron Age; the Castle itself is 900 years old. Built by William II as an addition to the original motte and bailey fortress (a mound surrounded by a walled courtyard), the Castle commands a clear and strategic view over the Welland Valley. It was a royal retreat, offering good boar and deer hunting in nearby Rockingham Forest. By the 15th century, it was dilapidated and no longer in use; Sir Edward Watson leased it from Henry VIII, and it has remained in the family ever since.
The Castle was also a casualty of the Civil War, originally occupied by supporters of Charles II, then being captured and deliberately damaged so that it could no longer be used as a fortress. Like Rushton Hall, the Castle was visited frequently by Charles Dickens, who may have modelled Bleak House’s Chesney Wold on it.
The Castle Gardens have been remodelled recently and have a diversity of flowering plants interspersed with pathways and offering lovely views of the surrounding area. The Castle is available for viewing, but not daily, so please check before you visit.
9. Coton Manor – one of the most beautiful places to visit in Northamptonshire
Coton was a small hamlet that has disappeared over the years but is still home to Coton Manor. This pleasant 17th-century house is famous for its 10-acre gardens, which attract many visitors in spring and summer. There are lots of small individual gardens with water features interspersed.
As an added bonus, there is a magnificent 5-acre bluebell wood adjoining the gardens, which is not to be missed during May. Even in February, the gardens put on a lovely show, with snowdrops and hellebores in bloom.
10. Kirby Hall – one of England’s greatest Elizabethan 17th-century houses
There was great competition between nobles and landed gentry to offer accommodation to Royals when they toured England. Kirby Hall is an early example of FOMO (fear of missing out) when Elizabeth 1 stayed at nearby Deene Park, and Sir Humphrey Stafford realised that Kirby was not grand enough to invite a monarch, and embarked on building a dwelling fit for a queen. In 1575 Sir Christopher Hatton purchased the building, leaving it to a distant relative, also Sir Christopher Hatton.
The building was now grand enough to enjoy the patronage of King James and Queen Anne. When his son inherited the Hall, he employed, the leading architect of the day, Inigo Jones, to renovate and restyle the building, which Jones did, producing a masterpiece and a marriage of Jacobean and Elizabethan styling. Although some of the Hall is missing its roof, it is well worth a visit and has starred in several films and serials, such as Mansfield Park, which is why it might seem familiar.
A beautiful formal garden was laid out, which fell into disrepair, but has recently been restored. Some of the garden was built over the remnants of the village of Kirby. Kirby was a medieval village, named in the Domesday Book, now all but disappeared, except for some evidence of how the village was laid out, as well as the remains of what may have been an earlier manor house. It lies south-east of the Hall.
11. Boughton House – one of Britain’s grandest and most beautiful stately homes
Situated near Kettering, Boughton House is a tribute to the magnificence of Versailles and has a very French air to it. Originally a monastery, it was converted to a mansion by the first owner, Sir Edward Montagu, Lord Chief Justice to Henry VIII. It was his descendant, Ralph Montagu, who was Ambassador to France, who embarked on modelling the House in the French style, employing many Huguenot workmen to work on the interior and exterior. His son loved gardens and the European-styled garden was developed under his watch.
The house is beautifully preserved and is owned today by the Buccleuch family, who inherited it through marriage when the Montagu line died out. They did not use the house but were careful to preserve it. Art treasures from Van Dyck, El Greco, and Gainsborough, as well as magnificent furniture, tapestries, and carpets can be seen in the elaborate baroque staterooms.
The gardens are very formal and geometric in concept, with the inclusion of lakes, waterways, and pools. They did fall into neglect but have been painstakingly restored.
12. Canon’s Ashby – a lovely village home to some beautiful buildings
Prior to the ascendancy of Henry VIII to the throne, Britain was home to many monasteries; some estimates are as high as 700. Some kilometres north of Sulgrave and east of Eydon is the little village of Canon’s Ashby which boasts the remains of a monastery, an earlier castle, and an Elizabethan manor house that was owned by the Dryden family for four hundred years. The National Trust took over the house in 1981 and restored it to its former glory, as well as attending to the gardens, which contain fruit tree cultivars that were popular in the 16th century.
The interior of the house is remarkable for its Elizabethan wall paintings and Jacobean plasterwork, giving a glimpse into how the interior looked in those times. The ruins of Canon’s Ashby Castle are in the Manor House grounds. All that remains now is a mound where the castle stood.
13. Sulgrave – a pretty which is home to a gorgeous manor house
The landscape of Northamptonshire is dotted with pleasant small villages, with typical houses built from the local stone. Sulgrave is one of these, and though it is attractive, it is visited by far more tourists, especially Americans, than other neighbouring villages, like Brackley and Banbury. The reason for its popularity as a tourist destination is Sulgrave Manor. The Manor, built in 1539, is the home of George Washington’s ancestors. It fell into disrepair but has been painstakingly restored, together with its surrounding gardens. There is a museum within the Manor.
If you have some more time to spend, you could take a trip a few kilometres north to Daventry and the village of Eydon. This is where Eydon Hall was built, a distinctive Palladian building. There is an interesting South African connection here; some alterations were carried out by the notable architect, Sir Herbert Baker. This is a Grade 1 listed building constructed mainly with ironstone, surrounded by gently rolling parklands.
14. Ashby St Ledgers – one of the most intriguing and historic houses in England
Also near Daventry is another quaint village, Ashby St Ledgers, dominated by a Manor House dating back to William the Conqueror, with the village itself being mentioned in the Domesday Book, the survey of much of England, ordered by the Conqueror.
The village and manor are deceptively peaceful. Looking at them today, it is hard to imagine Ashby Manor House at the heart of a planned assassination attempt, but this is where the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy was hatched, by Robert Catesby, the Manor’s owner, Guy Fawkes, and the other plotters. The Manor is an intriguing mix of various architectural styles that were added through the ages.
15. Delapré Abbey – a beautiful English neo-classical mansion to visit in Northamptonshire
The Midlands of England seem so tranquil today, it is hard to imagine how much conflict arose here. Close to Northampton a group of Cluniac nuns founded a nunnery over 900 years ago. This was one of the resting places of Eleanor of Castile, beloved wife of Edward 1. He erected a cross at every stopping point on the sad journey to Westminster Abbey, one of which is here and the last one at Charing Cross in London.
In violent contrast, some 200 hundred years later during the War of the Roses, the Battle of Northampton took place in the vicinity. The tranquillity of the nunnery was disturbed again when Henry VIII laid waste to the abbey, evicting all the nuns and priests and handing over the land to the Tate family, who built much of the building that stands today.
Take some time to enjoy the gardens that were established by the Tates, and visit Delapré Park, 500 acres adjacent to the gardens, with a lake where fishing and water sports are allowed.
16. The Priest’s House at Easton on the Hill – one of the National Trust’s smallest buildings located in a pretty Northamptonshire village
The Priest’s House is a small, but attractive stone house with a timber roof. It was originally built by a wealthy parish priest, Thomas Stokke, possibly as a dwelling place for a curate who would look after the parish when he was away in his other roles as a hospital administrator and Canon of York.
After his death, it was the residence of a chantry priest, someone who would say prayers for the deceased’s soul, a practice that was forbidden during the Reformation. The House had a chequered career following that, acting as a stable and a school among other things, finally acting as a cattle barn until 1959, when it was restored and given to the National Trust. Inside is a museum housing exhibition of stone and slate cutting, both of which were used as building materials.