10 reasons to visit Ashby de la Zouch
PUBLISHED: 13:04 30 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:37 20 February 2013
Romantic castle ruins, unique independent shops and a thriving farmers' market are just some of the delights
Ashby de la Zouch has a distinguished history: it was a Royalist garrison; its castle was the location of Walter Scotts romantic novel Ivanhoe; and it was once a thriving spa town. Ashby de la Zouch is also the title of a tune once recorded by jazz legend Charles Mingus.
But what can it claim today, other than being the furthest town from the sea in England? Significantly, its the nearest Leicestershire town to Derby. Ashby nestles just inside the border and if you live in the southern half of Derbyshire its actually closer than Bakewell. From where I live in Belper, Bakewell is 20 miles; Ashby is only 23.
Ashby shares some of Bakewells attributes, too: its an attractive, historic market town with age-old, architecturally pleasing buildings; its shopping streets are relatively unspoilt by chain names and are instead lined with a healthy array of specialist independent outlets; and its farmers market is reputed to be the finest in the county. There are many other reasons to visit Ashby...
Due to Ashby Castle being a Royalist stronghold, the end of the Civil War saw it being slighted partially demolished by the Parliamentarians to render it useless. However, it looks magnificent as a ruin, and its thanks to Sir Walter Scott, whose celebrated novel Ivanhoe drew so much attention to the castles forsaken state, that it became better preserved. Now in the care of English Heritage, you can explore the Castle through an entertaining audio tour or, if you are a bolder explorer, by climbing the 78 foot Hastings Tower for awe-inspiring views. The Castle regularly recreates the jousting tournaments made famous by Ivanhoe; the last weekend in June features the clashing swords of the Battling Barons where you can also meet various medieval folk from herbalist to executioner!
You can learn about all of Leicestershires castles in a forthcoming temporary display at Ashby Museum on North Street, winner of the countys Museum of the Year Award in 2007 and 2010. Run by Trustees and staffed by volunteers, this two-storey museum houses extensive and neatly laid-out displays teeming with the towns rich history. The staff also conduct history walks, one entitled The Dark Side of Ashby, billed as an evening of sanitation, slums and seamy characters.
Just inside Derbyshire in the village of Smisby, this 12 acre arboretum is a tree lovers Eden, and one of the finest in the country. Arriving 20 years ago, arborists Robert and Suzette Vernon have cultivated a nursery renowned for its 1,500 choice tree species, many of them rare and unusual, including the Snowdrop Tree, Japanese Hornbeam Maple, Chilean Fire Bush and Kashmir Rowan. Roberts extensive knowledge makes for a fascinating guided tour for the arboreal enthusiast or one can simply stroll through the woodland admiring the various birches, beeches, oaks, willows, limes, dogwoods and giant redwoods. Robert also offers a consultation service should you want to create your own arboretum. Most trees are for sale and you can also buy a wide range of shrubs, climbers and woody plants.
The National Forest
It could be said that Ashby is the heart of a giant arboretum, namely The National Forest, an area of over 200 square miles. Since its formation in 1991, The National Forest has planted just under eight million trees which has trebled the amount of land available for all to walk or cycle through, picnic on, birdwatch and generally enjoy. There are now more than 400 attractive woodland sites 80 per cent of which are accessible including many nature reserves. On Bank Holiday Monday 29th August, the National Forest Wood Fair at Beacon Hill Country Park includes live demonstrations of woodworking skills, craft displays and chainsaw sculpting.
Specific attractions within the National Forest include: the newly-opened National Forest Cycle Centre at Hicks Lodge near Ashby, offering eight miles of off-road cycle trails for the family; Conkers in Moira, an award-winning interactive discovery centre offering over 100 indoor and outdoor activities; Snibston Discovery Park, the regions largest interactive museum; and Moira Furnace, one of the best examples of an early 19th Century iron-making blast furnace in Europe. The furnace site includes the museum itself, which is within the original blast furnace building; restored lime kilns; woodland; and the restored section of the Ashby Canal.
An Ashby Museum walk, Ashby the Spa Town, explains the rise and fall of Ashbys hopes of becoming a second Buxton. Ashbys spa history brought about the development of many fine buildings which are still standing, including the Regency Grade II listed Royal Hotel. Close to the Royal is the striking neo-Norman style Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes, itself adjacent to the splendid and stately Loudoun Memorial, dedicated to the Lady of the Manor, Lady Maud Hastings, Countess of Loudoun.
Market Street, Ashbys main commercial thoroughfare, is studded with handsome buildings, including the 14th century Bulls Head which retains its Elizabethan half-timbering, and many bow-fronted Georgian houses which have become shops.
The Shopping experience
According to one local, the absence of a nearby out-of-town retail complex explains why Ashby remains a busy, bustling, traditional shopping town. If there is a reason, it should be bottled. Ashby appears to have more independent niche shops than the bigger surrounding towns of Derby, Burton and maybe even Leicester and, better still, it continues to grow: Country Sports of Ashby Ltd, which sells fishing and shooting accessories, opened only last November; Black & Blossom, a sophisticated florists and gift shop has, in the last year, opened a classy delicatessen; and Grace & Co, also a year old, sells luxurious but affordable contemporary jewellery. Age-old shops continue to flourish including Ashby Jewellers, a third generation family business. Next door is Woodlander, selling a vast range of fashionable quality gifts, household and lifestyle products. For interior design and furnishings, theres Indigo Acre, with Holme Tree offering bespoke handmade kitchens. There are elegant fashion houses in The Dressing Room, Rebellion and Rebecca@No.10, while designer childrens wear can be found inside Country Mouse in Mill Lane Mews, a courtyard walk which also houses Uruku Hair & Beauty Salon and Wendys Courtyard Interiors.
Another court, Rushtons Yard, houses Yankee Candles, Amazon Exotic Pets and Camaretta Handbags.
Toys, bears and planes
In Rushtons Yard youll find Ashby Bears, celebrating its tenth anniversary as the biggest teddy bear shop in the region. Its home to over 500 bears including Steiff and other soft toy animals pigs to penguins, elephants to mice. They are in every size, too: from dolls house figures to six foot Steiff bears, with prices ranging from 3 to 3,000, depending on whether you want a teddy hanging off a key ring or a life-size lion. David ONeill started the business for his obsessive teddy bear collector wife Angela. Teddy bears are my passion, she declares.
They offer comfort and joy and are full of nostalgia and history. Nothing
pleases Angela more than seeing her initial customers buying a teddy for their
For Gill Petzan and Pam Redfern of Shellbrook Toys who, between them,
have 100 years of customer care and knowledge in the toy business, there is
the pleasure of seeing their original customers buying toys and games for their grandchildren. Here, there are no fad toys or computer games. Its defiantly traditional fayre like wooden jigsaws, hula hoops, puppets, marbles, kites,
snakes and ladders and construction kits.
And if you want to construct and fly a remote-controlled model aeroplane, Ashby is also the place to visit: Steves Models is recognised as one of the leading suppliers in the region.
Food and drink
Ashby seems well catered for when it comes to taking tea or dining out, either at a homely pub there are five old-style inns in Market Street alone or in a modern restaurant. The Pump Room on Bath Street is renowned for its cuisine and prides itself on its use of local produce and there are two Italian diners of note: Ask and Zamanis, the latter offering a wine bar with courtyard seating to add a Mediterranean feel. Crowded House is a chic contemporary wine bar and restaurant with a unique touch: the painted canvases on the walls portray local customers sitting alongside famous celebrities.
For more traditional cuisine, the Royal Hotel has an elegant restaurant overlooking landscaped gardens, while if you go to La Zouch Restaurant, you are guaranteed expert advice on which wine to choose: owners Geoff and Lynne Utting run the adjoining La Zouch Cellars, which stocks over 200 fine wines. Its also one of the leading whisky cellars in the Midlands with over 350 names covering bourbon and blended varieties and rare and mature malts. Geoff and Lynne can also tell you about port, sherry, gin, vodka, rum and cognac!
Ashby Antiques and Fine Art
In a Market Street building that dates back to at least 1826, when it was Ashbys town library, is Ashby Antiques & Fine Art. It was opened a year ago by local furniture restorer William Freeman who specialises in high quality furniture, 19th century oil paintings by George Turner as well as French artists Cauchois and Bouvard, furniture, upholstery and fine art restoration, and has a collection of Worcester Porcelain by James Stinton. With Ashbys sense of history and the marvellous old buildings on this street, an antiques shop feels so right here, says William, and Ive had a fantastic first year.
The Farmers Market
There surely cant be a more picturesque farmers market than the one held every third Saturday of the month in the grounds of the early 19th century Manor House School. Cathy Springthorpe, who sells plants and flowers there, also believes there isnt a better farmers market in the Midlands. All the stallholders offer high quality goods, she declares, and there is no duplication of stalls which means that like a supermarket we can offer a whole shopping experience.
The range of produce is certainly wide, selective and surprising: alongside farmers selling patisserie, wines, meats, cakes and cheeses are those offering mushrooms, crisps, ice cream, handmade dog biscuits and smoked salmon and eels.
Ashbys outdoor gallery
In the fortnight prior to Ashby Arts Festival, the towns street walls come alive with colour. Five years ago, Festival organisers solved the perennial problem of scant exhibition space by creating an expansive open air art gallery, hanging over three dozen massive boards on shop, business and residential walls, with artists painting to a theme. This years theme was Dance. Its a unique and positive idea which has proved popular and successful, says project co-ordinator Martin Vaughan. The great achievement is putting art in front of people who wouldnt normally go near an art gallery. It also brightens up the town and encourages and inspires artists of all kinds.
Ashby Festival has just passed, but this is certainly a reason to put a visit to Ashby in your diary for next year.
Finally on 10th July crowds will surely be descending on nearby Measham Lodge Farm for the 97th Ashby Show one of the largest in the Midlands. Hugely popular, livestock is an important part of this traditional agricultural show with classes for horses, cattle, sheep and small livestock as well as show jumping. Main ring highlights include the Bolddog Lings Freestyle Team and Jive Pony. Like the town of Ashby, it too promises something for everyone.