I know, the excitement! I’ve actually driven to a completely different part of the country for today’s walk. A whole 100 miles from home, woohoo!
Leicester would not usually spring to mind as an ideal location for a countryside wander. Personally I associate the city with textiles, curry, football and Walkers crisps. But I’m meeting my friend Sue, who lives 200 miles from me. So obviously, you stick a pin in the map halfway, find somewhere to walk and hope for the best. Luckily, I chose well – Bradgate Park is amazing. History, tick. Scenery, tick. Wildlife, tick.
You really find out who your friends are during a pandemic, don’t you? If someone is happy to do a 200 mile return trip just to spend a few socially distanced hours with you and your dog then they are a proper mate. Although I have to admit that Lizzie the Labradoodle did try to kiss Sue several times, she doesn’t really care for rules.
Bradgate Park was first established as a deer park around 800 years ago and covers 830 acres. We enter the park at the northern end and immediately make the clamber up to Old John Tower, an 18th century folly which is one of Leicestershire’s most famous landmarks.
This is the highest point of the park and the views are astonishing on a clear day like today. Leicestershire is at the geographical heart of England, and totally landlocked. Surprisingly, when we often think of the Midlands as quite industrialised, it’s green as far as the eye can see.
The park supports around 500 red and fallow deer who roam free across all areas. Unlike other parks I’ve visited where the deer seem to hide away from me, here they are literally everywhere. They appear completely unfazed by people, although some visitors insist upon disturbing them by getting too close, no doubt in search of a good selfie. But there are idiots everywhere, unfortunately. We admire the lovely animals from a distance.
The park is very dog friendly – Lizzie made a few new furry friends while we were there – but you need to be aware of the deer at all times, as they appear without any warning and travel at great speed.
Most of the time, Lizzie was off leash, but when deer started hurling themselves past us at 50 miles an hour I decided she was getting a bit too excited. If she ran, I would have to follow, and I was far too busy enjoying my hummous and crudités, thanks very much. Sue and I don’t walk far without sustenance!
If you have a dog, you’ll know that there’s nothing funnier than their look of amazement when faced with an unknown beast. The absolute classic for me was dog meeting big red kangaroo – obviously that was in Australia, not Bradgate Park! But Lizzie meeting her first deer was pretty amusing too.
The picturesque ruins of Bradgate House stand within the southern part of the park. Built in 1520 by the Grey family, it was one of the first unfortified great houses of England and it has a tumultuous history. It’s the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen for 9 days before being executed by ‘Bloody’ Mary I in 1553. Her father was also executed the next year for good measure. Mary wanted rid of those pesky Greys with their troublesome claim to the throne!
Legend says that when Jane was beheaded, groundsmen in the park pollarded the oak trees around the house as a tribute. I’m not sure that would have made anyone feel better, least of all the trees! The house has been uninhabited since 1739 and slowly went into decline, but the remains are still quite impressive – they built to last back in the old days.
Anyone deciding to visit the park should be aware that the terrain is not for the faint hearted. There are a few uphill scrambles that left Sue and I unable to talk for a while. This does not happen often. But the vistas make it all worthwhile.
One last landmark to visit, and yes it’s at the top of a hill. The Leicestershire Yeomanry War Memorial commemorates the fallen of the Boer War and both World Wars in spectacular fashion, visible for miles around along with the Old John Tower.
One last look around from up here, and it really does take your breath away. It’s lush and lovely and not at all what I was expecting. But Leicestershire is really a rural county – its symbol is the fox, and I’m sure there are a few of those about if you come at dusk or dawn.
If this lockdown is teaching me anything, it’s that this country is ever surprising. So much to see, do and learn, no matter where you go. Sadly, my cooking skills are not improving as I thought they might (I gave up after disastrous home made pizza) but I can get out there and walk, and share my discoveries. Until next time, enjoy the great outdoors!