Many tourists bypass the four major counties of the East Midlands – Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire – on their way to more obvious destinations, an understandable mistake given that the region seems, at first, to be short on star attractions. The county towns of Nottingham and Leicester, though undeniably bruised by postwar town planning and industrial development, have enough sights and character to give them appeal, and Lincoln, with its fine cathedral, is in parts at least a dignified old city, but it’s the surrounding countryside, sprinkled with prestigious country homes, pretty villages and historic market towns that provides the real draw in this region.

In Nottinghamshire, Byron’s Newstead Abbey is intriguing; the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall (just over the border in Derbyshire but covered in this chapter) is even better. Leicestershire offers Market Bosworth, an amiable country town famous as the site of the battle of Bosworth Field, and a particularly intriguing church at Breedon-on-the-Hill. The county also lies adjacent to the easy countryside of Rutland, the region’s smallest county, where you’ll find another pleasant country town, Oakham. Rutland and Northamptonshire benefit from the use of limestone as the traditional building material and rural Northamptonshire is studded with handsome stone villages and towns – most notably Fotheringhay – as well as a battery of country estates, the best known of which is Althorp, the final resting place of Princess Diana.

Lincolnshire is very different in character from the rest of the region, an agricultural backwater that remains surprisingly remote – locals sometimes call it the “forgotten county”. This was not always the case: throughout medieval times the county flourished as a centre of the wool trade with Flanders, its merchants and landowners becoming some of the wealthiest in England. Reminders of the high times are legion, beginning with the majestic cathedral that graces the county town of Lincoln. Equally enticing is the splendidly intact stone town of Stamford, while out in the sticks, Lincolnshire’s most distinctive feature is The Fens, whose pancake-flat fields, filling out much of the south of the county and extending deep into Cambridgeshire, have been regained from the marshes and the sea. Fenland villages are generally short of charm, but their parish churches, whose spires regularly interrupt the wide-skied landscape, are simply stunning; two of the finest – at Gedney and Long Sutton – are set beside the A17 as it slices across the fens on its way to Norfolk. Very different again is the Lincolnshire coast, whose long sandy beach extends, with a few marshy interruptions, from Mablethorpe to Skegness, the region’s main resort. The coast has long attracted thousands of holiday-makers from the big cities of the East Midlands and Yorkshire, hence its trail of bungalows, campsites and caravan parks, though significant chunks of the seashore are now protected as nature reserves, with the Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve being the pick.

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