Centre of attention

Jonathan Manning crosses the Midlands from Warwickshire to Cambridgeshire, and finds an abundance of attractions to enjoy

Illustration by Louise Turpin

Decades ago, as a teenager, I stayed with a French family for a fortnight on an exchange programme. The experience was an absolute revelation. I particularly remember discovering the delights of pain au chocolat, but the real revelation came when my French counterpart, François, came to stay with us.

My parents turned into super-hosts, determined to show him every attraction in the local area!

It was eye-opening to discover so many fascinating places on my doorstep. Stately homes, mazes, viewpoints and windsurfing lakes, alongside a daily roster of cafés and pubs, added up to a fabulous staycation. I was filled with a similar sense of pride and wonder during this tour of the southern counties of the West and East Midlands, my home patch. I live within 15 miles of three of the sites, and a fourth is under an hour away, yet I still encountered awesome attractions that were new to me, alongside others that filled me with nostalgia; places where I’ve spent my children’s birthdays, Mothering Sundays, and bank holiday reunions with old friends.

Have a flutter

The magnificent Warwick Castle

On the grounds that a holiday along the A14 corridor doesn’t sound very glamorous, let’s just say that this tour heads west to east, starting at Warwick Racecourse Club Campsite. Located exactly as it says on the tin, some pitches have arguably the finest grandstand view of the entire track, and all are close enough to hear the thunder of hooves and roar of punters. On non-race days, the course provides an open, grassy dog walk.

Jump meetings take place from September through to the end of May (there are restrictions on arrivals and departures on race days), and I pitch up on the eve of a meet, along with a fleet of caravanners and motorhomers clutching copies of the Racing Post. Warwick itself is accessible by Shanks’s pony, and the prettiest route into town is via Hill Close Gardens (£5 entry fee). There are 16 Victorian garden plots to visit here, each with different plants and designs, as well as eight historic summerhouses that look like 19th-century precursors to the home offices that sprung up during the pandemic.

A Warwick Town Trail (£1 map from the Visitor Information Centre) provides a self-guided tour of the town’s highlights on foot. These include the church of St Mary Immaculate, where JRR Tolkien was married in 1916; the beautiful Lord Leycester Hospital, which dates from the 1300s (due to reopen after renovation this summer); and the characterful buildings of Smith Street, which escaped the Great Fire of Warwick in 1694. Bread&co’s pecan pie lures me back to this historic road on consecutive days.

There’s no doubting Warwick’s star attraction, however, which is magnificent Warwick Castle, about a 10-minute walk from the Club campsite. (Members can pre-purchase tickets via the Great Savings Guide at camc.com/greatsavingsguide.) 

The gruesome Castle Dungeon (pre-booking online is mandatory), with its claustrophobic underground passages and torture equipment, offers an immersive experience. Beware costumed staff intent on making visitors jump – you have been warned!

Far more wholesome is the fantastic Falconer’s Quest birds of prey display and the spectacular jousting tournament in the ‘Wars of the Roses Live’ (27 May to 3 September). Warwick Castle’s determination to entertain from start to finish makes for a brilliant day out.

Bard’s birthplace

Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Photo by member Jacquie Booth

The birthplace and burial plot of arguably Britain’s greatest entertainer are just a few miles down the road in Stratford-upon-Avon. 

A joint ticket (£25) provides access to both William Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall. The Bard learnt Latin, literature and catechism in this timber-framed building; I wonder which of the hundreds of famous phrases that he coined were dreamt up while gazing out of the leaded windows and chewing on a quill. The brilliant guides at the Schoolroom & Guildhall answer all my questions engagingly, and there’s even the opportunity to try writing with the nib of a swan feather. “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it” (As You Like It), but it’s time to move on to Harbury Fields Farm Touring Park Affiliated Site (AS), an immaculate rural spot just seven miles east of Warwick.

A choir of birds sings from the hedges that border the pitches, while the farm’s flock of North Country Mule sheep prepare for lambing. A mile-long dog walk circumnavigates the site, while, a little farther away, the village of Harbury has a Co-op supermarket and three pubs.

The site’s location makes it a superb basecamp for exploring lovely Leamington Spa, which is accessible by bus from the end of the site’s driveway. It’s a vibrant spa town, buoyed by the energy of students from nearby Warwick University, and in March was judged the best place to live in the Midlands by the Sunday Times. 

Site owner Rob also points out that there are half a dozen National Trust properties within 30 minutes’ drive, with handsome Charlecote Park the closest. This Victorian house has five impressive rooms to visit downstairs, although it’s the gardens and deer parkland, on the banks of the River Avon, that linger longest in the memory.

A few miles to the north-east is Orchard Views Certificated Location (CL), where farmer and owner Marie is feeding her two rescue donkeys as I arrive. It’s such a pretty spot that some regular campers come from only three miles away to enjoy the views and peace, while others plan a night’s stopover and end up staying for a week or longer. Having the highly rated Black Horse pub within walking distance adds to this CL’s attraction, too!  

Oliver’s army

Photo ©IWM Duxford

Heading east along the A14 into Northamptonshire, a sign points to Naseby, site of one of the defining battles of the English Civil War. King Charles I’s forces were defeated by the New Model Army, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, securing parliament the right to a permanent role in the government of England. Four times a year the Naseby Battlefield Project runs tours of the historic site, often brought to life through re-enactments.

The Cromwell story continues at my next stop, Grafham Water Club Campsite in Cambridgeshire, where the reception office adjoins Grade II-listed Cromwell Cottage, once owned by Oliver’s family. Grafham is an outdoorsy site, with the reservoir offering paths and bike rides, as well as fishing and watersports. And when evening comes, there’s a community-run pub and an excellent Indian restaurant within walking distance, plus a pizza van that visits the site on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Grafham managers Jane and Bryan suggest, however, that the star of the show is ‘Oli’, a wild American horned owl, who roosts in the trees around the perimeter of this leafy site. I think they’re joking until we saunter around the pitches and hear, then see, the giant owl hooting on a branch. “He’s been here for at least 25 years and he’s a local celebrity,” says Bryan.

There are more flying wonders at Imperial War Museum Duxford, which features impressive static displays and superb air shows through the summer. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Grafham and worth a full day to admire the aircraft, including among them a colossal B52 Stratofortress, an elegant Avro Vulcan with its iconic delta wings, and a hangar dedicated to the Battle of Britain, complete with a pair of Hurricanes, a Spitfire and a crash-landed Messerschmitt.

Cambridge and its historic colleges are a similar distance away, while closer still is the National Trust’s Houghton Mill, the jewel in the crown of a walk along the Great River Ouse near Huntingdon. The mill still works, offering grain-grinding demonstrations, and there’s a small riverside tea-room too.

From Grafham, it’s an easy drive up the A1 to the outskirts of Peterborough and Mound Lodge CL, a large grass paddock next to a plum orchard on a hilltop with far-reaching views. In the summer, the farm has a popular pick-your-own fruit and vegetable business – handy for your five-a-day! – and there’s a range of pubs for every taste and budget within a five-minute drive, ranging from a Harvester to a gastro inn, as well as several takeaways that deliver to the site. Owner Paddy says last year was the site’s busiest ever, with 70% of campers being returnees, the best compliment a site can receive.

Visitors to Stamford Club Campsite – a short drive away – risk developing a crick in the neck, as much time will be spent gazing skywards at the scores of red kites that call Fineshade Wood home. Miles of walks and cycle tracks (there’s a bike hire shop next to the site) radiate through the woodland, with more footpaths through neighbouring Wakerley Woods. Site managers Carl and Dawn say visitors love the tranquillity of the site and the local area, which they describe as “like the Cotswolds, but without the tourists”, thanks to the same vein of golden stone running from Gloucestershire through to this less visited area.

House guest

Burghley House

Stamford itself is a gorgeous stone town, with the exceptionally grand Burghley House within walking distance of its centre. Free parking and free access to the Burghley parkland, where deer roam, provide a generous welcome that I repay with coffee and cake in the stunning Orangery café.

Burghley Horse Trials, a five-star equestrian event at the start of September, is an unmissable extravaganza of dressage, cross-country and show jumping allied to hundreds of irresistible country trade stands.

Burghley House was built by William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I, and its walls provide a gallery for a stunning array of Italian Old Master paintings. It’s a visual treat throughout, from the gleaming copper pans in the vast kitchen to the astounding frescoes of the Heaven Room, which contrast with the dark despair of the punishments painted on the walls of the Hell Staircase. Screen buffs will recognise the interior and exterior of Burghley from movies and series such as Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch, and new superhero blockbuster The Flash.

I now point the bonnet along the A47 from Stamford Club Campsite to the final destination of this tour, the ever-popular Ferry Meadows Club Campsite set within Nene Park in Peterborough.

Newish site managers John and Louise casually mention that 150 caravans and motorhomes checked in on the previous Friday (mid-March), and they clearly love the busy nature of the site.

“We’re very close to the A1 for people using us as a transit site, but we also attract a lot of Club members from the local area, who come several times a year,” says John. “The scenery in Nene Park is gorgeous for walks and bike rides, and here on site there’s a huge play area for kids. Plus, there are six places to eat within walking distance, and we have a food truck and pizza van visit on Fridays and Saturdays.”

A regular bus service runs into Peterborough, where there’s a glorious cathedral and a spectacular open-air lido in summer. However, I catch the Nene Valley Railway heritage steam train in the opposite direction to Wansford, and enjoy a dreamy walk back along the River Nene to the site, before heading to Ferry Meadows café in the park for a cream tea.

This spot in particular is highly nostalgic for me: back in the day, my sons had their birthday parties at the Railway, where they gazed adoringly at the blue Thomas engine; and we had a family season ticket at Sacrewell Farm, where the heavy horses, pigs and petting animals filled happy Sunday afternoons.

There’s so much to do in this area and so many memories to make – I hope yours are as happy as mine. 

Read more about offers on four great days out in the Midlands with our Great Savings Guide.

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Family of three outside their caravan on a sunny day

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