In the 18th century Daventry, now just off the M1, was a thriving coaching town, but business dried up after the London and Birmingham Railway opened in 1838, bypassing Daventry.
Grand Georgian coaching inns like the Dun Cow on Brook Street still contribute to Daventry’s townscape, where there’s also a rare Georgian Church and a Moot Hall from 1768, all reflecting the prosperity of the coaching days.
High over the town’s east flank is the 200-metre Borough Hill, capped with prehistoric hillforts, and used by the BBC as a broadcasting station for most of the 20th century.
The wider Daventry District has enough historic country houses and gardens to keep you rapt for days, and these tend to open up for tours in spring and summer.
1. Self-Guided Walk in Daventry Town
Set around a meandering High Street and Market Square, the old centre of Daventry merits some exploration, and this can be done with a walk drawn up by Daventry Town Council.
You can download five pages of in depth instructions from the council website.
The walk begins at the Holy Cross Church, raised in the 1750s and the only 18th-century church in Northamptonshire.
The Market Square is charming, and is fronted by houses going back to the end of the 16th century.
At the north end of the Market Square is the Moot Hall, which was established in an 18th century ironstone building in 1806, replacing an older Moot Hall that went back to 1150. Down the years this has been a town council building, women’s prison, town museum and mayor’s parlour.
2. Althorp House
The seat of the Spencers for more than 500 years, Althorp House is often hailed as one of England’s finest stately homes.
The Spencers are a well-known aristocratic family, perhaps the most famous member being Lady Diana Spencer, who grew up here and was the main resident in the years before her marriage to Prince Charles.
Diana’s final resting place is in a Doric-style temple on the island of the Round Oval lake in the grounds.
The current house is from 1688, although the exterior was changed in the 1780s when it was clad with mathematical tiles and four bold Corinthian pilasters were fitted beneath the pediment.
Althorp House’s opening season is July and August, when you can marvel at one of Europe’s richest private collections of furniture, paintings and ceramics, accrued by 19 generations of Spencers.
In the picture gallery, lined with Tudor carved oak, there’s a portrait by Mary Beale of Charles II, Anthony van Dyck’s War and Peace and a portrait of Charles I by John de Critz.
3. Canons Ashby
When the National Trust took over this Elizabethan house in 1981 the building was about to fall down and the rare terraced gardens had become a meadow.
Canons Ashby House went up on the grounds of a dissolved Augustinian priory around 1550 and the last big update took place in 1710. The interior is pretty much unchanged since then, and the National Trust has decorated the residence as it would have looked when Sir Henry Edward Leigh Dryden (1818-1899) lived here.
There’s magnificent plasterwork from the early 17th century, as well as Elizabethan wall paintings.
The house is wrapped in formal terraced gardens, made up of florid herbaceous borders and an orchard with fruit tree varieties from the 16th century.
The National Trust has plotted trails into the countryside from the house, and you can also stop at the surviving priory church, dating from 1250.
4. Coton Manor Garden
Unfurling down a hillside from a 17th-century manor house is a patchwork of beautiful gardens in ten tranquil acres.
The manor house, built from mellow Northamptonshire stone is the centrepiece, clad with wisteria and with roses and shrubs against its old walls.
Down the slope are an old orchard and venerable hedges of yew and holly, traced by borders overflowing with colour from spring to autumn.
Fountains, ponds and streams complement the lawns, hedges and flowerbeds, and further down the slope the garden gives way to woodland full of bluebells in spring and a meadow brocaded with wildflowers in summer.
As the name tells you the Stableyard Café is in converted stables, preparing a selection of teas, scones, cakes and light lunches, and offering lots of outdoor seating in the yard.
5. Daventry Country Park
In 166 acres on the north-east side of town, Daventry Country Park contains meadows and crack willow woodland around a reservoir.
Daventry Reservoir is one of a few local water bodies built to feed the Grand Union Canal, and you can cover its perimeter on the 2.5-mile Reservoir Walk.
Ducks and geese flock to the reservoir in summer, and you can buy a packet of seed from the park’s cafe to feed them.
There’s also an adventure playground, redesigned in 2019, as well as picnic areas, a community sensory garden and a dedicated bird hide.
Song thrushes, dunnocks, lesser whitethroats and yellowhammers are all commonly sighted in the park.
6. Borough Hill
At 200 metres this hill dominates Daventry’s east side affords the best view of the town.
As an isolated eminence, Borough Hill was picked as a broadcasting station by the BBC, carrying long-wave, medium-wave and short wave signals at various times between 1924 and 1992. In that period the hilltop bristled with masts, but there’s now just a single DAB mast.
In 1935 Robert Watson-Watt successfully demonstrated his radar technology here for the first time, using a signal transmitted from this station.
Borough Hill is also the site of Bronze Age barrows, two Iron Age hillforts and a farming settlement from Roman times.
The villa, set within the ramparts of one of the hillforts, was excavated in the 19th century and then backfilled to preserve the sandstone walls.
7. Church of St Mary the Virgin, Fawsley
A few minutes south of Daventry there’s a 13th-centrury, Grade I church sitting along an idyllic country lane.
St Mary the Virgin is close to another grand property, Fawsley Hall, today a luxury hotel and spa.
The church dates from 1209, replacing a wooden Saxon church on the same site, and was altered in the 14th and 16th centuries, while the chancel was rebuilt in 1690. Within there’s a remarkable assortment of wall monuments and brasses, as well as a tomb chest with effigies, for the Knightley Family and dating from the 1500s to 1800s.
Outside you can see the Washington coat of arms carved into the stone, as this church stood on land belonging to first US President, George Washington’s great-great grandfather.
That coat of arms is also visible in the chancel’s side window, as this 16th and 17th-century stained glass was removed from the Washington family seat, Sulgrave Manor.
8. Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens
On select days in summer Cottesbrooke Hall opens its doors to the public.
This complete example of the early 18th-century Queen Anne style is the private home of the Macdonald-Buchanan family.
Your guide on the 45-minute tour will be well versed in the history of the family, as well as the house’s resplendent architecture and decoration.
There’s 18th-century furniture from England and France, along with English, European and Chinese porcelain, especially rich in the China Corridor, Library, Drawing Room and Dining Room.
Cottesbrooke Hall really shines for its Woolavington Collection of sporting art.
The gardens, reconfigured since the 1930s and still being developed today, are the work of some important designers, among them Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997). Some of the best bits are Gordon Jellicoe’s formal forecourt, the Statue Walk with works by Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781) brought here from Stowe, and Sylvia Crowe’s Pool Garden.
9. Kelmarsh Hall and Gardens
If your appetite for grand country houses is still unsatisfied there’s another fine old pile at Kelmarsh Hall and Gardens.
The hall, raised in 1732 is in the fashionable Palladian style and designed by James Gibbs, who is most famous for Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera and St-Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square.
You can come to look around the hall on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Bank Holiday Mondays between mid-April and late-October.
Since 2018 it has also been possible to go “Below Stairs” to explore the servants’ quarters, laundry rooms, cellars and bakery.
The celebrated Grade II gardens can be visited on the same days, but also on Thursdays.
These were laid out by the famous tastemaker Nancy Lancaster in the 1920s and 1940s, and have an intimate, informal style, with a walled garden, sunken garden and borders that overflow with sweet peas in July.
10. Everdon Stubbs
Just the place for a quiet walk, Everdon Stubbs is 100 acres of ancient woodland not far south of Daventry proper.
Growing here are sycamores, lowland birches, sweet chestnuts, as well as common and sessile oaks.
In late spring people visit from far and wide to admire the huge beds of bluebells, or the wood anemones and rare wild daffodils that flower a little earlier.
In Medieval times Everdon was grazing land for wild boars and there is thought to be a Saxon burial on the northern edge of the woods.
11. Lamport Hall
Another sublime country house at the seat of the Isham Family from 1560 to 1976. Lamport Hall started out as a Tudor manor built by the wool merchant John Isham, to be reworked in the middle of the 17th century, and then extended and remodelled during building phases in the 1730s and 1842-61. That last stint gave Lamport Hall today’s stirring main entrance and tower.
You can view this house by guided tour only, on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons between the start of April and end of October.
Unforgettable are the High Room (1655) and the18th-century library, both enriched with decorative arts acquired by the bon vivant third Baronet during his Grand Tour in the 1670s.
The Cabinet Room from the early 19th century is also fabulous for the Neapolitan cabinets, with paintings evoking classical mythology on their glass.
12. St John’s Church Tower
Warranting a quick detour on the way from Daventry to Althorp is a lone Victorian church tower, connected to the Spencers of Althorp and easily spotted for miles around.
St John’s was built with local brown ironstone in 1856 by Frederick Spencer, 4th Earl Spencer, in memory of his wife Georgiana Poyntz who had passed away in 1851. By the 1940s the building was derelict and was pulled down in 1947, except for the octagonal tower, which was saved as a landmark for navigation by the Air Ministry.
13. Holdenby House
A favourite of Elizabeth I, Sir Christopher Hatton (1540-1591) ordered Holdenby House, which was then a lavish mansion fit to accommodate the queen.
Hatton actually refused to spend a night here until Elizabeth had stayed here first.
The magnificent Tudor building was demolished in the 17th century, and the current Jacobean mansion from the 19th century, while impressive, is just an eighth the size of the original.
There are remnants of Hatton’s house in the archways and the new building’s kitchen wing.
The house can be entered only on Bank Holiday Mondays, but the Grade I gardens, as well as the delightful Connie’s Tea Parlour, are open on Sundays, Wednesdays and Bank Holidays in spring and summer.
These are not to be missed, and boast an exact replica of the original Elizabethan garden, as well as a kitchen garden, formal pond garden, borders and the King Charles Walk where Charles I would take exercise during his imprisonment at the house from February to June 1647.
14. Weedon Royal Ordnance Depot
By the Grand Union Canal in the village of Weedon is a military ordnance depot dating from the Napoleonic Wars.
The depot, completed around 1806, used to be served by the canal, with water traffic passing through the portcullis on the gatehouse.
Beyond are rows of storehouses flanking a spur of the canal.
These used to be accompanied by barracks and an Army School of Equitation that have since been demolished.
The depot was built during a flurry of military construction to cope with a possible invasion from France.
After being sold off by the Ministry of Defence this military relic has been used for storage and light industry, but is also open to curious visitors.
There’s a free exhibition in the East Lodge, run by volunteers and open Wednesday to Saturday, set in four rooms and charting the depot’s past.
15. Drayton Reservoir
Created to feed the Grand Union Canal, this reservoir fulfils its original purpose, and the water level can drop by as much as 30 centimetres in a day.
If you’re just here to idle, the east bank, over the Ashby Road is surfaced as a slip road and has an agreeable view over the wooded banks.
But Drayton Reservoir is best known as somewhere to go angling, held as one of the top match fishing venues in the country.
Carp were introduced here in the 1990s and these have grown from just a few ounces to more than 20lbs in many cases.
Permits are provided by the bailiff who patrols the bank, and anglers are reminded to pack equipment big enough to handle the reservoir’s large fish.