Up there with the UK’s best towns for quality of life, Grantham in southwest Lincolnshire is most famous for producing a colossal historical figure.
Sir Isaac Newton was born not far away in a tiny hamlet, and was a pupil at Grantham’s King’s School.
There’s a solemn statue for this physicist in front of the former town hall, while you can visit his birthplace, and see the “Gravity Tree” that may have triggered his law of universal gravitation.
Another child of Grantham is Margaret Thatcher, who was born above a grocery and became the UK’s first female prime minister.
If you have a taste for splendid country houses you’re in for a treat at Grantham as the town is surrounded by noble piles built from local Ancaster limestone, many welcoming visitors in summer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Grantham:
1. St Wulfram’s Church
With the sixth highest spire in the country, St Wulfram’s Church is a parish church with the scale of a cathedral.
The origins of this building are Saxon, but most of the stonework is from the 13th to the 16th centuries.
There are traces of the Norman building around the nave, especially in the arcades of the north aisle.
Head down to the crypt via the 15th-century staircase, the steps of which have become inverted by wear.
The crypt’s oak door and chests are Medieval, while the stone in front of the altar has also been worn away by centuries of pilgrims.
One of the most enthralling features is a chained library, founded in a room above the south porch in 1598 and with 82 chains still intact.
The collection is a varied history of the Reformation, with both puritan attacks on papistry and Catholic denunciations of Protestant heresies.
2. Belton House
The first of many stately homes within striking distance of Grantham, Belton House is often considered the archetypal English country house and is maintained by the National Trust.
The architecture is in the opulent Restoration style, dating to the 1680s, and was refined with each generation as the resident Brownlow family rose in social status.
The tour will take you through a series of sumptuous halls and rooms, decorated with 18th-century Mortlake tapestries, an Aubusson carpet, intricate plasterwork and marble fireplaces.
The Hondecoeter Room takes its name from three massive canvases by the 17th-century Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter, while the Great Dining Room (now the library) has a collection of 6,000 volumes collected over 350 years.
Joining to the library is the Queen’s Room, decorated for a visit by Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV in 1841.
3. Belton Park
In 1,300 acres, the park around Belton House is a day out in its own right.
Some 750 acres of this land is designated a deer park, and you can see the best of it on a signposted 3.1-mile walking trail.
On the route you’ll see interesting monuments like a crow-stepped Victorian conduit house and a memorial to Lord Alford commissioned in 1851 by his father the 1st Earl Brownlow.
On the Eastern Avenue, with a clear view of the house, is the Belmount Tower, an elegant belvedere from 1750. Closer to the house is a tapestry of formal gardens, with topiaries, fountains, urns and architectural details like the Lion Exedra screen, last reworked by Jeffry Wyatville at the start of the 19th century.
4. Woolsthorpe Manor
Sir Isaac Newton was born at this modest yeoman’s farmstead nine miles south of Grantham in 1642. He came back in 1666 when Cambridge University was closed because of the plague, and in that time he conducted experiments that would change the course of science.
It is even thought that Newton conceived his law of universal gravitation here after watching an apple fall from a tree.
In the orchard you’ll find the Flowery of Kent “Gravity Tree” – whether or not it’s the real thing, this tree is still more than 400 years old and is listed by the Tree Council as one of the 50 Great British Trees.
You can step into the simply furnished house, while there’s a hands-on science centre in one of the neighbouring buildings where you can put Newton’s principles to the test.
In September, Woolsthorpe Manor is one of the main venues for the Gravity Fields Festival, which we’ll talk about below.
5. Gravity Fields Festival
Newton’s legacy is celebrated every September with a town-wide festival for science, heritage and the arts.
Each year the Gravity Fields Festival assembles a big-hitting lineup of leading scientists and contemporary artists.
In 2018 there were talks by Professor Brian Cox and the UK’s first female astronaut, Helen Sharman.
Over these five days there’s a packed programme of exhibitions, fascinating seminars, plays, film screenings, live music and science-based workshops for kids.
One of the anchors for the festival is the Guildhall Arts Centre, in the complex as the Grantham Museum.
6. Grantham Museum
Just the place to get to know Grantham’s most famous personalities, the Grantham Museum in the former town hall ensemble has in-depth exhibitions of Newton, Thatcher and lesser known figures like Edith Smith (d. 1924), the UK’s first policewoman with power of arrest.
For Newton there’s a copy of Principia, his death mask, an interactive recreation of an apothecary from his era and a map labelling all the places around Grantham that have survived since Newton’s day.
You can also track Margaret Thatcher’s decorated career, reading seldom shared anecdotes about her university days and finding out about her humble childhood as the daughter of a grocer.
In 2018 there was an exhibition for Barnes Wallis, the engineer and inventor who made a few wartime innovations like a dam-busting bouncing bomb, earthquake bomb and geodetic airframe that allowed aircraft to keep flying even after sustaining damage.
7. Belvoir Castle
Over the boundary into Leicestershire, the Grade I-listed Belvoir Castle is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland, who have been here since the 16th century.
The magisterial Gothic Revival building here today is the fourth castle on the site and was built in the first years of the 19th century.
The house, with battlements, towers and lancet windows is on a wooded roost over farmland, and needs to be seen for its exquisite furnishings and an art collection with pieces by David Teniers the Younger, Poussin and Gainsborough.
No less sumptuous, the formal gardens are the work of the star Edwardian designer Harold Peto in the early 20th century.
See the rose garden, with a 17th-century allegorical statue of Winter, one of seven by the Caius Gabriel Cibber to be discovered in the grounds.
The house is open from March to October, but the timetable can be irregular, so it’s worth checking the website in advance.
8. Wyndham Park
On the Witham River and threaded by a waterside path, Wyndham Park has been awarded the Green Flag since 2012, which puts it among the best parks in the country.
There are lots of amenities here for a hassle-free family afternoon in summer, like a water play facility, with fountains, spouts and a paddling pool, as well as conventional playgrounds, tennis courts and a cafe.
Just across the river there’s a sensory garden, especially designed for the visually impaired.
On a neighbouring plot there’s even a working farm, owned by the National Trust so you may share your walk with a herd of cows.
9. Witham River
You can take a very agreeable 1.8-mile walk along the east flank of Grantham’s town centre beside the Witham River.
This path is laid with tarmac and has a cycle lane, starting in the south at Dysart Park and ending in Wyndham Park in the north.
There are pedestrian bridges every now and again, and you’ll see St Wyndham’s 86-metre spire poking over the skyline.
One of the loveliest parts is Sedgwick Meadows, which belongs to the Grantham House estate and is a parcel of countryside in the middle of the town.
10. Easton Walled Gardens
The nearby village of Easton is the site of manor house belonging to the Cholmeley family.
This property was damaged in the Second World War and had to be pulled down in the 1950s.
The 12-acre walled gardens, more than 400 years in the making were also abandoned, before being rescued by the Cholmeleys in the 2000s and turned into one of the region’s top horticultural attractions.
These gardens are couched in a gentle valley, and over the last 15 years have been reborn.
On the template of a Tudor and Jacobean knot garden there’s a diversity of environments.
You’ll stroll through woodland, a cottage garden, vegetable garden, rose meadows, orchards, sweeping meadows, a traditional white garden and long borders on the Witham River, crossed by a dainty ornamental bridge.
11. Harlaxton Manor
A 19th-century Jacobethan manor house, combining the historic Elizabethan and Jacobean styles, Harlaxton Manor is another plush property worthy of your attention.
This exuberant Grade I-listed building was commissioned by the Nottinghamshire businessman Gregory Gregory and has an exterior loaded with reliefs, oriel windows, lanterns and turreted chimneys.
A few other structures on the estate are listed monuments, like the kitchen garden walls, glorious garden screen wall and gatehouse.
The formal gardens meanwhile have barely changed in 150 years.
The house is the British campus for the American University of Evansville, but you can phone ahead to book separate tours of the house and the grounds.
12. Grantham Canal
In the southwest of Grantham you can begin a trip along the towpath of the Grantham Canal.
The starting point can be found opposite the Farrier pub at the junction of the A607 and A1. This waterway opened in 1797 to transport coal from the Nottinghamshire Coalfield to Grantham.
The canal is 33 miles long and extends to West Bridgford where it meets the River Trent.
The last barges travelled the canal in 1929, and after decades of decay two long sections have been restored for narrowboats since the 1970s.
For walkers the canal is a joy, snaking through the Vale of Belvoir, creating a Site of Special Scientific Interest home to rare birds like the reed bunting, reed warbler and sedge warbler.
A big chunk of the towpath is included in the 9.5-mile Grantham to Bottlesford Railway Walk.
13. Grimsthorpe Castle
An essential half day trip, Grimsthorpe Castle is a stunning country house that has been the seat of the de Eresby family since 1516. Resting atop a ridge, this beautiful property evolved from a fortified castle, and became a palatial home in the Tudor period, built by the 1st Duke of Suffolk, a close ally of Henry VIII. A lot of that building survives today, but the early-18th-century Baroque facade is by Sir John Vanbrugh and stands as his last major project.
As you delight in the house’s tapestries, furniture and paintings, do not miss the arcaded Vanbrugh Hall, Chinese Room with Georgian wallpaper or the coronation banquet chair used by King George IV in 1821. The house is in 3,000 acres of parkland landscaped by none other than Capability Brown in the 18th century.
The deer roaming these grounds descend from a herd hunted by Henry VIII. The precocious composer Thomas Linley died after a boating accident in the park in 1778, aged just 22.
14. Ellys Manor House
If you still have an appetite for historic properties there’s much to admire at this house built for the rich wool merchant Anthony Ellys at the turn of the 16th century.
Ellys Manor House has a Northern Renaissance design and stands out for its Flemish-style crow-stepped gables.
This makes sense, as the Ellys family traded with Flanders.
The best expression of this internationalism can be found in the wall paintings in the upper rooms, dating to around 1500, with foliate patterns and animals like deer, foxes and cranes.
These were considered by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to be a “rare English interpretation of French verdure tapestries”. Ellys Manor House is open daily except Tuesday from Easter to the end of October.
15. Manor Stables Craft Centre
Anyone with an eye for high-quality workmanship will be drawn to this arts and crafts centre not far away in Fulbeck.
Based at this idyllic stable block are a decoupage artist, master saddler and watercolour artist, while you can browse little shops for home accessories, collectable vintage tools, yarn and cross stitch kits, picture framing, bespoke furniture, dressmaking and cycles.
Also at the centre is the Tack Room tearoom for a satisfying cooked breakfast or indulgent cream tea.