Not far north of Leicester, Loughborough is a university town in the Charnwood Forest.
Loughborough University has ballooned in the last few decades, to the point where one in four residents in Loughborough is a student.
The town has an international reputation for its bells.
The John Taylor & Co Bell Foundry is the last foundry in the UK, casting bells for St Paul’s Cathedral and all sorts of churches and institutions around the world.
The Great Central Railway sets off from Loughborough is the only steam railway on the UK’s mainline, while Queen’s Park is a refined Victorian urban park, hosting a museum for Charnwood and the solemn Loughborough Carillon.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Loughborough:
1. Great Central Railway (GCR)
The only double track mainline steam railway in the UK is based right here in Loughborough.
The Great Central Railway spans 8.25 miles between Loughborough Central and Leicester North.
Setting off from Loughborough, the GCR calls at three restored stations on the old Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, which closed in 1969. The line has a fleet of passenger and freight steam engines from the first decades of the 20th century, and you’ll ride in British Mark I carriages harking back to the 1950s.
There are services every weekend all year round, as well as weekdays in the summer holidays.
In 2018 an all-day ticket cost £17 for adults and £9 for children.
2. Queen’s Park
A cultured Victorian park, Queen’s Park was inaugurated in 1899 to honour the queen’s diamond jubilee.
Within its boundaries are a couple of Loughborough’s main attractions, like the Charnwood Museum and the Loughborough Carillon.
There’s also a bandstand, bordered by symmetrical formal flowerbeds and shrubs.
Check the Charnwood council website for details of the regular concerts that take place at the bandstand in summer.
The park has a play area for under 12s, and swings and obstacles for older kids, as well as aviaries and regular displays of sculpture by art students from Loughborough University.
3. Charnwood Museum
Loughborough’s largest museum is housed in the former baths in the northwest corner of Queen’s Park.
You can get to know Charnwood’s old trades, like basket-weaving and oak carving , and go back much further to 600 million years ago when Charnwood was all volcanic.
There’s a full-size replica of the Barrow Kipper, a plesiosaur excavated nor far away at Barrow upon Soar in 1851, as well as the genuine fossilised remains of an ichthyosaur.
There’s also prehistoric pottery, an Anglo-Saxon gold sword pommel and the Cossington Boy, a Bronze Age burial dating back 4,000 years.
Hanging from the museum’s ceiling is an aircraft built by the aviation brand, Auster, which was based close by in Thurmaston in the mid-20th century.
4. Loughborough Carillon
A landmark that can be seen for miles, the 46-metre carillon in Queen’s Park was built as a memorial following the First World War.
With neo-Baroque architecture, the carillon is inspired by the famous belfries of Flanders, the place where the British Army suffered many of its losses during the conflict.
This Grade II-listed building holds 47 bells cast at Loughborough’s historic John Taylor & Co foundry, which we’ll talk about next.
When this post was written in 2018 the tower was undergoing conservation work in the build-up to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
Normally the bells chime on Thursdays and Sundays (13:00-14:00) during the summer months.
You can also go inside for the military museums on the first and second floors, as well as the carillon itself on the third, and the bell chamber and balcony above.
5. John Taylor & Co Bell Foundry Museum
Loughborough is home to the world’s largest working bell foundry, and the only one still operating in England.
John Taylor & Co has a history that can be traced back to the 1300s and has cast bells for cathedrals and churches around the world, from Yale University to the Australian National Carillon in Canberra.
A place where bells are cast, repaired and retuned, the foundry is rare as it continues to be housed in factory buildings from the Victorian period.
This includes a campanile containing the most pealed bells on the planet.
You have to book in advance to visit the museum, but it’s worthwhile for the detailed factory tour and the chance to see molten bronze being poured into moulds and to have a go ringing gigantic bells.
6. Art Deco Architecture
Loughborough went through a flurry of construction in the 1930s, which left the town with a lot of Art Deco architecture.
This can best be seen in the beautiful elevations along Market Street and on Market Place, even if there are chain stores on the ground floor.
Look for the Loughborough echo building on Swan Street and the curving Beacon Bingo building (originally an Odeon cinema) on Baxter Gate, clad with glazed faience tiles.
Another standout is the current Odeon cinema on Cattle Market, in a Grade II-listed building from 1936. This is spotted by its tower with geometric ridges, above a patterned frieze tracing the cornice.
7. Whatton House and Gardens
This 19th-century estate is owned by Lord and Lady Cranshaw.
The Neoclassical house is their private home and closed to the public, but you can enjoy the 15-acre gardens from Sunday to Friday.
In spring you’ll love the woodland garden, which is carpeted with flowering bulbs, while the old fashioned rose garden is glorious in summer, and has uplifting views over the Charnwood Forest.
There’s also a working kitchen garden, enclosed by a high brick wall, which also shelters a stunning herbaceous border.
Other must-sees are the stone loggia, bark summerhouse and the Chinese garden, which has replica terracotta warriors.
There’s also a tearoom, open on Sunday afternoons.
8. Beacon Hill Country Park
If you want to escape to the countryside for a few hours, a fine choice would be this 330-acre country park around one of the tallest hills in Leicestershire.
Once capped with a Bronze Age fort, Beacon Hill (248 m) is made up of igneous rock from an extinct volcano.
On its summit is a toposcope pointing out some of the landmarks you can see in the distance, like the hills of the Peak District to the north and Lincoln Cathedral’s spire to the east.
The park is made up mostly of heathland that is grazed by sheep, cattle and alpacas (here to protect the sheep). Near the lower car park there’s a new Native Tree Collection, showing off the 28 trees and shrubs native to the British Isles.
9. Loughborough Town Hall
Facing the Market Place, Loughborough Town Hall is a striking building constructed as a corn exchange (ground floor) and ballroom in 1855. It came about after a petition by the town’s tradesmen for a public gathering place in the town.
Rather than an administrative building, the Town Hall is an entertainment venue, serving as Loughborough’s main theatre.
And like all the best town theatres there’s a very varied programme.
On the calendar are kids’ matinees with the Teletubbies and Peppa Pig, talks with prominent cultural figures, famous stand-up comedians, touring bands, musicals, plays and more.
10. All Saints Church and Old Rectory
Dating mostly to the 14th and 15th-centuries, Loughborough’s parish church is in the Perpendicular and Decorated Gothic styles.
This is a typical wool church, made more extravagant through the wealth of the local wool industry – in fact, it’s one of the largest parish churches in the country.
All Saints was extensively restored in the 19th century, and its beauty lies in the tracery in the chancel and clerestory windows.
Seek out the poignant 17th-century monument to one Joanna Walters, with an inscription tablet framed by angels, and a carving of the shrouded bodies of a woman and two babies.
Next to the church is the Old Rectory, a former manor house with arches dating back to the 13th century.
There’s a museum inside, opening on Saturdays in summer and run by the Loughborough Archaeological and Historical Society.
The north of Leicestershire is within the National Forest, which spreads across 200 square miles in Central England.
The National Forest scheme involves planting hundreds of thousands of new trees, to connect patches of existing ancient woodland.
One such parcel of ancient woodland sits just to the southwest of Loughborough.
Awarded the Green Flag, Outwoods is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, made up of 110 acres of centuries old oaks, birches and wet alders.
There are also younger conifers, planted after spells of clearcutting in the early 20th century.
Outwoods, like most of the Charnwood area, has compelling geology in the form of pre-Cambrian outcrops.
Try to time your visit for April or May when the bluebells are in bloom.
12. Loughborough Market
Trading every Thursday and Saturday in the Market Place, Loughborough’s retail market was named the Best Outdoor Market in Britain at the British Market of the Year Awards in 2017. The market has been praised for attracting traders with rent discount on stalls, and for its interaction with Loughborough University, when traders spend a day on campus.
The market has been an essential part of life in Loughborough since the 13th century and sells fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, clothes, antiques, handicrafts, confectionery, homewares, freshly prepared food and a whole lot more.
13. Manor Farm Park and Woodlands
A day out for the youngest in the family, Manor Farm Park is an animal attraction prized for its donkeys.
Kids will be able to take donkey rides, and like most of the animals here, the donkeys have been rescued rather than bred on the farm.
There’s also a variety of owls, rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks, geese, pigs, chickens and peacocks, some of which can be found in the Animal Barn and can be interacted with.
As you’ll tell from the name, there’s also extensive woodland to explore on walking trails.
Children can go nature spotting and pond dipping to identify wildlife, and take on the Adventure Play Fort.
Right on the western edge of Loughborough at Garendon Park, there’s a picturesque stone bridge, believed to be Medieval, crossing the Black Brook.
Great for a photography expedition, the Stonebow Bridge is a Grade II-listed monument, with three arches that have a slight point and could be late-Gothic or Tudor.
The truth is, nobody’s too sure how old the bridge is.
The upstream side has pointed cutwaters, while on the downstream side there are platforms over the brook.
15. Loughborough Fair
The town was granted a charter to host a fair by King Henry III in 1221, and the tradition has survived for almost 800 years.
While in Medieval times the Loughborough Fair was an opportunity for trade, the event is now all about fun, and goes down on the Market Place around the start of November.
From Wednesday to Saturday there are 20 or more large fairground rides, dodgems, waltzers and all sorts of other amusements.
The fair also has a “Kiddies’ Corner” for younger children and plenty of refreshments stands.