A market town with industry in its veins, Mansfield was a big source of coal up to the end of the 20th century.
In the space of a generation, mining has all but disappeared, but telltale headstocks still stand in places like Clipstone and Pleasley where there’s an absorbing museum.
There’s Tudor luxury too, at the stupendous Hardwick Hall, built for Bess Hardwick who amassed a great fortune even in the unfavourable environment of Elizabethan Society.
Lord Byron’s family home is not far away at Newstead Abbey, while Robin Hood’s stamping ground of Sherwood Forest lies to the northeast.
In that royal hunting forest are oaks that have been growing for a millennium, while the Robin Hood legend is celebrated every summer with a festival.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Mansfield:
1. Hardwick Hall
Bess Hardwick, the most powerful woman in Elizabethan England (after the queen!), ordered this astonishing house, which was completed in 1597. Designed by Robert Smythson, Hardwick Hall shows off the technical advances of the period with its outsized, floor-to-ceiling windows.
This was at a time when glass fetched a high price, so the windows at Hardwick Hall are an indication of just how wealthy Bess of Hardwick was.
Structurally, the windows were possible by moving the chimneys to the internal walls to avoid weakening the outer walls.
You can make out Bess’s initials, ES (Elizabeth Shrewsbury) in openwork on top of the rooftop banqueting house pavilions.
Amazingly, many of the present interior furnishings were here when Bess was alive, and in the collection are embroideries bearing her initials and may have been stitched by Bess herself.
2. Hardwick Old Hall
On the grounds are the striking ruins of another house, looked after by English Heritage.
The Old Hall is also Elizabethan and only a little older than the complete Hardwick Hall.
Started in 1587, Hardwick Old Hall is imbued with the same grandeur, and sports plenty of innovations fresh from the Italian Renaissance.
Bess would have lived here while the current house was being built, and afterwards the Old Hall became a guest house.
Although now a shell, the Old Hall didn’t become a ruin until the 18th century, and you can climb the stone stairway to peek inside.
English Heritage has preserved large fragments of the delicate plasterwork, like the hunting scene in the Forest Great Chamber.
Close by, the West Lodge’s exhibition gives you more insight about Bess Hardwick and the evolution of architecture in the Elizabethan period.
3. Mansfield Market Place
Still the commercial soul of the town, Mansfield’s Market Place owes its appearance to the Improvement Act of 1823 when streets were cleared to create this ceremonious space.
A market has traded in Mansfield for more than 700 years and this tradition is observed from Tuesday to Saturday , with a very cosmopolitan food court and a live performance stage set up in front of the Town Hall.
That late Georgian monument was completed in 1836 and faces the Bentinck Memorial, a decorative Gothic Revival canopy for the 19th-century Conservative politician Lord George Bentinck who helped force Sir Robert Peel’s resignation in 1848. On the north side of the square, check out the handsome Moot Hall, a Georgian assembly building dating to 1752.
4. Pleasley Pit
The place to tap into Mansfield’s industrial heritage, Pleasley Colliery is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The mineshaft was sunk in the 1870s and the colliery produce coal up to 1983. The headstocks, engine houses and two steam winders have been preserved.
The North Winding Engine (1904) was manufactured by Lilleshall of Oakengates and was capable of 1500 working horse power via two 40-inch pistons and cylinders.
The South Winding Engine (1922) was by the Markham of Chesterfield and was going through a restoration when this post was written.
The shafts may have been filled in, but the South Shaft Pit Top looks as it did when it was active, with a display of mining carts and other artefacts beneath an intact control room.
The trails in the surrounding park are on the course of the old railways that served the mine, and a tapestry of natural habitats have flourished like ponds, reedbeds and magnesian limestone grassland.
5. Mansfield Museum
The town museum is an award-winning attraction that is anchored in the community and stages temporary exhibitions for all ages and backgrounds.
You’ll find it in a complex of buildings dating back to 1938, including the glass-covered Arcade Gallery from 1990, which forms the street entrance.
In the permanent exhibition you can brush up on Mansfield’s diversity of trades like mining, quarrying, precision-engineering, hosiery, brewing and shoemaking.
You can also get acquainted with the work of the Georgian ceramic painter William Billingsley and his Lusterware.
EplorActive meanwhile is a hands-on gallery where the “Eco Dude” introduces kids to environmental issues.
Whenever you come there will be a new temporary exhibition to see.
In September 2018 you could delve into the life of local celebrity Alvin Stardust and view a collection of memorabilia from the Mercian Regiment.
6. Sherwood Forest Country Park
The first thing that springs to mind when you hear “Sherwood Forest” is Robin Hood.
The legendary outlaw is supposed to have chosen this ancient Royal Forest as his hideout.
Nottingham County Council is in charge of about 450 acres of this once immense royal hunting ground.
This land has been cloaked in woodland since the Last Ice Age, and some of the oaks are Medieval.
One, the Major Oak, is between 800 and 1,000 years old and is woven into the Robin Hood folklore as his base in the forest.
Every summer there’s a week-long Robin Hood-themed festival in the park, with a busy programme of Medieval music, storytelling, trails for children and choreographed fights between Robin Hood and the Sherriff of Nottingham.
7. Sherwood Pines Forest Park
A different entity, Sherwood Pines Forest Park is a couple of miles to the south, on the fringe of the former mining community of Clipstone.
Here you can stretch your legs in the largest public open space in Nottinghamshire, sprawling across 3,300 acres.
The park is cycling heaven: The long-distance Sustrans Route 6 crosses the forest, while there are three waymarked trails (Family Trail, Adventure Trail and the more challenging Kitchener’s Trail). Bikes are available to hire from the Visitor’s Centre where there’s also a cafe and children’s adventure play trail.
And if all that action isn’t enough, Sherwood Pines features a Go Ape High Ropes centre, with rope courses for grown-ups and children, alongside Nets Kingdom, a 2,000-square-metre adventure area with four gigantic bounce nets.
8. Sherwood Forest Railway
Couched in a valley between Mansfield and the village of Edwinstowe is the only narrow gauge steam railway in Nottinghamshire.
The 15in line runs along old flood dykes, an early 19th-century irrigation system constructed by the Duke of Portland.
The railway is open mid-February to the end of November and during this time there’s a timetable of train rides from 11:00 to 16:30 every day of the week.
Two steam locomotives, “Pet” and “Smokey Joe” run the line, together with a diesel engine, a light track inspection works railtruck and a light electric locomotive.
The coaches meanwhile have been adopted from all over the country, from Longleat in Wiltshire to the Cleethorpes Light Railway in Lincolnshire.
9. Wheelgate Park
A cross between a small theme park and children’s farm attraction, Wheelgate Park has rides and activities in eight different zones.
For a very condensed list of what to expect, there’s fairground rides, small rollercoasters, a mirror maze, trampolines, bumper boats, enormous playgrounds and crazy golf.
The Black Diamond Mining Zone draws on the local industrial history with a big sandpit and miniature train, while the Robin Hood Zone centres on a small, toddler-friendly water park.
And sure to please little ones, the Animal Adventure Zone has enclosures for all sorts of domestic animals like cows, sheep, pigs, llamas and goats, and also organises pony rides.
10. Papplewick Pumping Station
This Gothic Revival pumping station could well be the grandest in the country.
The decorative brick-built facility is on open farmland eight miles south of Mansfield.
Up to 1969 the station pumped drinking water from the underlying rock for the City of Nottingham.
You can visit on Wednesdays and Sundays to get a look at the two original beam engines and six Lancashire boilers that helped power them.
These beasts remain in working condition and are fired up on special Steam Days, which are held roughly once a month.
Steaming Days often coincide with themed events like a vintage and retro fair in mid-September, and at these times you can also go underground to tour the spooky vaulted reservoir.
11. White Post Farm
Equally educational and entertaining, White Post Farm is a local day out for families with younger children.
This working farm has paddocks with llamas, donkeys, ponies, deer, goats, pigs, cows, chickens and even some more exotic species like wallabies and reindeer.
Inside, you can get up close to meerkats, hold domestic rats and hamsters in the Rodents Room, visit the walk-in aviary and the reptile and creepy-crawlie area.
In summer there’s sheep racing, crazy golf and a big castle-themed playground.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, kids can watch demonstrations in the show barn, adventure through the indoor play area or see the newborn chicks, rabbits and kid goats in the Silver Barn and Incubator.
12. Newstead Abbey
Fifteen minutes down the A16 and you’ll arrive at the ancestral home of Lord Byron.
Truth be told, the estate was in mess before the famous poet took over in 1808. For this you can thank the unhinged 5th Baron Byron, who was so opposed to his son’s marriage that he ruined his inheritance and let the estate fall to waste in the 18th century.
Lord Byron would never live here for any amount of time, but the house and gardens are stunning and have collections of Byron memorabilia.
The house cropped up on the site of the dissolved Newstead Abbey in the 16th century, and the ruined facade of the abbey church is joined to the Tudor country house.
The 300-acre grounds are on the River Leen, which feeds the gardens’ lakes, ponds and cascades.
There are walled gardens, an Alpine garden and a sunken Japanese oasis with bamboo groves and stepping stones over streams.
13. Rufford Abbey
The history of this estate echoes Newstead, as Rufford Abbey has the remnants of a Cistercian monastery mingling with a 16th-century mansion, which is also partially ruined.
And just like Newstead, Rufford Abbey is at the heart of a country park, with 150 acres of meadows, woodland and gardens.
The centre of attention though are the ruins, comprising the best preserved Cistercian cloister range in the country.
A stairway (the night stair) in the ruined Brick Hall beckons you down to the abbey’s cellar and monk’s refectory, which has simple rounded arches and octagonal columns, reflecting the austere Cistercian style.
In the front wall you can see traces of the refectory alcoves once used to store linen and utensils.
The whole site is free to enter and is equipped with dioramas and interpretive panels.
14. Palace Theatre
There’s a feast of live entertainment on the menu at Mansfield’s main theatre on Leeming Street by the Mansfield Museum.
The Palace Theatre’s background is interesting as it was started out as a cinema in 1910 before being converted when it was bought by the council in 1953. The entire building was redeveloped with a multimillion pound project in the 1990s, but the auditorium and interiors still radiate Edwardian glamour.
There’s something to watch most nights of the week at the Palace Theatre, whether it’s a contemporary dance performance, play, musical, classic rock band, touring tribute act or a famous comedian.
15. Vicar Water Country Park
On the lip of the Sherwood Forest, Vicar Water Country Park is an industrial site reclaimed in the late 1970s.
The lake dominating the park is on the river Vicar Water, a tributary of the River Maun dammed in 1870 to create a fishery for the nearby Welbeck Abbey, seat of the Dukes of Portland.
In the 20th century the lake was encircled by ever-growing spoil tips from the neighbouring Clipstone Colliery (closed 2003), whose headstocks still rise like a pair of sentinels.
Vegetation has taken over the spoil tips, which have precipitous sides nosediving to the water.
One, Ann Bowers Hill is capped with an orientation table labelling all of the local collieries.
On a clear day you can see the towers of Lincoln Cathedral, 30 miles away.