In the 18th century Northampton bounced back from its Great Fire of 1675 to become England’s shoemaking and leather capital.
And if you need to see a monument to this prosperity, the Neo-Gothic Guildhall (1861-64) is a masterpiece.
Long before, Northampton had been the site of one of England’s largest Norman castles, and Parliament regularly sat here in Medieval times.
In the countryside you can barely travel a mile without stumbling upon a plush manor house or estate.
The most prestigious of these is Althorp, residence of the Spencers since the 16th century and the burial place of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Castle Ashby and Cottesbrooke Hall are also still owned by ancient families, but welcome guests to tour their magnificent gardens.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Northampton:
1. 78 Derngate
In 1916-17 the Art Nouveau designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh reworked the interior of this Georgian house for the style-conscious businessman Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke.
78 Derngate is the only house in England designed by Mackintosh and in 2003 it was turned into a public attraction after 18 months of restoration.
One reason 78 Derngate is treasured is that it was Mackintosh’s final major commission, and its wooden panelling, stained glass and enamelwork point to a designer at full maturity.
Best of all are the hall-lounge and its wooden staircase screen, and the guest bedroom, decorated with black, white and ultramarine stripes.
The house was groundbreaking in other ways as it had electrical conveniences, indoor plumbing and central heating decades before they were commonplace in homes.
Northampton’s constant growth into the 19th century required a new town hall, and this was designed in the Neo-Gothic style by Bristol’s Edward William Godwin when he was just 28. The facade has long rows of pointed arches with ornate tracery, as well as statues and friezes depicting monarchs with a historical association with Northampton.
You can also locate a memorial to Princess Diana, whose family seat is a few miles away in Althorp.
Try to arrange a tour to view the interior’s stained glass, coffered ceilings and coats of arms, as well as the magnificent Great Hall.
This is embellished with Gothic-style murals of key historical figures, rose windows, chandeliers and has a ceiling of gilded panels and delicate branching patterns.
3. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
When we wrote this article in 2018 the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery was closed for modernisation, due to reopen in 2019. But it would be a shame to if off the list because, for one thing, it has the world’s largest collection of footwear and exhibitions of old-time shoemaking instruments.
Celebrating Northampton’s leather trade there’s also examples of leathercraft from all corners of the globe and details about Northampton’s “new town” and rebirth after the Great Fire of 1675. In the gallery are Italian Renaissance paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries, while you can also cast your eye over decorative arts like porcelain, pottery and glassware.
4. Abington Park
In Northampton’s eastern Abington district is a spacious park that was previously the site of a village.
Abington was cleared, and only ruins remain, after the manor house and its parkland were augmented in the 17th century.
This makes it Northampton’s oldest park, and it is adored for many gardens, archaeological remains, museum, floral displays, cafe and ornamental lakes.
Abington Park has a special scent and touch garden for the blind, while on Sundays in summer there’s are always classical, folk, jazz and brass bands playing at the bandstand.
5. Abington Park Museum
This museum is in Abington Park’s 15th-century manor house, which was once home to Elizabeth Bernard, granddaughter of William Shakespeare.
She was buried in 1670 at Church of St Peter and Paul, just next door.
The house has lived through plenty of changes, partly because it housed a “lunatic asylum” in the Victorian times.
You can enter to see the Oak Room, panelled with oak as it would have been in the 1700s, and collections for Northamptonshire’s military history.
There’s also a fascinating Victorian cabinet of curiosities, while in 2018 the museum staged a temporary exhibition about Northamptonshire’s historic leather-making trade.
6. The Holy Sepulchre
A few streets north of the Market Square, The Holy Sepulchre is Northampton’s oldest building and one of only four Norman round churches in England.
It was begun by Simon I de Senlis, Earl of Huntingdon-Northampton at the start of the 12th century.
Simon I de Senlis had just returned from the Crusades, and the circular design of the church was based on Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre.
Over the last 900 years lots of alterations have been made, most of all by the Victorian restorer, George Gilbert Scott.
In the centuries after the church went up, a nave, aisles and a chancel were constructed to the east.
But the Norman circular church remains in the baptistery, and there are original windows on its south and north porches.
7. Castle Ashby Gardens
Castle Ashby is an Elizabethan Prodigy House from the second-half of the 1500s with later Palladian extensions.
Bold houses like this were built by Queen Elizabeth I’s leading courtiers, and the queen herself visited in 1600, while King James I came in 1605. Generally the house is something to admire from the outside as it only opens to the public by appointment.
The astonishing gardens at Castle Ashby are open 365 days a year and cover 35 acres in the 10,000-acre estate.
You can go on a lingering stroll through the arboretum, secret garden, butterfly garden, theatrical Italian gardens and walled garden where there’s a tea room.
The gardens have a menagerie, open in summer and inhabited by marmosets and meerkats that youngsters can feed.
8. Hunsbury Hill
Much of the Northampton Museum’s Iron Age collection comes from this one place, the site of an Iron Age hill fort built around 2,500 years ago.
Hunsbury Hill is a large, natural-looking park, crisscrossed with walking trails.
It isn’t difficult to work out where the fort used to stand, as the ditch is still here and overgrown with trees to form a neat circle.
Evidence of a 19th-century ironstone quarry can be found on the south side, and these excavations revealed some 300 pits rich with artefacts from the days of the fort.
Something else that might appeal to amateur historians is that the park is bisected by Banbury Lane, a historic droving road, along which traders would bring sheep to Northampton Market in Medieval times.
9. National Lift Tower
The Grade II listed National Lift Tower is an abiding feature of Northampton’s silhouette.
Standing 127.5 metres high, it is one of just two lift-testing towers in Europe and was topped off in 1982 and opened by the Queen.
The tower is hollowed with six lift shafts, including a high-speed shaft 100 metres high and with a possible maximum speed of 10 metres per second.
The National Lift Tower used to belong to the former Express Lift factory, which closed down in 1997. At that time it became a listed building to prevent its demolition, and in 2009 it was reopened as a testing facility.
Plans have been mooted to build a visitor centre at the tower, but for now it’s a monument to appreciate from a distance.
10. Sywell Country Park
You can break out into the countryside, making the 15-minute trip east to Sywell Country Park.
This encompasses a humongous body of water that served as a reservoir from 1906 to 1979. Since then the lake has become a much-loved coarse fishery, full of tench and pike.
There are also a few features that go back to when the reservoir was created, like an arboretum with exotic trees and an elegant Edwardian pump house.
This has been converted into a cafe, while the shores have picnic meadows, a butterfly garden and a three-mile trail around the perimeter of the reservoir with occasional bird hides.
11. Phipps Northampton Brewery Company
This ale and stout brand has been brewing in Northampton on and off for more than 200 years.
The company goes back to 1801 and opened the Phipps’ Bridge Street Brewery in 1817. And although that closed down in 1974, the brand has recently started making beer at the Albion Brewery on Kingswell Street.
Head to this beautiful brick industrial building, dating to 1884, for tours any day of the week except Monday to learn about Phipps’ close historical links to Northampton.
The Albion Bar opened in 2015 and pours Phipps’ famous ales and stouts, as well as a new line of gin distilled by the brand, coming in dry, oak aged, raspberry, elderflower, sloe and rhubarb varieties, depending on the season.
12. Althorp Estate
Briefly, from July to the beginning of September, the Althorp Estate outside Northampton opens its gates to the public.
It was last altered at the end of the 18th century, but there are beautiful hints of the previous Tudor building in the woodwork of the Picture Gallery.
This space is 35 metres long on the west wing’s first floor and has a top-notch collection of art amassed by the Spencers.
You can view portraits of James I and Charles II by John de Critz and Mary Beale and “War and Peace” by Anthony van Dyck.
The feted French landscaper André Le Nôtre laid out the grounds in the 17th century, and on the island on the Round Oval lake is the grave of maybe the most famous Spencer of all; Diana, Princess of Wales was laid to rest at a spot marked with a solemn Doric temple.
13. Cottesbrooke Hall and Gardens
Another excursion to mark on the map is this Queen Anne-Style house and garden from the beginning of the 18th century.
The estate is open in the summer months, when you can take a 45-minute tour of the hall, fronted with Corinthian pilasters and a balustrade, and housing interiors embellished with family portraits, 18th-century furniture and fine ceramics from manufactories in England, Europe and China.
The gardens are a major factor in the estate’s charm, and have a sumptuous terrace walk fringed by mixed borders and Lebanon cedars and a sunken courtyard garden with a pergola and pool.
The statue walk is skirted by yew hedges and enriched with works by the 18th-century Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers.
14. Coton Manor Garden
If your enthusiasm for genteel country estates is undimmed, Coton Manor Garden is a mere ten miles from the centre of Northampton and more than warrants the trip.
The garden was plotted in ten acres in the 1920s around a 17th-century manor house.
That noble building with mullioned windows is the focal point of the gardens, and its walls are climbed by rare varieties of roses, clematis and shrubs.
There are also graceful terraces of York stone erupting with colour in the summer thanks to their agapanthus, heliotropes, pelargoniums, salvias and verbenas.
Water features abound, in the ponds, fountains and natural streams.
And at the start of May the bluebell wood is a delight, while the wildflower meadow comes into its own in early to mid-summer.
15. Northampton Market
People have been trading on Market Square in Northampton since 1235 after a decree by Henry III ordered the market to be moved here from the All Saints’ churchyard.
This places it among one of the oldest continuously running markets in the UK, and you can keep the tradition going from Tuesday to Sunday.
There are 42 stalls selling a wide assortment of goods, like fruit and veg, meat, eggs and cheese, or freshly made food like fish and chips and pies.
There are clothing stalls, haberdashers, jewellers, bike mechanics, people selling collectibles and more besides.