The market town of Wellingborough on the River Nene has a deep history, beginning with a 6th-century Anglo-Saxon settlement founded by the warlord Wændel, who gave the town his name.
For much of the Medieval period the monks of Croyland Abbey held all the power in Wellingborough, and their monastic grange can still be seen in the form of a 17th-century manor house that took its place, and a beautiful 15th-century tithe barn.
In recent years the town has developed a set of heritage trails, and the highly-rated local museum is a great primer, in a building with history of its own.
Many of Wellingborough’s older monuments are built from ironstone, and on the east bank of the Nene at Irchester an old iron ore quarry has been transformed into a country park.
1. Wellingborough Museum
The town’s museum whisks you through the history of Wellingborough and local villages.
Starting in the basement you’ll discover the area’s prehistory and unusual ironstone geology, before travelling through Saxon, late-Medieval and Victorian times, up to the First World War.
Upstairs you can get acquainted with 20th-century life in Wellingborough, viewing a 1940s kitchen, a working railway model, a haberdashery shop and an ironmongery, as well as the sorting room from a General Post Office (pre-1969). A word on the building, which is fascinating in its own right; this is the a Victorian baths, built by a local brewer in 1892, and later turned into a shoe factory, which it remained until 1995.
2. Town Heritage Trails
Wellingborough’s streets are a mix of the very old and rather new as the town was bombed in the Second World War.
There’s enough history to keep an antiquarian interested for an hour or two, and a signposted heritage trail has been laid out following a Heritage Lottery Funded Townscape Heritage Initiative launched in 2012. There are three different trails, the shortest of which is 1.2 miles and introduces to lots of things you might have missed.
On 35 stops around Wellingborough you’ll visit a couple of the items on this list, as well as many other interesting spots like a Tudor house, Wellingborough’s former town hall (now the Red Well pub), the site of the old market square, a 17th-century grammar school building and a bomb site from the Second World War.
3. Irchester Country Park
Winning a Forestry Centre of Excellence Award for the way it blends nature conservation with activities for visitors, Irchester Country Park is more than 200 acres of mixed woodland in a former iron ore quarry.
The woodland was planted in the 1960s and is now maturing to provide a foliage-rich backdrop for walks on three trails, as well as a high ropes course and a quarry-themed play area.
The woodland supports plenty of birdlife, including sparrow hawks and woodpeckers, and there’s a visitor information centre hosting activities for children and in-depth information about the landscape.
The Quarryman’s Cafe makes cakes, sandwiches and light meals with fresh, local ingredients and is open all week.
Finally, several engines from the quarry’s narrow gauge railway have been preserved at a museum in the park, which we’ll talk about below.
4. Church of St Mary the Virgin
Much newer than it seems, St Mary’s Church, built from local ironstone, was completed in 1930 and is designed in a lavish Perpendicular Gothic style with some surprise Classical flourishes.
The architect was Ninian Comper (1864-1960), who was one of the last Gothic Revival architects, and this building is one of only a few 20th-century monuments to earn Grade I listing.
Comper’s work here is touted as a masterpiece and has a highly ornamented interior with a blue and gold colour scheme, shining for its pendant vaults (painted blue and gold over the chancel), early Renaissance-style chancel screen with exuberant reliefs and marvellous stained glass in the chancel east window, north chapel east window and porch window.
Also make time for the octagonal font and the organ case, both of which are also blue and gold.
The church is usually locked, but you can get keys from the vicarage, or from Nos. 29 or 30, St Mary’s Paddock.
5. Irchester Narrow Gauge Railway Museum
At Irchester Country Park you can dip into the land’s iron ore quarrying past at this free museum, which opened in 1987. The path to the museum is on the trackbed of the old iron narrow gauge railway (Wellingborough Tramway) that used to serve the quarry.
On show in the museum shed are more than 40 pieces of rolling stock, among them four steam and six diesel locomotives.
A handful of these used to run on the Wellingborough Tramway, including a magnificent Peckett steam locomotive from 1934. There’s also a life-size diorama of an iron ore quarry, a recreated water tank and 250-metres of track for occasional demonstrations.
6. Splash Park at the Embankment
The long, hot summers of the last few years have turned this free attraction on the Embankment by the River Nene into a godsend.
The Splash Park is open every day during the summer school holidays, and on weekends during term time from Easter to September.
There’s a series of fountains and jets to entertain kids aged five to sixteen when the mercury rises, as well as picnic benches for accompanying grown-ups.
During the school holidays a mini funfair sets up here, along with refreshment stands.
For something more tranquil you could also saunter along the Nene for a while, feeding the swans and watching the narrowboats chugging past.
7. Sywell Aviation Museum
Sywell Aerodrome, a little way west, was an RAF base and repair facility for Wellington bombers in the Second World War.
The museum here opened in a set of three Nissen huts in 2001, and tells the aerodrome’s wartime history, as well as the story of flight in Northamptonshire from the earliest days up to 1945. You can visit on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and weekends in spring and summer, perusing the large array of bombs, rockets, a loaded bomb trolley and air-to-air missiles.
The RAF cabinets paint a picture of the day-to-day at a WWII bomber or fighter station, with documents, uniforms, medals and even details like bedding.
You can also see a recreation of a wireless operator’s position in an RAF Lancaster, as well as wreckage from a crashed RAF Boulton Paul Defiant and B-17 Flying Fortress.
8. Sywell Country Park
From 1906 to 1976 the 70-acre man-made lake at this nearby country park was a drinking water reservoir.
A remnant from the earliest days survives at the imposing Edwardian valve tower, as well as a pump house from the same time, which has been reborn as a cafe.
Beneath the low dam is a arboretum with a beautiful array of specimen trees, while the lake itself is famous among coarse fishing circles, home to tench as big as 10lb and pike up to 30lb.
The reservoir is circled by a three-mile trail, while there’s a visitor centre with activities and details about the countryside, along with picnic areas, a butterfly garden and an adventure playground for kids.
9. Stanwick Lakes
The Nene Valley around Wellingborough has witnessed intense gravel quarrying over the last century, and one of these sites, a short way from Wellingborough, opened as a beloved 750-acre country park in 2006. In the 1980s a Roman villa was discovered here, and a mosaic from the excavation is on show at the park’s airy and sustainable visitor centre, which also houses a cafe, indoor play area and displays with interesting facts about the lakes and their wildlife.
Youngsters will love Stanwick Lakes for its Adventure Trail with balance beams and rope bridges, and adventure playground, while older visitors can take part in traditional crafts courses and spot teals, gadwalls, little egrets, chaffinches and long-tailed tits in different seasons.
10. All Saints’ Church, Earls Barton
Well worth the short trip, there’s a rare example of an Anglo-Saxon church in the village of Earls Barton, lying within the same borough.
All attention at All Saints’ Church is on the tower, raised around 970. This is made from coursed rubble and limestone, and experts think that the building was a tower nave, with worship space on the ground floor and a priest’s dwelling further up.
The tower, clad with strapwork and pilasters, has Roman-influenced round arches on its doorway and in the row of narrow openings at the top.
From the 12th to the 14th centuries the original chancel was demolished and the nave was extended eastwards, while the tower was given its castellated parapet in the 1300s.
In the body of the current church, take a moment to appreciate the scalloped capitals on the 13th-century tower arch, and the 12th-century blank arcading on the north and south walls of the chancel.
11. Rushden Transport Museum
Rushden Railway Station opened in 1894 on the old Wellingborough to Higham Ferrers branch of the Midland Railway.
That line closed to passengers in 1959, and freight traffic a decade later.
But since 1996 this fine Victorian building has been restored, together with a half-mile of track operated by the Rushden , Higham and Wellingborough Heritage Railway scheduling passenger services, from cream teas to Santa specials, all year round.
Inside the station you can browse all sorts of Victorian and 20th-century railway artefacts, while getting to know some of the characters that would have worked at the station, like the fireman, petrol pump attendant and drayman (beer courier). The ticket office and parcel office have been returned to their Victorian appearance, while you can take a seat in the Station Master’s chair, when he isn’t sitting in it.
12. Castle Theatre
In 1995 the Castle Theatre, the area’s premier performing arts venue, opened on the site of Wellingborough’s old cattle market next to the Wellingborough Museum.
The complex houses a 503-seater Main House Theatre (700 standing), as well as the smaller Studio Theatre, along with studios, rehearsal space, an art gallery exhibition wall and bar/restaurant.
If you’re wondering what to do on an evening in Wellingborough there’s a busy and diverse programme at the Castle Theatre, with ballet, musicals, opera productions, contemporary dance, live music of all descriptions, stand-up comedy, regular film screenings and broadcasts from the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.
13. Summer Leys
Against the River Nene to the south of Wellingborough is another chain of lakes at former gravel pits.
One of these has been conserved by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve, and a crucial habitat for wintering birds from Northern Europe like gadwalls, wigeons and goosanders, as well as large numbers of roosting golden plovers and lapwings.
Wading birds like redshanks and oystercatchers love the shallow lake margins and gravel islands, and come to breed in spring, while others like common sandpipers and greenshanks stop by on their migrations south in autumn.
The reserve is traced to the west by a disused railway line, which forms part of a circular walk around the reserve, leading you to a series of well-placed hides.
14. Croyland Abbey, Wellingborough
Backing onto the namesake gardens in the centre of Wellingborough is a building with roots going back to the 10th century.
Croyland Abbey is named after the monastery in Crowland, Lincolnshire, for which it was a monastic grange.
The manor house standing here now is 17th-century, with lots of Victorian alterations, while a remnant from the old monastic grange is the free-standing tithe barn next door, built from local ironstone in the 15th century and a standout piece of barn construction from the period.
Today the manor contains offices, while the tithe barn is rented out for events.
15. Nene Court
This independent retail park has a vibrant community of small businesses, counting design shops, handmade arts and crafts, fashion boutiques, a coffee roaster, a delicatessen, brewery shop, a haberdasher/craft shop, a jeweller, bridal company, beautician… to name a few.
Nene Court is a former Victorian gasworks, established by the Wellingborough Gas Light Co., later used as a hospital for soldiers in the First World War.
For when you get peckish, Nene Court has its own eatery at the Pump House Cafe.