The castle at Ashby de la Zouch is maintained and curated by English Heritage. You’ll find a location map if you click here. The town is about 8 miles (14km) from the M1 in England, where the A42 meets the A511.
We’d been on a visit to Gateshead to celebrate a nephew’s acceptance at Durham University and were travelling home to the Forest of Dean. That’s a journey of about 270 miles, taking around 5 hours. These days, neither of us likes to travel more than 200 miles in a day, so we’d booked a night at a B&B in the town to break the journey. We chose Ashby de la Zouch as we’d never been and we’d discovered it houses an ancient castle.
Our walk from the hotel took us through the busy shopping area, where we discovered a great Italian restaurant for our evening meal. The castle is well sign-posted and we found it easily.
A Breton family, part of the horde of mercenaries who invaded England with William the Conqueror in 1066, built a manor, Aschebie, in 1086, near what was then a small settlement. Their surname, Le Zouch, now lives on through the town. In 1472, following the death of the last Le Zouch heir decades earlier, William, Lord Hastings (a supporter of Edward IV’s, rewarded for his loyalty by the royal gift of 4 or 5 estates) began converting the manor house into a castle, making the town an important political centre. His descendants occupied the buildings and enhanced their residence with gardens and parks. Local peasants were no doubt delighted at being denied access to 3,000 acres of previously open land, which the ‘nobles’ enclosed. This left the native folk with less fertile land to grow their food.
The castle, with its great tower constructed in the late 15th century, held a commanding position over the town for many years. However, a long siege during the Civil War culminated in the destruction of most of the buildings in 1648. Some of the great tower remains and can be climbed today by visitors.
The great tower is probably the most popular feature of the place. Much of it still stands. You can climb up to the top via 98 steps in the spiral staircase. It’s a demanding ascent, but worth the effort, as views from the top are pretty spectacular. We decided to climb up in one go and only stop at the various ‘floors’ on our way down. Although the rooms no longer exist, their entrances/exits are marked so the visitor can get a feel for what the place might’ve been like when complete. Certainly, for the residents, it was a place of luxury.
Signs of the original formal gardens and fishponds remain as distinct depressions in the otherwise flat field to the south of the buildings. The original kitchen is undergoing some restoration work and was therefore inaccessible during our visit, but we could walk around the outer walls easily enough.
The rest of the castle is now mostly made up of pleasant relics; lovely to wander around on a sunny afternoon. There’s peace, even tranquillity, in the grounds. On the day we visited, toward the end of the day’s open period, we were more or less alone. This was mid-August, so we felt ourselves lucky not to be among a crowd of other tourists.
There’s a small shop and information centre at the entrance, which is accessed via a pleasant walk along a gravel track. A small sign at the entrance details opening times for the year and lists entry charges. Make sure you check the website before you travel here, as opening is restricted during the quieter winter months. Outside the shop, a few goods are displayed. Some of these can be sampled on application to the women serving inside. They proved friendly and helpful, as is usual with properties under the stewardship of English Heritage.
The grounds are pleasant, with some grand old trees growing to provide shade on warmer days. Much of the original chapel still exists, without its roof, but is closed by locked gates. And there are a couple of smaller rooms still open to visitors. The rather intriguing tunnel leading from the great tower to the kitchen is also accessible. I ventured down, but a warning notice mentioned possible flooding and I stopped halfway along, as my town shoes were unsuitable for passing through standing water that would probably have reached above my ankles. It’s apparently generally dry except after substantial rain.
Parking is available on site for disabled visitors but there’s a separate car park only about 300 yards along South Street, within easy walking distance. There’s a single unisex toilet and a disabled toilet within the grounds. No café, but a vending machine offers hot drinks, and ice cream can be bought from the shop. While dogs are permitted, on a lead, pushchairs aren’t allowed inside the site. And please leave your drone at home! There’s plenty of space for picnics, and such activity is welcome.
We enjoyed our visit to this ancient monument and the stay made a relaxing break from our long journey home.