Visit to Ashby de la Zouch

Tour Leader: Ken Hillier

16 August 2022

You probably know Ashby de la Zouch for its fine main street or perhaps for its castle but here is more to the town that meets the eye, as members of the Society discovered during a visit in August.

We met at the impressive little museum, where Ken Hillier gave an accomplished summary of the town’s history.  The name Ashby implies that it was a Danish settlement.  The Zouch family, which originated from Brittany, supported the Norman invasion and became lords of the manor in about 1150.  Ashby remained an unimportant place until the 1460s, when Edward IV gave control of the Midlands to his friend William Hastings.  Hastings chose to make Ashby his headquarters and built a substantial castle on the site of the former manor house.  The newly important town developed in a distinctive manner, with shops and inns lining Market Street and long, narrow “burgage plots” extending back from them to North Street and South Street.  In the English Civil War, the Hastings family supported the King.  The castle was besieged by Parliamentary forces and eventually surrendered.  The defending force was allowed to leave honourably but the castle was slighted.

The Industrial Revolution largely passed the town by, with developments happening at Swadlincote and Coalville instead, but in about 1800 Ashby unexpectedly became a spa.  There was a brine spring at Moira but, because of nearby coal mines, no-one wanted to visit it there so instead the water was hauled to Ashby in tanks.  The Ivanhoe Baths were built, named after the popular novel by Walter Scott, which had just been published and was partly set in the area.  Although Thomas Cook’s second excursion was from Leicester to Ashby Spa, in the end it was the railways that put an end to the venture by making seaside holidays possible.  Eventually some industry did come to Ashby, including biscuit- and soap-making.  Many of the factory workers and their families were housed in narrow “courts” crammed into the old burgage plots.

Ken led us on a walking tour of the town, where we saw surviving examples of the courts as well as elegant terraces associated with the spa.  We also took detours to pass through the churchyard of St. Helen’s and to view the outside of the castle.  If you haven’t explored the town, it’s well worth the short trip.