Hello again! Last week, with some spare time available, I again ventured out into Leicestershire to tick another destination off of my ever-increasing list of beer excursions. On this occasion, I was hoping to explore a place that I'd never visited before and, truthfully, didn't really know much about, both historically and from a pub point of view. Join me now as I attempt to lift the veil of mystery that surrounded the town of Market Harborough.
Market Harborough is a market town in the Harborough district of Leicestershire, in the far southeast of the county, forming part of the border with Northamptonshire.
Market Harborough's population was 24,818 in 2019. It is the administrative headquarters of the larger Harborough District. The town was formerly at a crossroads for both road and rail; however, the A6 now bypasses the town to the east and the A14 which carries east-west traffic is 6 miles (9.7 km) to the south. Market Harborough railway station is served by East Midlands Railway services on the Midland Main Line with direct services north to Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield and south to London St Pancras. Rail services to Rugby and Peterborough ended in 1966.
Market Harborough was formerly part of Rockingham Forest, a royal hunting forest used by the medieval monarchs starting with William I, whose original boundaries stretched from Market Harborough through to Stamford and included Corby, Kettering, Desborough, Rothwell, Thrapston and Oundle.
The steeple of St Dionysius' Church rises directly from the street, as there is no churchyard. It was constructed in grey stone in 1300 with the church itself a later building of about 1470. Next to the church stands the Old Grammar School, a small timber building dating from 1614. The ground floor is open, creating a covered market area and there is a single room on the first floor. It has become a symbol of the town. The nearby square is largely pedestrianised and surrounded by buildings of varying styles. The upper end of the High Street is wide and contains mostly unspoiled Georgian buildings.
Market Harborough has two villages within its confines: Great Bowden lies over a hill about a mile from the town centre; Little Bowden is less than half a mile from the town centre. The three centres have largely coalesced through ribbon development and infill, although Great Bowden continues to retain a strong village identity.
Market Harborough was founded by the Saxons between 410 and 1066. Originally a small village, believed to have been called hæfera-beorg, (harborough) meaning "oat hill".
In 1086 the Domesday Book records Bowden as a Royal Manor organised in seventy-three manors. The population lived in three villages, Great Bowden, Arden and Little Bowden. The Manor of Harborough is first mentioned in 1199 and 1227 when it was called "Haverberg". It is likely that Harborough was formed out of the Royal Manor with the intention of making it a place for tradesmen and a market when a new highway between Oxendon and Kibworth was established to help link Northampton and Leicester. A chapel dedicated to St Dionysius was built on the route, whilst St Mary in Arden retained Parish Church status.
A market was established by 1204 and has been held on a Tuesday ever since 1221. Eventually this market lead to the modern name of Market Harborough. The trades people of Harborough had large tofts or farm yards at the rear of their property where goods were made and stored. Many of these yards remain but have been subdivided down their length over the years to give frontage to the High Street.
The steeple of Harborough Church was started in 1300 and completed in 1320. It is a broach spire, which rests on the walls of the tower, and are earlier than recessed spires which rise from behind a square tower as at Great Bowden. By 1382 the village of Arden had been abandoned, although the church remained in use for some years. In 1470 the main part of Harborough Church was completed. An open stream ran down the High Street. The Town Estate was created and managed by a body of Feoffees elected by the townspeople, to help manage among other things the open fields surrounding the town, the proceeds from which were used for a variety of purposes. In 1569 the town was briefly in the news as the Privy Council debated whether a local girl Agnes Bowker had given birth to a cat. From 1570 the Town Estate owned several properties within the town.
Harborough figured nationally in the English Civil War in June 1645, when it became the headquarters of the King's Army. In Harborough, the King decided to confront Parliamentary forces who were camped near Naseby but the Battle of Naseby proved a decisive victory for Parliament led by Oliver Cromwell. Harborough Chapel became a temporary prison for the captured forces. Cromwell wrote a letter from "Haverbrowe, June 14, 1645" to the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, announcing the victory.
An independent church was established in the Harborough area following the Act of Uniformity 1662 and a meeting house was built in Bowden Lane in 1694.
During the 18th century the timber mud and thatch buildings of the town were largely replaced with brick buildings. After roads were turnpiked and regularly repaired (making wheeled traffic easier all year round) Harborough became a staging point for coach travel on the road to London from the North West and the Midlands. In 1776 the Open Fields of Great Bowden were allotted to individual owners and fenced with hedges planted, followed by those of Little Bowden in 1780.
In the 19th century, the increasing level of heavy goods traffic on the turnpike roads led to complaints. A plan for a canal from Leicester to join the London to Birmingham canal was mooted but it eventually bypassed the town and a branch canal was cut from Foxton to Harborough with wharves at Gallow Hill, and Great Bowden. Harborough wharf, to the north of the town, became a distribution centre for coal and corn. A gas company was formed in 1833 to make and distribute gas. John Clarke and Sons of London built a factory for spinning worsted and later making carpets. Other industries developed were a brickworks, brewery, wheelwright/coachworks and the British Glues and Chemicals works by the Canal at Gallow Hill. In the 1830s a union of parishes around Market Harborough was formed to look after the poor and a workhouse was built in 1836 on the site of St Luke's Hospital. In 1841 Thomas Cook who was a wood turner and cabinet maker in the town organised the first group travel by rail from Leicester to Loughborough and went on to found the travel agency bearing his name.
Market Harborough became a centre for fox hunting with hounds during the 19th century when Mr Tailby of Skeffington Hall established a hunt in South East Leicestershire in 1856. The country between Billesdon and Harborough was considered severe, involving jumping the specially designed ox fences. His hunting diary is recognised as an important document in the history of hunting. The Hunt was renamed the Fernie after a subsequent Master.
The Grand National Hunt Steeple Chase was held to the south west of the town in 1860, 1861 and 1863. This race and the meeting eventually developed into the Cheltenham Festival and the organisers were part of the founding of organised steeplechasing through the Grand National Hunt Committee.
The building of the Leicester–Rugby railway in 1840 had a catastrophic effect on the coaching traffic through the town. A railway did not serve the town until 1850 with a link to Rugby but this was quickly followed by links to Leicester and London in 1857 and to Northampton in 1859.
In 1850, William Symington, a grocer in the town established a factory to make pea-flour. His brother James developed a haberdashery and stay making business and in 1876 his sons acquired the old carpet factory to make corsets. They expanded it by three additional floors in 1881 and then built a new factory opposite Church Square in 1884 which still remains today as the Council offices, library and museum. In the 1890s the Harborough Rubber Company and Looms Wooden Heels works were established. A tannery was built on land adjoining the Commons.
In 1898, Walter Haddon opened the Caxton Works type foundry on Lathkill Street. The company later diversified into the manufacture of lead acid batteries, changing its name to Tungstone Products. The factory was closed down in 2002.
There was a rapid expansion in the town's population from 4,400 in 1861 to 7,700 in 1901. This had been at the expense of living conditions with severe overcrowding in the old town. Rows of cottages had been built in the yards of older houses with shared access to water and waste disposal. The Public Health Act 1875 required local authorities to implement building regulations, or bye-laws, which insisted that each house should be self-contained, with its own sanitation and water. In 1883 a new system of sewers were laid and piped water supplied from wells at Husbands Bosworth. Additional residential areas were developed – the New Harborough estate off Coventry Road and the Northampton Road estate between Nithsdale Avenue and Caxton Street.
In 1888 Little Bowden parish was transferred from Northamptonshire to Leicestershire and following the Local Government Act of 1894, an Urban District Council was formed for Market Harborough, covering the town and the parishes of Little and Great Bowden. Various schemes were implemented to improve the town. It acquired the gas company and built a public baths. It acquired land for the construction of Abbey Street in 1901 which removed the multi occupied yard of the Coach and Horses Inn and enabled the building of a fire station on the new street in 1903. In the same year a new livestock market was opened between Springfield Street and the river on 12 acres (4.9 ha) of land, enabling the cattle and sheep markets to be cleared from the streets. In 1905 the council bought land at Great Bowden and Little Bowden for recreation grounds.
In 1919 there were still around 150 dwellings identified as unfit for human habitation mostly in the yards and courts of Harborough and there was an identified need for 300 new houses. Land to the north of the town was selected and a scheme for 98 homes for rent developed as the Bowden Fields Estate. Following the introduction of mortgage subsidy, over 100 private homes were built and a further development of 72 rented homes took place. By 1928 about 400 houses had been built since 1918, 164 by the Council. A major improvement took place from 1930 with the acquisition of land between Northampton Road and Farndon Road. This enabled the construction of Welland Park Road (which enabled east west traffic to bypass the town centre), provision of 100 homes for rent along Welland Park Road and 52 in Walcot Road to rehouse occupants of the old yard houses, plots for private housing, the layout of Welland Park and the construction of Welland Park School.
On October 23, 1936, the town hosted the members and entourage of the Jarrow Crusade.
A covered market hall was opened at the western end of the Cattlemarket in 1938, replacing the market stalls on the Square on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
The post-war period saw another shortage of housing and some 600 people on the waiting list for council housing. The council developed a 100 dwelling extension to the Bowden Fields Estate by 1949 and acquired 140 acres (0.57 km2) of land to the south west of the town to deal with the problem. A new Southern Estate was planned to accommodate 700 dwellings, shopping centre, school and recreation ground. The Council laid initial access roads named after personalities of the Battle of Naseby since these fields were crossed by both armies on 14 June 1645. A plaque now records the events and was unveiled by Mrs H.B. Lenthall on 1 February 1951 to mark the opening of the estate development. Around 150 dwellings were built for rent with the remaining plots available for private building. The final phase of development occurred in the 1980s.
In 1950 the canal basin was the venue for a week long National Festival of Boats, the first such festival organised by the Inland Waterways Association and marking the beginning of the revival of the canal network for leisure use. The old brewery site was acquired for a bus station in 1951 and in 1958 a main car park was opened at the Commons and further car parks established in the 1960s to deal with the increasing demand. Proposals for development of an industrial estate at Riverside and Rockingham Road were approved in 1962 and the area developed during the 1960s.
Following serious flooding in the town centre on 2 July 1958, a flood relief scheme was begun and the river bed was straightened and deepened.
In 1968 the centre of Market Harborough was declared a conservation area. Major developments included the development of headquarters for Golden Wonder crisp makers, and the demolition of the old Symington factory in Adam and Eve Street for redevelopment as Eden Court shops and flats.
During the 1970s, draft proposals were made for an inner relief road to avoid traffic congestion in the town centre. However, it was rejected in favour of a bypass outside the town.
In 1980 the Symington's factory at Church Square was redeveloped as the District Council offices, library and museum. Plans for an A6 by-pass were approved by the Department for Transport during the 1980s and the 5 miles (8.0 km) road costing £9.5m was opened in June 1992. In addition, proposals were made for a new east-west link road (A14) between the A1 and M1 and a route was identified 10 miles (16 km) south. It was opened in summer 1991. The opening of these roads has reduced considerably the volume of heavy goods vehicles passing through the town centre.
Associated improvements to the town centre took place as part of a "By-pass Demonstration Project" completed in 1994. This involved comprehensive re-paving and new street furniture to make the centre more pedestrian friendly whilst through-traffic with a 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limit.
In 1993 the former cattle market, bus station, indoor market and several properties next to the old post office and the former Peacock Hotel were re-developed to form a new pedestrianised shopping centre called St Mary's Place. This included a Sainsbury's supermarket.
One of the town's most notable features is an unusual former grammar school located in the town centre which stands on wooden stilts. The school room had to be built upon posts to allow the butter market to be held on the ground floor. The school was founded in 1607 and built in 1614, through the generosity of Robert Smyth, a poor native of the town who became Comptroller of the Lord Mayor's Court of the City of London and member of the Merchant Taylors' Company.
The subjects taught were Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and many boys were sent to Oxford and Cambridge universities. The most distinguished of these was John Moore, who became Bishop of Norwich in 1691, and Bishop of Ely in 1707 and also William Henry Bragg, Nobel Prize winner. This is commemorated by a plaque inside the old schoolroom.
The grammar school has since moved sites and is now the Robert Smyth Academy for 11- to 18-year-olds. The school badge is the arms of the City of London. The school is divided into houses one of which is named "Bragg".
As can be seen from the above, Market Harborough holds more history than one would assume at first glance and I was hopeful that this would be reflected in its pubs. I had chosen the timing of my trip well. It being a Tuesday, I was confident that the pubs and, most importantly, my train would be less busy, and the following day had been scheduled for a national rail strike which would have led to all sorts of issues had I been travelling 24 hours later. Armed with a list of pubs, and accompanied by warm weather, I set about beginning my explorations. I arrived in the town just after midday, which always seems to be a useful arrival time. Heading out of the train station, I immediately sought out the quickest route to my first location. I'd heard tell of a shortcut through a supermarket car park that would lead me directly to it but, for some reason, I was unable to locate this so settled for the long way round. Taking a left out of the station, I walked down the main road and then took a right. Following this road on for a few minutes, I reached a T junction where I again turned right, onto Kettering Road, which took me into the Little Bowden village area of the town and brought me in sight of my first stop. My day in Market Harborough would properly begin at The Oat Hill.
Named for the Saxon name of the town, the pub was built in 1936 as the Greyhound, replacing a 300-year old inn that previously stood on the site. The original Georgian-style exterior is now brick painted and the pub was formerly under the ownership of Grand Metropolitan (Watney-Mann). Internally, the pub has been completely modernised. On the right is a comfortable lounge area with sofas, armchairs and banquette seating as well as low, marble-topped tables. A more formal restaurant space is to the rear and there is also a side patio and a large garden which hosts occasional live music and theatre. Unobtrusive background music is played. The bar is central to both areas and curves in a backwards J-shape. The bar itself includes 2 hand pulls, both of which happen to be in use when I wander in, slightly out of breath, after my walk. The options are between Timothy Taylor Landlord and Sharp's Doom Bar. Despite its now ubiquity, I still think that Landlord is a cracking beer and, when put up against an even more ubiquitous, but less well brewed (since the switch to Molson Coors), rival, there really is no contest. I take my pint of Landlord to one of the marble tables and sink down onto the banquette as I refresh myself. I was right to start my day with this beer. It's very well kept and does a great job of both revitalising and readying me for the rest of the day.
In an ideal world, I would have had literally yards to go before reaching my next destination but so much for best laid plans. The next pub on my list was due to be the The Cherry Tree which sits exactly opposite the Oat Hill, over Kettering Road, however a sign on the door politely informed me that they don't open until 5pm on a Tuesday although they did previously open 12-2.30pm as well. However, things change and so, putting a positive spin on things, I began the wander to my intended next stop. My walk took me around the edge of the central shopping precinct and along the bank of the River Welland before crossing this slightly further along. Heading further away from the town centre, I turned right, passed the Catholic church and then turned left, heading slightly uphill to where the next pub is located. In amongst a row of houses sits the Admiral Nelson and this is where I was intending to visit next. This, however, was also closed and appeared to not open until later in the day. I made sure to check the pub opening hours online before I arranged the trip so it's a bit frustrating when these aren't kept up to date. Luckily, all was not lost. On my way to the Admiral Nelson, I'd passed my next destination and it was definitely open. A few yards back down the hill is the Three Swans Hotel.
A Grade II* listed building, the Three Swans dates back to the early 16th century when it operated as a coaching inn known as 'Ye Sygne of Swanne'. The coaching era of the 17th and 18th centuries ensured that trade was particularly vibrant during this period, when it was owned and operated by a local landowner who became a partner in the company that ran the Manchester to London coach service. The present frontage of the building is believed to have been built during this period. During this time, the name became The Swans and then, soon after, the Three Swans. This change is believed to be a reflection of the ornate sign that is fixed to the front of the building today and which is considered to be one of the finest examples of craft wrought ironwork in England. Featuring cut-out style figures, the sign would likely have originally been mounted on a freestanding post and a horizontal supporting bar, reflective of the Georgian era in which the inn was rebuilt. However, these styles of sign were banned in 1797 and so the amalgamated current version remains. Christian VII of Denmark had lunch here in 1768 and the Court Leet was still held here occasionally throughout the 19th century. In 1934, the infamous innkeeper John Fothergill acquired the premises. He is best known as author of the book An Innkeeper's Diary which chronicled his previous experiences in the hotel trade in the south. During his 18 years of tenancy at the Three Swans, he published a cookbook and an autobiography. His reputation as a highly intellectual and creative eccentric was characterised by his shunning of guests who didn't appreciate his style of service.
As I was soon to find out, the hotel can be accessed from both front and rear. I entered into the rear courtyard, through the car park, which leads to a well-appointed, comfortable eating and drinking space with ornate fountains and greenery. The conservatory restaurant is to one side and the other is part of the hotel accommodation and also features an outside, stone-built pizza oven. Not seeing any obvious access to the public bar, I left the way I came in, turned right and then right again, where I came out onto the main high street. The main frontage of the hotel, with its iconic aforementioned sign, overlooks an oddly picturesque, and clearly quite historic, cluster of buildings. It also turned out that I could have ended up in the same place if I'd just walked directly through the courtyard but I was here now and that's what mattered. Internally, the public bar is to the front with another, named after John Fothergill, located to the rear. Original features have been kept in situ in the older part of the building with bric-a-brac and old photos of the building and the town adding to the atmosphere throughout. The public bar area consists of traditional banquette and wooden seating with scrubbed wooden tables, some of which look out through the front windows onto the street. To the rear is a larger area, accessed down a small flight of steps, beyond which a large staircase leads to both the customer toilets and the hotel rooms above. The bar is fairly small and located in one corner of the room, serving both areas. My heart leaped when I immediately noticed the bank of 3 hand pumps sitting pride of place. I was even more pleased to spot local beer from the area amongst the choices. My options for what was somehow only my second beer of the day were Langton Inclined Plane, Fuller's London Pride and Langton Top Lock. I can confess to never having had the opportunity to try Langton's beer until this very moment. It seemed rude not to sample the local produce. I opted for the Inclined Plane (4.2%), served to me by the very friendly and amiable Scottish lady behind the bar, and took a seat at a small table immediately opposite. Langton Brewery have been brewing just outside the town since 1999 and their beers are named after local landmarks. In this case, Inclined Plane is named a canal boat lift that operated at Foxton Locks in the 1900s. The beer is amber in colour with a light floral finish and a distinct citrus hop flavour that comes from the late addition of Amarillo hops. It's easy to see why the beer has won multiple awards as it's bloody delicious!
It was easy to get absorbed into the history of the Three Swans Hotel. It's certainly an historic and atmospheric building that has witnessed much over the course of its near 500 year existence. There is evidence that some of this has indelibly leaked into the structure. Strange things have been reported here by staff and guests alike. Cold spots have been reported in the halls and staff often report the sensation of being watched. Dogs have been known to refuse to enter certain rooms and bark at thin air for no obvious reason. In the hotel rooms, items have been seen to move of their own accord and fly through the air, as if propelled by unseen hands. Shadowy figures have been spotted walking along corridors and one guest, bathing alone, was handed a sponge as if from nowhere. A lady, whilst having a bath, reported that the water around her parted 'like the Red Sea' which, to be honest, would be rather alarming. Former landlord John Fothergill is thought to be the likely culprit. His strong, creative personality has clearly not deserted him in the next world! A portrait of him hangs in the hotel and rumour has it that disaster occurs, in the form of storms and fires, if this is moved. Might be best to leave it where it is in that case! If these stories harbour even a grain of truth, old John doesn't appear to be willing to give up his time here any time soon!
It was, unfortunately, time for my time in this place to end as tempting as it was to enjoy another pint. Following a quick food break it was time to continue. The shape and design of Market Harborough's high street means that a lot of the buildings are very close to each other. The same goes for the trio of pubs that I had earmarked for my next few stops. These all sit adjacent to each other in a sort of loose triangle, almost opposite the Three Swans, with the old town hall separating them from the hotel. The first of these pubs runs parallel to Church Street. This is the Kings Head and that was where I headed next but, lo and behold, it was also closed. I can only assume that it would also open later in the day. Luckily, it's near neighbour (pun intended) was open. Time now for the Nags Head.
Unashamedly a drinkers pub, the Nags Head essentially consists of one room, with a central U-shaped bar. There are entrances on both Church Street and the adjacent side road. The pub features a pool table, several dart boards and lots of televisions, usually showing live sport. A beer garden is to the rear as is a corridor that hosts the toilets. The bar features 2 hand pulls which, on this occasion offered a choice of Marston's Pedigree and Doom Bar. I once again eschewed the Doom Bar in favour of the Pedigree and tucked myself away around the corner from the bar at a table next to the pool table. The furniture is largely scrubbed wooden tables and the decor is largely traditional with lots of adverts for upcoming events and drinks offers. In general, the Nags Head reminds me a little bit of the Snibstone New Inn in Coalville, both in terms of atmosphere and general feel. It's not a criticism, just an observation. The Pedigree was also very well kept, another point of similarity between the two venues. Thus far, this had been the busiest pub of the day but it was approaching mid-afternoon so that probably wasn't too surprising.
Had things gone according to plan, my next stop would have been exactly opposite at The Red Cow. This though was also closed. A couple of workmen out the front were up a ladder doing something to sign above the entrance so I suspect that this work may have delayed things from the norm, at least in this case. This meant that, there was only one more pub remaining of the ones I'd listed for the day. Reaching the end of Church Street, I turned left onto Church Square, passing the church and old grammar school on the left. Turning left onto Adam & Eve Street, I followed this until I reached the junction with St. Mary's Road where I again turned left, which led me back in the direction of the train station. A few yards down the road, on the left as I was facing it, is The Freemasons Arms.