Walk 152: Bradgate Park & Swithland Wood Circular

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 4.96 miles (7.98 km)

Time to walk: It’s impossible to set a time limit on this walk as there’s lots of paths to wander on & explore, or just sit & take in the magnificent views. You could easily spend a full day here. With stopping etc the 5 miles took us 3.5 hours

Difficulty: A mixture of field, woodland, hard surface & rugged terrain – a bit of everything really. All of the stiles have been replaced with kissing gates. If you wish to walk to the top of ‘Old John’, this is quite a hill, but there are several routes to choose

Parking: There are several Pay & Display car parks around Bradgate. To do this walk we parked in the quiet Halls Gate car park by the reservoir (Sat Nav LE7 7HQ). The ticket machines take cards & cash. During the week, a full day costs £4.50

Public toilets: Several toilets near the car parks & at the Visitor Centre

Map of the route:

This was the first time we’d been to Bradgate Park, but it won’t be our last. As well as the Park itself we wanted to combine it with a walk through Swithland Wood. Situated north-west of Leicester in Charnwood Forest, Bradgate Park is Leicestershire’s largest country park, covering 850 acres of heath, bracken rocky outcrops & a herd of around 550 red & fallow deer, which have been here since medieval times & are free to roam. Some of the ancient oaks in the park are over 500 years old

We’ll look at the various landmarks in more detail as we walk through the park

Let’s Walk

1. As mentioned, we parked in Halls Gate car park. It’s possible to enter Bradgate Park directly from the car park, which can be seen over the magnificent stone walls that run throughout the park…

The route we’re taking today means that Bradgate will have to wait a while. Exit the car park back to the road & turn left…

…following the verge as it bends past Horseshoe Cottage

2. Just after the cottage, cross to the right side of the road where there’s a kissing gate…

Before going into the meadow look down the drive of the house to see if you can spot the giraffe!

3. Pass through the gate into the meadow. The path goes diagonally left towards the wood (you should see where the grass has been trodden)…

There were some bullocks in this meadow, but they were far too interested in the fresh grass to worry about us

4. Pass through another kissing gate to arrive in Swithland Wood…

Swithland Wood covers 217 acres & dates back to the Cambrian period which began around 541 million years ago. The wood is Leicestershire’s most important ancient woodland for nature conservation. Quarries within the wood were a source of the distinctive Swithland Slate roofs found on many local buildings as well as the slate gravestones common in Leicestershire churchyards

Swithland Wood has been a public woodland since 1925, upon its acquisition by the Leicester Rotary Club & since 1931 has been managed by the Bradgate Park & Swithland Wood Trust

5. Turn right & follow the beautiful stream…

We did this walk in May 2021 when the woods were full of bluebells. It really was stunning

6. At the footpath sign continue straight ahead…

The path was quite muddy in places along this stretch, but it soon opens up slightly. Eventually it turns left & starts to head up a slight rise…

If you look to your right you’ll see you’re following a field edge. The trees are magnificent…

7. Shortly the uphill path arrives at another signpost which is actually a crossroads of paths…

Our route is straight ahead, following the red marker on the post, passing through the trees in the picture below

8. The track now bends slightly left & begins to climb once more…

…heading towards another marker post with a slate marker beside it. Look out for another small slate marker on the right, but ignore it

9. This is another crossroads of paths in the wood. The route lies straight ahead to the tree in the above picture & then diagonally left up the hill again

At the top is another crossroads with a marker. This time walk straight ahead up the very small track to arrive at a wooden fence

10. Now turn right, with the fence on your left & have a read of the notice board…

The information board tells you that behind the fencing is Swithland Great Pit – have a peep through the fence.

Swithland Slate has been mined here for many, many years. Indeed it provided traditional local roofing material in Roman times. Swithland Wood was quarried for many centuries for small-scale slate production. Many of the 24 small pits in Swithland Wood may relate to early slate quarrying. Unlike the management of the woodland, the quarries were leased to local quarrymen. Two industrial scale quarries developed within the woods, one in the ‘Great Pit’ here in the centre of the woods, & the other near the road at the northern end. Similar scales of activity also developed on the other side of Swithland Road, in The Brand, where four more water-filled pits remain

By the mid-19th century slate in the Great Pit was being extracted from a depth of more than 180 ft. Notable buildings on which the slates were used included the Midland Railway’s London terminus at St Pancras railway station. Headstones for graves have been made from Swithland Slate since the 17th century & are found in graveyards throughout Leicestershire & in neighbouring counties, especially Nottinghamshire. They could be engraved with detailed letterings & patterns, which prove to be much more durable than on many other types of stone. Other uses included kerbstones, windowsills & sinks

Quarrying in the northern pit ended in 1838, & then in 1887 the Great Pit ceased production. Both pits now have deep water & are fenced off for safety reasons. The Great Pit is used occasionally for scuba diving

11. Walk up the side of the fence &, at the path, turn right & walk past the bench straight into the trees again…

…to arrive at another junction with a litter bin

12. Now turn left & walk up the slope passing another marker post…

As you continue you’ll see Swithland Woods Farm Holiday Camp over the stone wall on your right

13. At the fork, take the right hand path…

Lots of paths come in from the sides etc now, but it’s impossible to go wrong. Just keep heading straight to descend the hill, crossing a small bridge & arriving at a clearing with a wonderful, running stream

This is one of those places to just stop & chill…Click on the video below

14. Keep to the right of the stream & bear right to the gap in the wall to exit the wood

15. It’s time now to go & visit Bradgate Park so cross the road & walk up the track through the gate. Ahead of you can be seen ‘Old John’ – we’ll be going up there!

Continue to the end of the track. If you wish to just explore then go through the gate into the Park & away you go…

16. We’re going to wait a while & turn right up the track keeping the wall on your left…

Keep looking out for the holes in the bottom of the wall that have been left so wildlife can pass through. The track climbs steadily so don’t forget to keep stopping to have a look at the views that are appearing behind you

17. Pass through the gate & keep going up the hill…

After going through the next gate you’ll notice some quite manicured gardens on the right. These belong to a large, gorgeous house which can be seen from ‘Old John’

There’s one final gate to pass through to arrive at our entrance to the Park. If you need the toilet there’s one behind you in the woods

18. Enter the Park & ahead of you now is ‘Old John’. Given that we’ve already gained height from the bottom gate, the climb isn’t as lengthy from here. ‘Old John’ is the highest hill in the Park & is named after the folly that stands at its top. The hill stands at 696 ft high

As you can see there’s several paths to the top – we just went straight for it!

The earliest recorded use of the name ‘Old John’ is on a map of 1754, which records a windmill on the site, some 30 years before the tower was built. The tower itself began life as a ruined folly, built in 1784, during the time of George Grey, 5th Earl of Stamford. It was adapted in the mid 19th century by the 7th Earl to serve as an observation tower for the practice circuit he laid out for his horses, along with the building of a stable block lower down the hill

It is well known for its “mug-shape.” There was a longer section of wall adjoining the tower after the 19th century extension, but this reduced in size over the years leaving the present ‘handle’ shape

The romanticised version of the folly’s origins goes back to 1786 when the 5th Earl of Stamford threw a coming-of-age party for the 21st birthday of his son & heir George

As part of the celebrations, the Earl had a huge bonfire lit on the highest point of Bradgate Park. The bonfire got out of control & set alight the windmill which had stood on the summit of the hill since the 1740s. The windmill collapsed, killing the miller. Another version of the story simply says that the man was an estate worker

The Earl was filled with remorse & had a Gothic tower built on the site of the mill to honour the miller, whose name was John. The miller was known to have a fondness for drink, so the Earl added an archway to one side of the tower to make it resemble a tankard with a handle when seen from a distance

 In the past it has also been used as a meeting place for hunters with their fox hounds, & a luncheon house for shooting parties in the park, prior to the park being donated for public use in 1928. Internally, the tower retains a number of 19th century fittings, including timber floors, slate fireplaces, shuttered windows & a castellated roof. A narrow spiral staircase gives access to the upper floor, & is open to visitors on the park’s guided walk programmes

19. We had lunch beside the tower because the views are incredible…

Have a good look at the Toposcope which points out that, on a clear day, you can see Nottingham Castle. Remember walking past the grounds of that large house in the picture below?

20. Suitably refreshed, our route now takes us off the summit & down through the gap in the wall just below it…

Walk through the attractive wooded area…

…& exit through the gap on the other side to arrive at the war memorial

21. Standing 696 feet high this is the Leicestershire Yeomanry War Memorial, which was built around 1920 to commemorate the fallen of the Leicestershire Yeomanry from their 1900-1902 Boer War campaign & World War I

A further memorial plaque was added after World War II. An annual wreath laying ceremony is held at the War Memorial around the anniversary of the Battle of Frezenberg, which was fought near Ypres in France on 13 May 1915

22. The view from here in all directions is amazing! Our route continues down to a rocky outcrop by a bench… 

…where you may wish to sit for a while & spot the deer. In the distance you can also make out the ruins of Bradgate House which we’ll come across shortly

23. Continue down the path straight ahead, just to the right of the bench, towards the left edge of the copse in the picture below…

There were some impressive young stags watching us, watching them as we made our way down the hill

24. On reaching the wood, follow the wall as it bends around to the right…

Continue around to meet a path that bears left down the hill towards the solitary tree

25. Just before you reach the tree bear right down towards the gap in the wall…

When you get down to the wall you have to cross a small stream – easy in May, but it might be interesting in winter!

26. Pass through the gap & bear diagonally left towards the end of Bradgate House

The house is believed to have been the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey who became Queen, ruling for a mere 9 days before being overthrown by Mary I

The first Bradgate House was built by Thomas Grey, 2nd marquis of Dorset who completed it circa 1520. This is one of the first unfortified great houses in England & one of the earliest post-Roman use of bricks. It was lived in by the Grey family for the next 220 years

After Jane & her father were executed in 1554, the estate passed to the crown. Local history claims that groundskeepers marked the occasion of Jane’s execution by pollarding the estate’s oak trees in a symbolic beheading. Examples of pollarded oaks can still be seen in the park

In 1563 the family regained favour, & the Groby manor, including Bradgate, was restored to Jane’s Uncle, Lord John Grey of Pirgo. Sometime after 1739 they moved out of Bradgate, which began a long decline. Today all that’s left are the ruins we see before us

27. On arriving at the hard track turn left & walk past the other side of the house. You can see the Chapel’s still intact…

Follow the road past lots more deer, passing the Visitor Centre

28. The road is now going to follow Cropston Reservoir all the way back to the car park….

We found this last part along the road quite boring, but were short of time. There is an opportunity to dive back into the grassland & pick up one of those paths back

See the map below. You could turn left on the path from the Tearoom / WC & then take the right path at the junction all the way back 

Either way, both paths arrive back at the car park where this walk started…

So that’s it…after waiting a long time to travel, I finally made it to Bradgate Park & yes, it was everything I hoped it would be

This walk, like all of them, is only intended to be a guide, as Bradgate is a place built for just wandering & you could simply spend a whole day in the Park

However don’t forget to visit Swithland Wood or you’ll be missing a gem!

Go Walk!