Travel: Science, nature and luxury in Leicestershire
It's now the last resting place of Richard III, but Leicestershire offers visitors science and nature as well as history, says Steve Bambridge.
Come back towards the end of the day and you might be lucky and see them, we were told. And luck was on our side. After a long, long wait and numerous coffees in Twycross Zoo’s huge cafe, patience was rewarded when out popped the star attractions... two baby snow leopards.
The zoo has cunningly situated the cats’ enclosure alongside the cafe, with an expansive glass viewing area.
The two endearing twin females were born in April, and when we went they and mum Irma seldom ventured out from their den, unseen by the public. Maybe they didn’t like the cafe crowds.
But we and the few stragglers who remained just before closing time saw a twitch of a tail, and then the little bundles of fur emerge. It was wonderful to see them playing, exploring, even coming up to the glass for a nosey.
Equally enchanting were the two orangutan babies, and a newborn white-cheeked gibbon. If you’re a fan, the Leicestershire zoo is the only place in the UK where you can see all four types of great ape – gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan and bonobo.
There was much more besides, to fill a whole day during a mini break we took in the county. Graceful elephants collecting mud and dust with their trunks to throw over themselves, comical penguins snatching each other’s fish at feeding time, Amur leopards lazing in the sun, and dazzling rainbow lorikeets swooping down in their large walk-through exhibit to take the nectar from pots in your hands.
The base for the first part of our East Midlands meanderings was the Sketchley Grange country house hotel, at Hinckley, just off the M69. Navigating the maze of corridors wasn’t easy at first, but it was worth it to eventually find the spa and health club, called Romans.
Its relaxed surrounds, with Romanesque columns and decor, feature a sauna and steam room, as well as pool and Jacuzzi, and plenty of loungers.
The hotel is set amid countryside that offers good walking and cycling, and is handy for the Midlands cities and airports. Our room was probably the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – the bed was enormous – and its contemporary furniture and facilities made it an ideal relaxing bolthole.
It was just a 10-mile or so jaunt to the outskirts of Leicester, and the National Space Centre. Outside, it’s a little bit unpromising. Inside, it’s a mind-boggling feast of facts and exhibits.
Whether you’re a fan of such things or not, there’s something that will grab you... be it the huge domed planetarium, or moon rock, or a space shuttle loo, or a re-creation of a 1969 living room as the first moon landing flickered onto primitive TV screens.
I thought the centre would be aimed at kids. Wrong ! There is plenty for the little ones, from trying on space suits to parachuting eggs. But for adults and teens there’s information galore, about rockets, shuttles, alien searches, astronauts, planets... a space and science smorgasbord.
Just through the entrance there’s a Soyuz module – one of only three in the West – above your head, and the Rocket Tower is a 42-metre climb (or take the lift) alongside two enormous relics from the Space Age. It’s a wondrous museum, and filled another day of an all-too-brief mini break.
With all that nature and science, our final stop was pure luxury, and a great way to round things off.
Ragdale Hall, in sedate countryside near Melton Mowbray, has a list of awards as long as your arm. It’s not hard to see why. The setting and surroundings are beautiful, the building itself sumptuous, but it’s the 460+ staff and their attention to detail that sets it apart.
On arrival, our car was valet parked, luggage taken care of and – no queuing at reception here – we were led through to the garden room bar for a drink and personalised check-in.
From then on it was pure luxury. We were on a one-night Overnight Reviver Break – “Twenty eight hours of quality relaxation”, as advertised. It included a face and back therapy, dinner, breakfast and lunch, and use of all facilities.
And what facilities – from the outdoor pool and croquet to the “mind gym” an array of activities, classes and treatments are on offer. At the centre of it all is the Thermal Spa Experience, which is pamper-central – everything from a colour flow cave and volcanic salt bath, to “experience showers” (press a button and you get thunder and rain!) and a Thought Zone.
When thoughts turned to food, I enjoyed the most gorgeous steak in the vast dining room; although it was odd at first to find half the diners fully dressed, half in the supplied bathrobes. And I was the only man in sight – 90 per cent of guests are women (the place opened in 1973 as a slimming hydro).
A huge history timeline board tells you that in the Eighties the buzzword was “stress” and Ragdale “became a haven away from everyday life” – and certainly nothing has changed in that respect.
Sketchley Grange: call 01455 251133, sketchleygrangehotel.co.uk
Ragdale Hall: call 01664 434831, ragdalehall.co.uk - Christmas vouchers now available