Buried kings, historic houses and famous delicacies set the counties of Leicestershire and Rutland apart from the rest. Discover what these rural havens have to offer groups as we take a whistle-stop tour of these counties.

View of Normanton Church at Rutland Water Nature Reserve

View of Normanton Church at Rutland Water Nature Reserve

Its rolling hills are home to historic castles, palaces and halls, quaint market towns and picturesque farms and parkland, which is why visitors to the rural idyll offered by the neighbouring counties of Rutland and Leicestershire come back year after year. Improved rail links (with sleepy Market Harborough just an hour from London St Pancras, and Leicester to central London around an hour-and-a-quarter by train) have helped fuel visitor numbers to the region, and for groups the choice of attractions is many and varied. Where else in the UK can you hear tales of kings buried under car parks, hike around Britain’s largest man-made lake and watch World Champion Nurdlers in action (it’s a game that dates back to the Middle Ages, in case you were wondering).

Battle of Bosworth

The grave where King Richard III was discovered now forms part of the King Richard III Visitor Centre.

Both counties offer all this and more, and here’s just a taste of what’s on offer… BEWARE! KING UNDERFOOT Leicestershire’s capital city made the headlines world wide when a certain 15th century king was discovered buried beneath one of its car parks. The burial spot seemed a good idea at the time, after the unfortunate monarch was killed in the Battle of Bosworth and laid to rest in a friary church. There he lay forgotten for more than 500 years until a search – launched by Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester and the Richard III Society – found his body. King Richard’s since been reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, a far more fitting resting place, and groups can visit his tomb, with guided group tours available (find out more at leicestercathedral.org).

Family cycling at Rutland Water Nature Reserve

Family cycling at Rutland Water Nature Reserve

Using 21st century technology, the fascinating story of the King’s life and death is told, not to mention one of the greatest archaeological detective stories. The Visitor Centre includes a display of artefacts and material found in the search for the King. There’s also a gift shop, café and a seating area within the graveside memorial garden. www.kriii.com King Richard III wasn’t the only royal to be heavily associated with the county. The nearby Rockingham Castle near Market Harborough was often visited by medieval kings, and was actually owned by Henry VIII until it was passed to the Watson family, who’ve lived there for 450 years.

With a busy diary of group-friendly events throughout the year, visit www.rockinghamcastle.com for upcoming dates. A private tour of the castle and its gardens can be arranged on request. Call 01536 770240 to find out more. A THEATRE-GOER’S DREAM Both Leicestershire and Rutland have a thriving theatre scene, with Leicester’s Curve theatre the area’s best-known venue, see www.curveonline.co.uk. It plays host to the national tour of Sister Act next month, from July 30 to August 13, with upcoming shows including Footloose The Musical (from August 29 to September 3) and Grease (from November 26 to January 14, 2017).

Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle

Another of Leicester’s cultural gems is De Montford Hall (see demontfordhall.co.uk), with a strong 2016 line-up of music and comedy. While Rutland boasts Uppingham Theatre (see www.uppthearts.co.uk), and lends its name to the Rutland Open Air Theatre, which is actually in neighbouring Lincolnshire in the grounds of Tolethorpe Hall (see stamfordshakespeare.co.uk). LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL Cycling groups will love the off-road paths and trails that circle Britain’s largest manmade lake, Rutland Water, which is close to the town of Oakham and 25 miles around its perimeter (find out more at www.rutlandwater.org.uk).

Built in the 1970s, Rutland Water’s a drinking water reservoir that’s now home to a wetland nature reserve, managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. Visitors can bike, walk or sail, and the attraction’s popular with bird watchers, too. In fact, every August the attraction hosts the British Birdfair. This year’s event runs from August 19-21, with free parking and a free courtesy bus from Oakham train station to the Birdfair site at Egleton. See www.birdfair.org.uk And on the subject of birds, twitchers will also love Leicestershire’s unique Tropical Birdland attraction. Home to more than 250 birds, including a flock of free-flying parrots, the centre’s open year-round, and is based in Desford, seven miles west of Leicester. Find out more at www.tropicalbirdland.com

TIME TO TUCK IN Being largely rural, it will come as no surprise to learn that Leicestershire and Rutland are both important foodproducing counties. Leicestershire, in particular, is famous for its cheeses thanks to its rich pasture land – including, of course, the orange-hued Red Leicester, which was formerly known as Leicestershire Cheese and can be traced back to the 17th century. Many of the area’s specialities are celebrated in the annual Melton Mowbray Food Festival, which runs from October 1-2 (see www. meltonmowbrayfood festival.co.uk). Also known as The East Midlands Food Festival, it offers local delicacies, such as Melton Mowbray pork pies, alongside delicious treats from elsewhere in the UK. There’s a full programme of talks and demonstrations in the Festival Theatre (all free of charge), and coach parking is available on site for up to 50 coaches.

For more on this, and the driver offers available, call Matthew O’Callaghan on 07894 229499 or email matthewocall@gmail.com Melton Mowbray also plays host to an Artisan Cheese Fair every May, which has become the UK’s largest cheese fair, attracting thousands of visitors. The fair will return again next spring – see www. artisancheesefair.co.uk for details. Farmers’ markets are a huge draw for visitors to the area, with the best known being held in Oakham (once a month on the third Saturday of each month), Melton Mowbray (held every Tuesday and Friday), and Leicester (held on the first Thursday of every month).

Foodie fans will love the Artisan Cheese Fair at Melton Mowbray.

Foodie fans will love the Artisan Cheese Fair at Melton Mowbray.

FOR THE LOVE OF ANIMALS… Leicestershire may not be synonymous with big cats, but at Twycross Zoo leopards roam the countryside, together with elephants, giraffes, tapirs and more. The zoo specialises in primates, and is the only zoo in the UK where you can see all types of great ape. See its animal ensemble in full at twycrosszoo.org where you can book tickets and find out more about what’s on offer. A host of water-loving animals can be found at Rutland’s Bugtopia: The Zoo. Located on the shore of Rutland Water, it’s open every day from 10am to 4pm, costs just £5 to enter and is filled with dwarf crocodiles, lizards, insects and bugs. The small, family-owned attraction won an award in its first year for its hands-on and educational meet and greets. Find out more and plan your visit at www.bugtopia.co.uk ■