Bradgate: a deer park for the common people
Any man with social ambition in medieval England wanted his own deer park. Put simply, a deer park was an enclosed area of land designed to keep the noble owner’s deer in and the common people out. Possessing a deer park was a very public proclamation of one’s wealth and privilege: royal permission (a “licence to empark”) was normally required to create one, and the process of enclosure through the digging of ditches, the raising of banks and the erection of palisades was massively expensive.
Deer parks facilitated the aristocratic pastime of hunting, thereby demonstrating the wealth of their owners. And, of course, where there were deer there was also venison. There was no legal way in which the common man could obtain and eat venison. Being able to dine on it and to invite your friends to share in this exclusive bounty was therefore another public declaration of one’s wealth and social status. Put simply, deer parks were the embodiment of medieval one-upmanship.
However, deer parks were about more than simply the deer and the social status that possessing them conferred. They also enabled the noble owner to supplement his diet through other extravagances, for example by maintaining fishponds and rabbit warrens. And he would never need to feel the cold in winter, with all those trees that he could harvest for fuel. There’s no question that a man who owned a deer park was someone to be reckoned with.
Although there were a few deer parks in Anglo-Saxon England, it was the Norman Conquest in 1066 that led to their proliferation. Deer parks quickly became a craze among the new nobility, and while the Domesday Book in 1086 only recorded 37, by around 1300 there may have been as many as 3,000. One of them was Bradgate Park.
Mrs P and I like to visit Bradgate Park at least once a year. It’s situated in the heart of England, close to Leicester in the county of Leicestershire. For readers unfamiliar with peculiarities of English pronunciation, these are pronounced “Lester” and “Lester-shire” respectively.
Bradgate Park was enclosed in 1241, and greatly extended in the late 15th century. It now covers an area of 340 hectares (850 acres) of rocky moorland clothed in coarse grass and bracken, and interspersed with several woodland spinneys.
Running through the park is the River Lin, the shortest river in Leicestershire. A picturesque cascade was created on the river during the Victorian period, to clear silt from the water before it emptied into the nearby Cropston reservoir.
A significant landmark within the park is the ruined Bradgate House, construction of which began in the 1490s and was largely complete by 1501. Brick was an expensive and high-status building material at this time, and its use here tells us that the commissioner of Bradgate House – Thomas Grey, first Marquis of Dorset – was a man of substance. He must have been relaxed about the state of the nation and his place within it, given that this was one of the first large houses to be built in England without fortifications.
The most famous resident of Bradgate House was Lady Jane Grey, grand-daughter of the first Marquis. She was brought up and lived there before her marriage to Lord Guildford Dudley in 1553, the year in which she became the “Nine Days Queen”. In February 1554, and still only a teenager, she and her husband lost their heads, victims of the religious and political factionalism that was rife at the time.
Despite the uproar around the supposed misdeeds of Lady Jane, the Greys retained ownership of Bradgate Park and House. With money to burn and too much time on their hands, in the 1780s the family commissioned the building of a Gothic-style folly on the highest point in the park.
During the 19th century Old John Tower was used as a lookout giving good views over a horse-racing practice circuit, laid out by the Greys’ descendant the seventh Earl of Stamford. It’s reassuring to note here yet another example of our great English aristocracy making good use of their wealth, rather than frittering it away on needless fripperies (in case you’re wondering, irony is alive and well at Platypus Towers!)
In fairness to the Grey family, they began allowing limited public access to Bradgate Park in the nineteenth century. In 1928 it was bought by a local philanthropist and given, as a plaque in the park describes, “to be preserved in its natural state for the quiet enjoyment of the people of Leicestershire”.
And enjoy it they most certainly do. Whenever Mrs P and I go there we’re struck by the number and variety of people who’ve also made the journey to Bradgate Park, including countless dog walkers, mums with babes in buggies and toddlers at their heels, power-walkers burning off the calories, and old fogeys like me who want nothing more than gentle stroll followed by a slab of cake at the park café. The peaceful surroundings, the deer and the birdlife make a perfect backdrop for such activities.
There are several hundred deer in the park. The most common, and most easily seen, are fallow deer. These are not native to the UK, but were introduced by William the Conqueror and his cronies. It seems that the Normans, not content with wiping out thousands of native Anglo-Saxons, felt the need to maintain their slaughtering skills by ensuring a regular supply of four-footed victims. But that was long ago, and today in Bradgate Park the fallow deer seem completely unconcerned by the presence of people, whom they tend to ignore.
Close views of fallow deer are easy. Indeed, they’re somewhat difficult to avoid when their chosen path takes them within a few metres of members of the public. These animals are particularly entertaining during the rutting season, when their hormones send them slightly crazy. The native British red deer can also be seen, but are less easy to find.
Bradgate Park is also home to a variety of bird species. We always have our binoculars to hand when we visit, and as well as the predictable favourites like the mute swans, less common birds put in an appearance from time to time, including green woodpeckers, ravens and even a red kite.
Free to enter and now run by the Bradgate Park Trust, the park is a superb resource for locals as well as visitors from further afield. It’s the perfect place to relax, chill out and unwind from the stresses of 21st century life. It may have started life as the private domain of a wealthy elite, but today Bradgate is very much a deer park for the common people.