The unpretentious Midlands town that rings bells around the world

Loughborough, UK
Loughborough has launched a new augmented reality trail which reveals the town’s heritage - Alamy

I don’t usually choose the full English breakfast. But at Holywell House I knew I should. And yes, it was a thing of beauty: thick rashers, fat sausage, bonny egg; coffee, milk and sugar in shiny silver pots. Lez and Derek’s Victorian pile was a proper B&B (a winner of Channel 4’s Four in a Bed, no less), channelling the flair of its thespian owners from every paint hue and knick-knack. Minimalist it wasn’t, fabulous it was.

Now, the world’s first package tour didn’t include accommodation, but if it had, Holywell could have been first choice. The B&B is right opposite Loughborough’s Southfields Park where, in July 1841, Thomas Cook brought his first ever organised group by train from Leicester – a modest ten-mile adventure. History was made.

But what can this Leicestershire town offer the tourist today? I’d come to find out. Lez and Derek had got things off to a good start. Then, while in Southfields Park, I picked up a visitor attraction of a more modern sort: Loughborough’s new augmented reality trail, which reveals the town’s heritage via 15 interactive boards. I scanned the board at the park – unsurprisingly, about Thomas Cook – and then followed my smartphone into town, zapping QR codes as I went.

There were a few teething issues but, after an hour or so, I’d learned about everything from Ladybird Books (founded here) to the hosiery industry (the reason for the town’s Sockman statue) and Loughborough Fair, held in November and one of the oldest and biggest travelling fairs in the country.

Sockman statue
The town’s Sockman statue is a nod to its hosiery industry - Sarah Baxter

However, I found my own way to the Generator, the Old Art College building. Thanks to immense volunteer effort and Town Deal funding, this 1930s icon is being turned into a creative hub. Volunteer Jonathan Hale gave me a sneak peek into the hall that once housed the college’s electricity generator, a cavernous, iron-beamed space that will be a quite brilliant arts venue when the project is done. The building’s cool café is already open, and was busy serving flat whites and sourdough to students and locals alike.

Thomas Cook and crew arrived via the Midland Railway, and a green plaque was unveiled at Loughborough Station last October to mark the event. However, more fun is Loughborough’s other line, the Great Central Railway. It was closed by Beeching in 1969 but the eight-mile section between Loughborough and Leicester North reopened from 1973, the UK’s only double-track mainline heritage railway, and the only one where two full-size steam engines pass.

Thomas Cook poster
Thomas Cook arrived in Loughborough via the Midland Railway - ullstein bild/Getty

Train driver Andy Fillingham let me hop up on the footplate, pointing out all the dials and whistles while I stared, transfixed, into the engine’s fiery maw; the stoker was up in the wagon behind, shovelling coal. What I liked best, though, was the attention to detail throughout: the station in Loughborough is restored to 1950s style; Quorn station is 1940s, Rothley 1912. (Lez had told me that, in his spare time, he plays George VI on railway heritage days.)

Volunteer Simon Bracewell took me to the café for a toasted teacake. “People dress up in their Sunday best to ride the lunch trains; others come to ride behind specific locomotives,” he explained. “It’s not just about the train ride, it’s the whole experience.”

In 2023 carriages were modified for wheelchair users. In March 2024, the whole line will be 125 years old, and celebrations are planned.

Loughborough train
'It’s not just about the train ride, it’s the whole experience' - Sarah Baxter

Even older, though, is Taylor’s, ten minutes up the road. Established in Loughborough in 1839, it’s the last bell foundry in the UK and the largest in the world. Bells made here ring out across the globe, from the 47 bells in Loughborough’s own Carillon Tower to 16-ton ‘Great Paul’ in St Paul’s to Asia’s heaviest peal in Singapore’s St Andrew’s Cathedral. Taylor’s has also secured Town Deal and National Lottery funding, which is helping restore the Grade II*-listed building and improve the site’s visitor experience.

Because, yes, almost unbelievably, you can take a tour of this working site – albeit carefully. The first instruction that guide Jim Crabtree gave was to “avoid touching anything: it could be hot, hard, wet, sharp…”

There were people on the tour from as close as ten miles away and as far as Chicago, the latter including a young bell-ringer inspired to come by the new ring of ten that Taylor’s fitted in Chicago University’s Mitchell Tower this summer. But even if you don’t know your Plain Bob from your Stedman Cinques, it’s still a fascinating place to visit.

We entered the foundry, which was quite literally in full swing. Overalled men were moving pulleys, jangling chains, carrying planks, creating sparks. The only thing separating us tourists from the workmen was common sense.

Loughborough foundry
Established in 1839, this is the last bell foundry in the UK and the largest in the world - Sarah Baxter

Jim talked us through everything, from the different bell metals to how inscriptions are pressed in; how, here, in 1963, all possible permutations on eight bells (40,320 in total) were rung, taking 17 hours and 58 minutes – a world record.

In the oldest part of the factory, seemingly a junkyard of sand and metal, we watched a man doing something to the inside of an upturned bell, working it with his hands, then forearms; soon he was half-swallowed, legs sticking up like something from a Bosch painting. “He’s starting to build up the loam inside the bell,” Jim explained. “A bell that size, it’ll take about a week to make the mould. It’s a Victorian process in a Victorian building. Nothing’s changed.”

What’s also not changed is the idea of bells uniting communities. While walking the foundry floor, we saw the freshly cast Hope Bell. In 2024 it will be installed in a memorial in the town’s Queen’s Park, remembering the victims of Covid. Another new reason to book a package to this oldest tourism pioneer.


Holywell House (01509 731894; has B&B doubles from £100pn.

For info on the Heritage Trail, see

The Great Central Railway (01509 632323; offers Day Runabout tickets from £23 adult/£12 child; check website for timetable.

Taylor’s Bell Foundry tours run on limited set dates and cost £12.50 adult/£10.50 concession/£8.50 child; pre-booking essential (01509 638500, Also see

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