Ashby de la Zouch, an historic market town at the centre of the National Forest, has many heritage assets including the Bath Grounds. This affords the town great opportunities for tourism, not currently fully exploited.
First documented in the Doomsday book, Ashby’s origins date to Anglo-Saxon times. Its market charter was granted in 1219. The early medieval core extends between lower Market Street, St Helen's parish church and the Castle. Having played an important role in Ashby’s medieval development, the Castle was damaged during the Civil War and is now conserved by English Heritage.
By the eighteenth century, Ashby’s strategic location as a principal transport hub, had attracted considerable wealth, and by the early nineteenth century Ashby was a highly successful market town.
Covering 6.2 hectares within the Town Centre conservation area and providing marvellous open vistas from the Royal Hotel and Rawdon Terrace in the west to the medieval castle in the east, the Bath Grounds provide Ashby's unique "countryside within the town" character. They derive their name from the Ivanhoe Baths, a neo-Grecian spa designed by Robert Chaplin and built by the 1st Marquis of Hastings in 1822. The spa was named after the locally-set Sir Walter Scott novel. The building boasted a 150 foot colonnaded front and a classical, lofty dome which lit an elegant saloon and pump room. It also featured card rooms, a billiard room and ladies and gentlemen’s private baths. The mineral water was transported to Ashby by boat and horse drawn tramway from a copious saline spring at Moira colliery, 4 miles away. The Bath Grounds, laid out as an area of fashionable ‘greensward’ for the benefit of visitors to the Baths, included a carriage drive and walks used for sedate and genteel recreation.
Ashby continued to prosper with the coming of the spa. A theatre was built in 1828, a race course in 1835 and the railway arrived in 1849. In 1888 the Baths were refurbished and the Bath Grounds “transformed” into superior “Pleasure Gardens” with well laid out walks, paths, drives and seating. By the turn of the century more formal recreation use was reflected in the establishment of tennis courts, a croquet lawn, a bowls green and use by the Ivanhoe Archery club and Deer’s Leap Gun Club. By 1926 the Grounds had become an established venue for hockey and cricket clubs, hosting County Cricket until 1964.
In tandem with formal development for sports, the Grounds became a focus for community activities, hosting Grand bazaars with huge marquees, Whit Monday Gala Fetes and the annual Flower and Agricultural Show. The Bank Holiday Fete held in June 1905 attracted some 7000 visitors.
A regular performer at these events was Dolly Shepherd, a “rather daring and impetuous girl” featured in the Guinness Book of Records. She made her first solo parachute descent from a balloon at the Bath Grounds. An embarrassing moment occurred when a gust of wind blew her off course into a barbed wire fence which ripped off her knickerbockers from waist to knee. She was rescued by a local ‘Sir Galahad’. Dolly died in Eastbourne in 1983, just 2 months before her 97th birthday.
The Royal Hotel was built in 1827 to accommodate the rapidly increasing visitor numbers to the spa. Today it is the focus of a cluster of elegant Grade II* listed buildings dating from the period including Rawdon Terrace, the former Midland railway station and the Loudoun Monument (1879). The Baths themselves were closed in March 1884, due to falling visitor numbers with the new preference for seaside resorts, and the building was demolished almost 80 years later. Remnants of the spa building remain visible within the Grounds, including stone fragments from the columns, pediments and cornices. There are also believed to be archaeological remnants of the castle’s ancient fish ponds at the eastern end.