Tuesday 12 March 2024

The Leicester Square

I've always had a sneaking fondness for Leicester, mainly on the grounds that it makes itself very difficult to pronounce.  I imagine them deciding to be called Lester, then realising Americans could probably say that, so they shoved in a whole invisible syllable ice so that British people could feel superior every time a foreigner asked for directions.  "Lie-chester?  Never heard of it.  Oh, you mean Leicester?"

The closest I'd ever been to visiting, however, was a rather miserable day in the gooch period between Christmas and New Year, when the trains were their customary hilarious self and I'd been forced to work my way back up north via a change from the Midland Main Line.  All I remembered of the city was that it felt like I was in a canyon between high walls, but I was in a foul mood and wanted to get home so it wasn't exactly fair.  Now I was properly in the city and ready to take it all in.

What I discovered was another of those gems that people don't talk about, for some reason.  I'm not saying Leicester is the new Milan or Monte Carlo, but it was a good, interesting place to visit with plenty of attractions and good buildings.

Its most famous resident now is Richard III, or to give him his full title, Richard III Who Was Found In A Car Park.  Leicester's gone a bit overboard with the Richard III tie ins.  I know he's got his own Shakespeare play, so he's a bit more famous than, say, William II.  None the less, I can't help thinking that if your grave goes missing for six hundred years it might be because people can't be bothered looking for it.  Richard's had a re-evaluation in recent times, with the conclusion generally being that he wasn't a hunchback and wasn't evil and Shakespeare most likely smeared his reputation to kiss up to his Tudor masters.  His reputation has certainly been laundered enough to enable Leicester to build a King Richard III Visitor Centre without anyone muttering about the Princes In The Tower.

I decided to give the visitor centre a pass (eleven pound fifty) and instead headed to the Cathedral, where Dickie's tomb is a simple and attractive centrepiece.  There was a bit of a tussle over who got to keep his desiccated remains, with York arguing that Richard Of York perhaps belonged to them, and some people saying Westminster Abbey was where Kings should rest, and others quietly pointing out that Richard III died in 1485 and was therefore a Catholic so perhaps burying him on Protestant territory was a bit off?  

Leicester won, which is lucky for them, because I'm not sure I'd have bothered visiting the cathedral otherwise.  Perhaps it's because I'd just spent a day being overwhelmed by Lichfield Cathedral.  Perhaps it's because I've spent most of my life living in the shadow of not one, but two, awe-inspiring cathedrals.  Leicester Cathedral was a parish church that got elevated with its own diocese in the Twenties and never really got any more inspiring after that.

Incidentally, I've just realised that I wrote the Twenties assuming that everyone who reads it will know I meant the 1920s, even though I'm sat here writing it in the 2020s.  Time is cruel.

It's a nice enough church, don't get me wrong, but "cathedral" writes a cheque it can't quite cash.  Once I'd seen Richard III's remains and done a circuit of the walls barely five minutes had passed.  I took a seat and listened to the service that was being broadcast over the loudspeakers, to show willing and to eke out a bit more time, but then the woman leading the prayers asked us all to pray for the King to reign wisely over us and I went off the idea and left.

This is not to say that Leicester is short of architectural gems.  Wandering around I was struck by how diverse it was, as befits a city with thousands of years of history.  Wide Victorian shopping streets were alongside Medieval runs; routes would open out into civic squares or meet in expansive crossings.  Newer buildings had been inserted with varying degrees of success.  Personally I love the way the clock tower is backed by the huge Brutalist bulk of the Haymarket Shopping Centre, but I understand I'm probably in the minority about this.

I found myself turning corners and being struck by a new angle or building.  The Turkey Cafe, for example, which I stumbled across, and whose quirky insanity made me grin.

Or the City Hall, an absolutely astonishing piece of Art Deco beauty, which looks like a piece of Gotham dropped into the East Midlands.  It stopped me in my tracks, it was so elegant and charming, and I wondered why I'd not heard of it.  A building like that should be celebrated widely.

The 21st century also hasn't been too bad for the city.  Leicester is clearly in the process of a building boom with large apartment blocks springing up on the edges.  Industrial works are being replaced by angular shards of glass and cladding.  I found myself in St Peters Square, where the Highcross shopping centre has been extended to accommodate a glittering silver John Lewis and cinema and a new restaurant quarter.

Sadly, around half the units were vacant.  I'd cut through the Highcross to get here, and passed more empty shops than usual; a Body Shop sat next to an abandoned Paperchase, like a sort of once and future bankruptcy.  You could hear the owners thinking, hey, looks like the high street is dying; we'd best diversify into leisure and casual dining.  People will always want to eat and be entertained, and the only thing that could stop that would be a catastrophic cost of living crisis that means nobody has spare cash to fling around on a disappointing fajita.

Meanwhile Leicester's Market was in the middle of another redevelopment, with the stalls relocated to an adjacent square and the hall falling under the wrecking balls.  They've issued a lot of pleasing CGI images about its replacement, with wood panelled stalls and feature lighting, but it has a vague whiff of the Chester Market about it.  You'll be able to buy a bao bun or a pain au chocolat but there's nowhere to get foam cut or your shoe re-heeled.

I ducked down the side streets and ended up on the New Walk, a long pedestrian route that skims the city centre and connects it to the main Victoria Park.  It was very much a promenade, the kind of place you can imagine has been absolutely rammed on weekends since it opened, and even on a weekday afternoon was thronged with visitors.

The New Walk takes you to Leicester's Museum and Art Gallery, so I popped in for a look. I was surprised to find a dinosaur hall, but not as surprised as the toddler ahead of me, who took a full step back when he saw the Rutland Dinosaur, a Cetiosaurus discovered in 1968.  His mum reassured him that it wasn't alive and wasn't going to hurt him, but he clung to her nonetheless as they worked their way round the exhibits.

I'm afraid that was the limit to my visit to the museum, because I rounded a corner and found a hall full of overexcited primary school children in hi-vis vests and I immediately backed away.  It's marvellous that young children are being exposed to interactive, exciting education in this way, but sometimes I, a middle aged man, would like to have a quiet wander round the exhibits without dodging screaming eight year olds brandishing worksheets.

This is perhaps the point to address a very strange feeling I got from Leicester.  It was - and I can't explain this adequately - one of the most heterosexual cities I have ever visited.  Something about it, about the people I saw, the way they acted - somehow everything added up to overwhelming heteronormativity.  This is not to imply that, say, Nottingham, is drowning in lube and leather chaps; it was simply a vague feeling, a prickle on the back of your neck that you develop after years of homosexuality.  I didn't feel unsafe or threatened, I'd like to make that clear.  I'm saying that there was an instinctive wariness in me and I'm not sure where it came from.  Perhaps it was all the hats.  I have never seen so many men wearing fedoras in my life.  You wouldn't get a gay wearing one of those.

I paused for a pint in The Globe, one of Leicester's oldest pubs, which has been run by the same family for more than a century; I will report that the family is called the Everards and leave it at that.  I sat across from an adult son who was having a slightly awkward reunion with his dad, where they stared at their pints in silence for a little too long.  The Dad was drinking a Madri Top, and his son had to inform him that Madri is, in fact, a Shit Beer, a revelation that clearly disappointed his dad, who was trying to be up to date and modern.

Refreshed, I wandered across the ring road - it's the Midlands, of course there's a ring road - in search of a bit of railway history.  Leicester used to have two stations in its centre; Leicester London Road was the one I'd arrived at, now stripped of its suffix, but Leicester Central also existed over a mile away.  This was on the Great Central Railway to Marylebone, a latecomer in the railway business and one that was never as successful as the Midland Railway it often shadowed.  It was an obvious candidate for closure when (spit) Beeching turned up and so it carried its last passenger in the sixties.

The station became a workshop and a car park; its clock tower was removed and it slowly declined.  However, the regeneration of the area turned it into an asset again and the building was extensively refurbished.  The road outside was turned into a public square and a hotel was opened opposite.  A new roof was put in and the whole place was turned into - well, I'm not really sure what it is, because I'm old.  The name on the door is Lane 7 which implies a bowling alley, but when I looked at their website it also offers "augmented darts" and beer pong and basically it seems to be a place to act like you're still a kid, but with beer. 

I looked through the doors, thinking I could at least have a pint, but a gaggle of astonishingly fashionable looking twentysomethings gave me a look like I was Mrs Havisham trying to gain access and so I backed away to where my kind belonged.

Ah, I had found my kin.

I was pleased by my visit to Leicester.  It had everything you need from an average city; history, charm and good looks.  I was glad that the West Midland Railways map had brought me here.  That same map would be taking me away the next morning, across the county, but that night I had a room in a Travelodge and a Wagamama takeaway to keep me happy.

1 comment:

David B said...

Everards do more than 'run a pub'; they are a fine independent local brewer.

Good to see you out and about!