I’ve always liked Leicester – one of the UK’s rather under-rated cities. My maternal grandparents lived about 12 miles from it, and a day out to the city was an exciting treat for a small child more used to a rather dull west-country town. In those days, the city retained the last faded elements of its Edwardian grandeur, though the scars of declining industry were all around, and a particular memory is the gaunt and weed-infested approach to what I now know was the Great Central Railway station, its signals still standing, awaiting a train that was never to come. I remember too, the ages spent waiting in The Midland Educational, a grand old bookshop and stationer’s on Market Street while my mother browsed what seemed like the entire shop…
More than a decade later, I visited again while searching for a degree course, and felt a surprising sense of ‘home’ – though those early memories were probably too general to be much of the cause. As cities go, Leicester is just quite homely. And so a second relationship with the city commenced, extending for a year after graduation, before I moved east for a teaching course. By the early eighties, like most British cities it was feeling rather tired, though the first tentative shoots of rebirth were even then appearing, and there was still plenty to appeal to us small-town students.
I go back from time to time, most recently a week ago. While perhaps not as glossy as the reborn Manchester or Leeds, Leicester has recaptured some of its civic pride. There has been a boom at the two universities, while the retail centre has been expanded with several new malls and the reworking of the historic centre as the “Leicester Lanes” (though I do wish that all and sundry were not now jumping on this Brighton-originated moniker…) There are plenty of small independent shops and an excellent selection of eateries. The area around the distinctly modest cathedral has also been upgraded, thanks to moneys humped in on the back – so to speak – of the Richard III discovery – and the hideous seventies monstrosity that was the indoor market has been demolished to create a new public square. The outdoor covered market remains – reputedly the largest in Europe, with a smart contemporary extension providing new room for fish, meats and cheeses.
We parked near the University and walked into the centre down New Walk, a pedestrian promenade created in Georgian times to link the city to the swankier new suburbs to the south, and still lined with grand buildings. There is much fine Victorian architecture in the centre, including the original Thomas Cook building, with its frieze of Cook’s first ever excursion from Leicester to Loughbrough. There are several fine art deco facades, and a number of early arcades, though it is often necessary to look up, as not all of the modern shop fronts are particularly sympathetic – something that needs rethinking.
The Townhall Square is another fine example of Victorian civic building, which I feel could still have slightly more made of it.
We had an excellent lunch in a small Italian trattoria, a chance find tucked away down an unpromising side street , and we also found time to visit Queen’s Road and Allandale Road, two of the more distinctive areas of the Victorian suburbs, the former slightly studenty-bohemian, and the latter now the hang-out of the local chi-chi set.
Having visited Lille a month earlier, this was an interesting opportunity to compare former industrial cities in two countries. Lille is considerably larger, and considerably more stylish – but Leicester can hold its own, in a rather more low-key way. I tend to find Victorian and Edwardian architecture bombastic and overblown – but there is no denying the grandeur of it. Given that so much of the earlier quarters of many British industrial cities have been lost, at least it provides a civic presence, which at long last is being enhanced rather than further spoiled by some imaginative contemporary additions.
The British still seem to lack the creative flair that really give some of the re-imagined continental cities their sophistication – but at least we are heading in the right direction.