A Day Out With Elspeth in Leicester

I realised that this is one of the few counties of England that I’ve never been to – not counting the day the train died here and I had a quick wander.


I was in a Midlands mood – as you’ll see from other recent posts – and this was a destination that was accessible on a bank holiday, with places open.

My first impression was – scruffy. It stayed all day and was often reinforced. The grand terracotta station has no facilities and boring platforms. Not like York. I’ll be comparing to York often, and for an obvious reason.

No leaflets at the station to assist my path into town, but undeterred, I went to the tourist information centre, who weren’t really interested in greeting me, or even serving me when I decided to buy something. They only had last year’s city guide, which was mostly about rugby.

Quickly, I realised that Richard III was trying to be part of the fabric of the city. There is literally fabric – banners with his name on – over much of the city centre – the bit that might be called ‘historic’ anyway. Lest it be busy, I went to the new Richard III visitor centre first. I was still reaching in my bag whilst deciding if I wanted to pay £8 before gift aid “donation” when I was pounced on by officious staff who held out terms and conditions (have you ever had that before, in a museum?!) which stated that my year long pass would require security and identity ID checks on my return, and that transferring it to someone else would be deemed as fraud. Then, they conspicuously scanned my ticket.

So that already put me in a mood.

I asked where the loos were – for surely it was better to make oneself comfy after a long journey before going round? And surely a new museum would have planned for this? Nope. The toilets are as far as possible from the entrance, next to the empty cafe, and meant viewing the whole museum to get there. I sat on the loo growling as I read the terms and conditions card – too late for a refund?

The Richard III Visitor Centre is housed in a Victorian building next to where he lain buried until a couple of years ago. Can you sense my sarcasm brewing? “The King in a Car Park” story had bypassed me until I visited the Richard museum in York last year, housed in a medieval city gate. You can read about that on this site, and how I was sorry that the old style “put him on trial” exhibition had been changed – but both versions were a superior and cheaper experience than this.

I’m going to have to say it. When learning the colours of the rainbow, the mnemonic is not Richard Of Leicester Gave Battle In Vain – the third colour is not lemon, it’s yellow. Where was Richard of? How much time (not counting being dead) did he spend in the midlands town that was part of his enemy’s territory? Ooh, a night, and at an old inn that they didn’t even bother to preserve. (A dull Travelodge sits on its site, part of the foul High Cross shopping centre). Where did Richard ask to be buried? Somewhere that makes red cheese, or that has a Rowntrees chocolate factory?

I think that Leicester thought: we’ve not got an obvious tourist draw here. We need some more prestige. We particularly covet that arrow pinger from the county next door. Who can be our legend, our hero? What would put us on the map, give our university some kudos, and get some money in our coffers? Let’s dig up the social services car park, see if we can find any bodies, ah here’s one, male – crick spine – we don’t know the name of the condition that he had, quips the special skeleton in schoolroom display (twistonitus touristmagnus isn’t an official affliction), get good old medical science to verify him via DNA (if I was a relly, I’d have refused what I suspect was an intrusive test) – and let the new look Leicester era begin!

Most of the museum is too noisy – with one virtual model talking over the next – to take anything in. I’d have liked to have known more about the Shakespeare spin, but all the thespians were too busy jabbering over each other to understand why that play has so influenced us and why it would have been commissioned to be so negative about Richard.

The high point is right by the shop and entrance, so a great ‘still reflective space’ for the powerful moment of viewing the hole that they dug the skeleton out of. As I moved towards it, staff hovered over the grave, as if programmed like a spider in a computer game.

I asked why Richard was buried here at Greyfriars, rather than the larger and more prestigious Abbey. She didn’t seem to know that there was an abbey at Leicester, that a friary and an abbey are not the same, and said “He probably asked to be buried here”. Rubbish – his will said another city, rhyming with pork-ie pie.

The truth I think is that a king killed in battle had to be honoured, but not too much. So Greyfriars Leicester was convenient to the place of death, holy ground of some distinction, but not too regal.

And once they’d found him, Leicester were keeping him. No translation to that seat of the northern archbishopric. Nope. Failing having that Abbey – just its outline in a park – they were going to reinter him across the road, in a cathedral who has only been so since 1927.

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St Martin’s is suffice for a town’s mother church but not a cathedral of estimation. It’s heavily Emu-bitten and enlarged, and has a nod to nearby Rutland take on broach spires. Its tower is central, so it’s quite a long church, and has been there in various forms since early times. But visiting it today is like going to a medieval shrine. Nothing about the building or its purpose. Every leaflet, every sign was Richard, Richard, like one obsessed with an ex lover. The slab under which he lies isn’t worthy of him or the fuss made.

The cathedral had no facilities open that day, but it has a ‘wedding chic’ centre for hire.

Next door is something more interesting, something which did impress me – the Guildhall.

Here is where Leicester establishes itself with the great medieval cities – not that it became one of those till less than 100 years ago. This is a timbered guildhall with no parallel. There are many rooms to see, though ping pong playing staff were startled I’d gone round so quickly. I had a lot to fit in. A whole new city to see in a day, and one that I already was thinking I may not return to.

The Guildhall’s free to visit, but donations were heavily implied. I stood outside it at 1055, noting the 11am opening time. The door imperiously opened and staff asked what I wanted. To look round, I said. Wait 5 minutes, they said. Why bother coming out to tell me that?!

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Outside the Guildhall, there is a flash of what Leicester was and could have been. A narrow lane, the quite tall squire of St Martin’s, and almost opposite, Wygston House, another timbered building with a distinguished Georgian front. It’s not open at the moment.

Leicester has lots of free museums but it seems its way of handling them in these straightened times is to close some, rather than charge at all, and still be able to say “all our museums are free”. Along with Wygston’s House, Belgrave Hall and Newarke’s Gate or The Magazine are all shut except if the lunar calendar dictates. The next one I went in I would have rather paid for than Richard’s.



Across the flattened new squares, the hard to cross roundabout, I found my first Leicestershire civility at The Jewry Wall and Roman museum. St Nicholas church – one of a few medieval ones in the city – has lots of Norman work including the tower. It’s by a big lump of 1st century masonry and ruins of the old baths. The 1960s building which tells their story recalls a smaller Museum of London – concrete edifice next to concrete road system, with models but far less sound than modern museums. There’s more detail of information, less to patronise kids and adults, and a much quieter atmosphere. And staff who were friendly and enthusiastic.

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From there I found the castle, whose riverside gardens I particularly liked. Does anyone else have trouble knowing the name of the Soar? The Normanness of the castle hall is disguised externally and there’s not much public access (or to Leicester’s other churches, such as Mary de Castro opposite), but the feel of round this part of the city was one of my favourite.

The Newarke Houses museum was noisy and kiddie friendly. The mock up old cinema with its little film was just a boasting box about the city, but it did explain a little about the many diverse cultures and how they came to be here in Leicester.

I wanted to find Belgrave, which I refuse to call the Golden Mile – wasn’t it the curry mile? I didn’t know if it was really a mile or how far out and exciting it was, but I did sense that this was a part of Leicester that is truly different. I also wanted to see the BAP Mandir (temple).

I didn’t find out this visit, as I was too tired exploring within the ring road, and unsure if my travails would be rewarded. Trying took me to more scruffiness, and factories that might have been interesting. Why do so many burn down? When I looked up Leicester factories online, all I could see was pictures of them ablaze – different ones, recently.

The cultural quarter was a fairly ducky name for a fairly ducky place. The old 1930s Odeon is for occasional hire and redubbed Athena, but the arts cinema is in an awful new building. Not awful in the way that you might consider the Curve, the theatre space. At least that is trying to be modern and landmark, although I found it quite bland and too much like many other buildings with its transverse ribs of steel over glass. The Phoenix began life in a 1960s temporary theatre on Newarke St, which is in use by the college and named after a former writer in residence, Sue “Adrian Mole” Townsend. When the producing theatre moved out to the dreadful brick pile that is Haymarket – with a shopping centre underneath – Phoenix arts cinema moved in. But it left for unclear reasons to this scruffy segment the other side of the centre, which is so boring to look at, I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture. It shares its three screens with various creative businesses, but it looks like a dumpy office block rather than a cultural centre. I hovered in it, wanting to at least use the cafe – you’ll know my other blog is all about visiting interesting cinemas. Arts this may be, be not interesting. I decided the menu was bland and were this not in an arts cinema I wouldn’t consider it as a stop, even for a cuppa. I’d have preferred them to use the old Odeon.

It wouldn’t feel nice to access at night.

Also in this area is a creative something in a former bus depot – also blocky and a more hopeful thin exchange building with cafes in it, I suspect dating from c1900.

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New Walk was somewhere I nearly didn’t walk, being so tired at this point in the day, but as I thought I may not come again and had a few hours to go, I took myself to Leicester’s principal general museum via an odd dotted line on my map. This dotted line is a Georgian pedestrian promenade which has been preserved has such – no bikes even – and although several newer buildings have snuck in, it still has the feel of the era. It was one of the places I most enjoyed and would most recommend. Perhaps seeing that new Austen adaptation in Leicester wouldn’t have felt so incongruent after all.

The museum itself was another noisy one – art upstairs, dinosaurs downstairs, and a grand portico. The dinosaur skeleton was clearly not all genuine – it looked like it was made of charcoal – but they did have a chart owning to the fact that many bones weren’t found, and some that were are too fragile to get out of storage.

High Cross is most upsetting. It used to be called the Shires, but now it has grown to gargantuan proportions. Its old sounding name is the antithesis of what it is a modern indoor shopping centre of the worst kind. Many of the city centre eateries are also here, and so is the centre’s only other cinema – the Showcase Du Luxe, mind. So it conforms to the new standard – horrid monster mall carved out between medieval streets, food chains and multiplex, and then a large department store in an offensively modern building.

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There were two points of note and welcome exception here – the 16th C old Grammar School, which is a restaurant named after its year of foundation, and one of Leicester’s many textiles factories is a well advertised bar called Cosy Club. Despite claiming that its only sister is in Stamford, the menu (including the design of the cards) and the decor was suspiciously like the 70+ chain from Bristol. When I encountered them in 2007, there were 5. Instead of being a local quirk in neighbourhoods, the Lounge Family has propagated and spread over all western and southern England (and Wales) and have just planted two seeds in the East. I liked the idea of eating in a stocking factory more than actually doing so.

Lastly before I round up – this has been a long one, but there’s much to say – Foxes and Walkers. Those, after the cheeses, are Leicester’s edible gifts to the world. I saw the travelling advertorial bear of the former in New Walk museum (wrong animal for those sweets?) and Walkers are of course the crisps.

There was one sight that I found at the end of my day which made me rethink Leicester – and that was a series of photographs on board, near the start of New Walk. It does have buildings from almost every era. Some of it industrial ones are rather grand. It also has some of Britain’s best Indian style buildings. I also commend the Civic Society’s information boards, which tell the city’s story in buildings from Thomas Cook the travel man to you know who d 1485. But it’s the gap between those boards which rather hampers the city.


A Day Out with Elspeth In Southwell (and Newark again)

I’m doing the cathedrals of England, and I’m nearly done. The big ones, that is. I’m less bothered by parish church cathedrals, and even less so by most of the catholic ones. It’s not the title, it’s the church itself; so I’m more keen to see Beverley Minster and Sherborne Abbey as I am those churches with a place for a bishop’s bum who are upgrades of quite ordinary ecclesiastical edifices.

The ones left now are mostly in places that I’ve not been able to get to yet, but I made a special effort to go to Nottinghamshire, rising at dawn and being in transit for 5 hours to get there, and quite a complicated journey.

Southwell had seemed a little bottom of the pack. My first cathedral book, which I was given on my 21st birthday, doesn’t even have a picture of it. Other books put it in the minor, back of the book category, with small pictures which mostly focus on those leaves.

That seems to be Southwell’s main glory – freestanding foliage made of thin stone. It’s almost as if the rest of the minster isn’t needed – just that little polygonal chapter house. And even then, only the bit round the door and the seat decorations.

Well, the leaves weren’t the bit that I went for, nor what I took away.

I’ve decided that I rather like Nottinghamshire. I don’t think I’ve seen its countryside before. There’s a swathe of midlands-ish particular shade of red brick that goes right across England; and against the verdant green that’s close to the shade of a certain legend’s clothing, it was a pleasing experience to view.

I got back to Newark too – I’ll tell you about that later – but both towns enhanced my view of the county, and both had similar qualities.

I arrived in Southwell, which can pronounced both ways, locals tell me, via a bus which can arrive anytime in 15 minutes of the advertised time. So beware Stagecoach’s 28s and 29s from Newark to Mansfield.

I first saw Easthorpe — a kind of village tacked on to Southwell, where the Bramley apple comes from. It melds into one of the few main streets of Southwell, and the minster popped out as a kind of surprise. I like to savour that first moment of a first meeting, but here it was, unprepared.

This is a seriously good church. It’s quite big too, and not at all minor.

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My first view of Southwell Minster

The friendliness I experienced at the minster desk (though one guide couldn’t see the rudeness of asking her colleague for a permit in the midst of her talking to me), and at the Tourist Information Centre was excellent. The TIC had been so helpful prior to my visit. It’s little but well stuffed with all about Nottinghamshire, and is far better than the new one at Newark which tries to look flash and feels clinically white and trying too hard. It didn’t even have the excellent town trails about itself that its sister at Southwell did.

There was one thing that spoiled the day, and I know I can’t write more without telling you what it was. The minster was having a concert that night. It was strewn with mounted lights, wires, and the loud mouths of those setting up who had no respect for the building that they were in or that visitors might want a different atmosphere. No it’s not just another concert hall, another job – it’s a sanctuary and I mean in the sense of being peaceful and set apart, whether or not yours is the Christian God or particularly the church of England. I bet other faiths don’t let this go on, I thought. I thought it even more later, but I will save expanding on that for a post on the city concerned.

Suffice to say that my journey that day included 3 towns but I am only doing the two in Notts here.

Southwell Minster is free to enter – hurrah – but its photo permits are quite a lot at £5 and I’m not sure what I feel about charging for the right to take pictures. There’s a berth between the 300 photo snapper and those who take “just one of the nave”. I’d have resented paying for a pass that day when the minster was not looking its best inside.

Oh, but what a church! If you like Norman architecture, GET HERE! I recently did a ‘facetious, wicked and opinionated’ talk on the best place in England to see the Normans, and I didn’t get time to come here. I should have – for there are several things which make Southwell stand out. It’s the only church left to have a pair of complete Norman western towers. This once common arrangement is well exemplified here, and helps us imagine the many lost or altered abbeys with such a frontage. It also has a third Norman tower at the crossing. And it has lead clad pyramid spires, the sort that we think the Normans actually built. This is at least the 3rd lot, and annoyingly, the grain goes in the wrong direction – it should be herringbone, pointing like the spire, not straight down, Mr Gilbert Scott!

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Sorry, I no longer have a wide angled camera

It has Norman detail everywhere, looking mostly recently restored, but without the heavy hand of the emu (my name for Victorian restorers, because they peck at things and spoil them). Its favourite motif is the cable mould, so there are rope patterns round arches, along sides of walls (‘string courses’), and at least 3 good Norman doorways and an interesting porch.

Southwell may be smaller than the other great Eastern Cathedrals, but it’s no less lovely or impressive.

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Southwell Minster’s crossing

It’s a bit dark inside though – this is one of the few churches with still Norman shaped windows, and it has only 2 rows of them instead of the usual 3, so that the galleries (‘triforium’) are unlit. I’m not sure what I think of the roof: being round like the general spirit and rhythm is right – but it both feels a further darkener and isn’t quite right. The aisles are satisfyingly and contemporarily vaulted.

And what of the non Norman bit? I’m usually not bothered by early English and feel annoyed when it has taken over from the Romanesque I so enjoy. But I like the choir here. It is lighter, and a place to linger.

Digital CameraAnd as for the leaves? I had to look hard to imagine why these were singled out as the great medieval carvings. I recall the Saxon tympanum stone more, and the cables that I’ve already mentioned. The chapter house is as usual a pleasing and quieter space, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others.

Southwell’s got a ruined medieval palace which you can visit a small but grand roofed part of for free, with an overdone soundscape and video. There are gardens but much is roped off and marked, incendiarily, as private. I was more cross when I worked out that the Bishop probably lives here.

I didn’t got to the out of town workhouse, which makes me so angry. “Imagine the Victorian Poor” says the National Trust leaflet. I think many of us fear for the late Elizabethan poor, which we might be ourselves, and how the founder’s ethos of “an empty workhouse is a successful one” might reflect welfare policy today. I’d rather put my efforts into changing that ethos. I don’t think a visitor attraction with an entry fee is what Oxfam means by “Make Poverty History”.

The town is little, and doesn’t take long to walk round, but there are many shops and cafes and it’s upmarket. There are country-feeling walks in easy reach, but I ended up getting cross with all those big prebend’s houses.

I found three hours here was suffice, and also I didn’t trust that bus.

So I’ve given myself little time and space again for Newark, but I liked the York-like feel of it, and I did three things which I couldn’t last time.

I got in the church – not as special quite as I’d hoped, again, quite dark, with the organ console positioned for maximum attention. Who are we worshipping, I wondered?

St Mary M’s is huge and I liked the coloured ceiling.

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I also entered the hard to find little local museum and gallery, which involves a lift, inside the town hall and buttermarket – the beige stone building in the large market place. One member of staff was sensitive to my interest and schedule – unlike a colleague – but I was able to view a very splendid Georgian ball room.

The TIC — which was small but well formed, by Castle Station – has moved, next to the Palace theatre on Appleton Gate, and in with the new Civil War museum.

I sensed the Richard III experience at Leicester in all ways of this £8 new attraction, and left well alone. (You’ll see what I mean in my next post).

The stations are apparently not as far apart as I estimated – but I think that the online distances are wrong. At full speed, which is quite rapid, it took 20 mins to walk from Newark Northgate to the bus station. I meandered (and got stuck in a housing and industrial development) between the Castle and Northgate stations, but I made a discovery – there’s a river path, much nicer than either Appleton or Northgate streets, which passes barges and warehouses as well as greenery. It’s unlit and it’s quite weird in one place, being forced off the river path, then invited back on it by ALDI supermarket, down a rough path, where a new bridge reassuringly appears. On the Castle station side, the walk becomes pastures, but you need to be on the bank with Zizzi and Pizza Express to access Northgate station as there’s not a bridge again till beyond the point you need to cross. They could make that a proper, nice walk, and I do wish that NNG station (that’s it’s code name) had something round it to do or eat/shop – not just a tiny cafe within the gated station.

I am mentally spending more time in the Midlands and may soon return with further adventures – cinematic, literary, mental and actual.