Today, we embarked on an amazing journey down into the East Midlands, calling first at the city of Leicester. It took a very early start and many hours of train travel but we made it, to a beautiful city…
Status: City of Leicester Unitary District, Leicestershire, City, England
Travel: Virgin Trains (Preston – Birmingham New Street), Cross Country (Birmingham New Street – Leicester/Oakham)
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Town Hall, Tourist Information, Clock Tower, Castle, Corn Exchange, Guildhall, Cathedral, Jewry Wall Museum, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery etc
As soon as we left the train station upon our arrival into Leicester, we found one of the many statues in the city. This one is of Thomas Cook, who lived in the town of Melbourne in nearby Derbyshire. He founded the travel group known today as Thomas Cook, and he is reported to have had the idea for the company whilst walking between the town of Market Harborough and Leicester one day. There are panels on the Thomas Cook building in the city depicting the many journeys he undertook during his life.
The buildings above are very typical of Leicester, and we were genuinely amazed to find that every street, every road and every square was full to the brim with buildings of this architecture, and it really did make the place feel neat, tidy and above all else, architecturally significant.
The previous building marked the start to the pedestrianed zone in the city, and it leads to most of the significant buildings. The first of these is the stunning Clock Tower, in Haymarket Square.
In it’s place, long before the tower itself was built, stood an assembly room from 1750. It became shops in 1805 and by 1862 it was demolished as it was very unpopular with local residents. This left a gap, and as five major streets all met up here it became dangerous to cross as there was no focal point in the middle, so the idea of a Clock Tower to fill the gap was discussed and in 1868 the Tower was built. It was constructed using Portland Stone from Dorset, giving it the lovely colour it has kept today.
Aside from being a Clock Tower, and originally a traffic island (as it is now right in the middle of a pedestrianised zone) it stands as a memorial to four famous sons of Leicester, and each of the four corners bears a statue of one of them.
1) Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester (1208 – 1265)
2) William Wyggeston (1467 – 1536, local wool merchant)
3) Thomas White (1492 – 1567, local cloth merchant and founder of St John’s College in Oxford)
4) Gabriel Newton (1683 – 1762, trader and eventual mayor of Leicester)
This whole area is still full of the magnificently carved buildings I mentioned earlier, and some have so much detail that small sculptures of creatures such as angels grace the exteriors. In the background you can just see the spire of Leicester Cathedral, which we will move on to later. There are a number of large shopping centres blended into the area as well including the Highcross Shopping Centre and the Haymarket Shopping Centre.
From here we moved into the Market Square…
In the middle of the Market Square is a large, covered market that was open as it happens when we visited. There were various stalls selling everything imaginable, and it was nice to walk through it and watch the good people of Leicester as they traded goods and services as though it were a few hundred years ago. A stone cross stands in the square as well, which is known as the High Cross. It used to stand out on the high street, but was moved. It wasn’t created as a cross, and was in fact the last surviving pillar of the old Market Hall.
On the far side of the Market Square, you will find the Corn Exchange building, dating back to the 1850’s. It is the latest in a long line of buildings to inhabit the site, and was used as the location for British and Irish farmers to trade Cereal Grains until the 19th century. This was common in most towns and cities in the UK and Ireland and we have seen quite a selection of surviving Corn Exchange buildings, including the one in my local city of Preston.
Outside the Corn Exchange stands an old stone staircase leading up to a door on the first floor, which was added to the building in 1856, along with the floor itself. You can really tell that it isn’t part of the original design, yet somehow it seems to fit perfectly, despite the change in material.
To the right of the staircase you can see another statue, this time of John Henry Manners, 5th Duke of Rutland (1778 – 1857, local landowner and horse breeder).
From here we could see the tower of a very ornate looking building, so we calculated its position and moved off to find it, and the above picture shows you what we found. The stunning Town Hall stands in the middle of the Town Hall Park, complete with a statue flanked by Griffins, and a well crafted War Memorial at the other end of the square. It is without doubt my favourite building in the city, and its all thanks to Francis Hames, the man who designed and built it between 1874 and 1876. Its distinctive exterior was crafted out of Red Brick, and is a rare example of a Red Brick Town Hall from the Victorian Era, at least out of the ones I have seen. Being from up North, many of the Town Halls are grand gothic buildings. You can even get tours of the building every Wednesday morning for free, which last around two hours. Before the Town Hall was built, the Guildhall was used as the meeting place for local government, but more on the Guildhall later.
Our next stop was the aforementioned Cathedral, only a few minutes walk away. You saw the spire earlier looking past the buildings on the pedestrianed section, so here is the rest of the building (thanks to it’s size I couldn’t fit it in one picture!). It’s a grand building, and even though it looks quite new it actually dates back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
The year was 1086, as the Normans had just conquered England and replaced a former Saxon Church which stood on the site. Perhaps it’s most distinctive feature is the incredible 220 ft tall spire that dominates the skyline. It was added in 1862, and along with a major Victorian restoration overseen by Raphael Brandon (1817 – 1877, British Architect), it now appears more Gothic than medieval, however it still retains its historic qualities.
The next building along on the street is the Guildhall, an ancient structure with sections dating back as far as 1390. The rest of the Guildhall was built in the 15th century, and during the English Civil War a major stance was made against the Royalist Army, who attacked the city in 1645. Unfortunately, they eventually breached the old city walls and entered the building, looting it’s treasures.
It looks incredible from the outside, and is one of the finest medieval buildings we have seen so far, on par with the Guildhall in the Devon town of Totnes.
To fit in the second part of our day trip, to the nearby town of Oakham, we only had a few hours in Leicester but we saw a lot of ancient history, historic buildings and fine architecture. We really enjoyed visiting Leicester and it is one of the most memorable cities we have so far encountered. The train station itself (shown above) is a beautiful building, which 1st opened in 1840, when the line was part of the Midland Counties Railway. It was rebuilt in 1894, and features one notable feature, in the form of the station clock. The clock happens to be the only hand-wound clock in the country, and I imagine it takes quite some winding!
Unfortunately e did miss Leicester Castle, as that was further past the Cathedral down near the river Soar. We do plan to revisit Leicester one day, as it is definitely worth some further exploration, so I shall leave the Castle for one day in the future.
There are many museums in the city, including the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, the Jewry Wall Museum, (housed in one of the old Roman Bath Houses, supposedly the tallest surviving Roman construction in England) as well as Belgrave Hall from the 18th century. There is plenty to do in Leicester and you could easily spend a few days tracking down all the amazing buildings and museums.
Leicester has good connections around the country, with regular trains to Birmingham, Oakham, Peterborough, Ely, Cambridge and Stansted Airport, as well as up to Derby and Nottingham, and down to London. The nearby M1 takes traffic northwards to Yorkshire, and southwards into London, whilst the M69 connects to the M6 for Birmingham, Lancashire, Manchester and Scotland, and the M5 for Bristol, the South and Exeter. For air travel the nearest airport is East Midlands Airport, only half an hour away by road.
Leicester is a fantastic city, and is one of England’s many beautiful, historic cities. From here we moved on to the town of Oakham in the small county of Rutland, to finish off our day…