Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Leicester? Why?

This was the puzzled reaction from everyone to whom I mentioned our proposed jaunt to Leicester, one of the ten big cities of England, and situated more or less in the middle of the country. I have a map of England on the wall by my desk now, alongside my map of London, and I put a neon sticker on Leicester. Yep - it's right in the middle. Just to orient you, it is a little south of  Nottingham Forest (think Robin Hood) and a little north of Althorp where Lady Di lies quietly interred on her island in a lake. And since it is in what is called the 'East Midlands', and St Pancras is the terminus station for the East Midlands Railway (the Chambers were originally the 'Midlands Grand Hotel'), what could be simpler? The trains to Leicester leave from downstairs.

Sunday morning soccer in Victoria Park, Leicester

So on Sunday Evan and I set off. I will admit that the carriage was rather empty, but it was peaceful to spend an hour or so rolling through the damp green English countryside. We arrived in Leicester at about 10.30 am on a quiet Sunday morning, and took a stroll. We found it a pleasant town, with the trees turning autumnal colours and only a few bicyclists and Sunday-morning soccer players out and about.

But why?, I hear you ask. We were on a mission to find the Engineering Building at Leicester University. But why?, I hear you ask. Because it is a very famous modern architectural icon by architect James Stirling, built in 1959. Don't feel bad if you didn't know this. I certainly didn't until Evan told me about it. It seems he studied the building during his degree. Twice. We walked through parkland, dodging soccer balls, until Evan looked up, and...'Oh, there it is!' The somewhat unprepossessing red brick tower didn't make a big statement until we got closer, when I could see why it was on the curriculum for architecture students. It has strange cantilevered portions (the lecture theatres), weird twists in the building itself, mirrored in a spiral staircase; and the engineering workshops are crowned with twisted cube-shaped roofing referencing a factory. I am describing this very badly, and am happy to be corrected by the architects out there, if any. It is best if I use a few pictures to tell the story. Suffice to say, our mission was accomplished and I enjoyed seeing the building.

With the Engineering Building ticked off, what else did Leicester have to amuse us? Our train home didn't depart until 5 o'clock. We consulted some tourist information and made our way to the highlights of Leicester. The other highlights, I should say. Our first stop was the New Walk Museum, which was aid to contain the Rutland dinosaur, and I believe them, but the dinosaur exhibit was under renovation. We did see something called the Barrow Kipper, which was quite impressive. And had a cup of tea.
The Barrow Kipper (don't ask me)

Leicester Guildhall
Then we found Leicester Cathedral, St Martin's, which dates from 1086 and has some kind of link to the Knights Templar which I never really figured out (bad tourist). We walked out of the back door of the Cathedral to an alley beside a tumbledown wall. 'Now that's old', I remarked. How right I was. It turned out that we were looking at the side wall of the half-timbered medieval Guildhall, the oldest building in Leicester. We toured the inside, which is well restored but still looks like it was put together haphazardly and is only just managing to still stand upright. It is aid to be one of the best preserved wooden buildings in the country, dating back to the 14th century. It has had many lives, as the Guild Hall of the Corpus Christi Guild, a centre for town government, a court house, a police station and a library.It was built around 1390, and the people of Leicester still fondly recall the party held there in 1588 to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Roman Leicester and its Baths
We paused for quite a long lunch, and then walked to find something called 'the Jewry Wall', which is a fragment of Roman masonry nearly 2000 years old, alongside the foundational remains of quite an extensive Roman baths. I have been told that all towns in England with names ending in '-icester' were Roman settlements. And Bath, of course. Leicester was quite an important Roman settlement, it seems, according to the excellent displays we perused in the small museum at this site. We spent the rest of our Leicester afternoon quite profitably here, before joining our convenient train for the leisurely journey home.

A day out in the country.

If you would like to visit yourself one day, check out goLeicestershire! and, well, go.

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