Monday, 4 December 2017

Must-see items at London's British Museum






The British Museum houses more than 8 million objects. Not all of them are on permanent public display, but there are enough there to keep you busy for many days, should you have the time. However, this is unlikely to be the case, especially if your time in London is limited. What you will regard as a “must see” item will doubtless depend on your personal interests, but there are a number of objects that it would be a shame to miss, and some of these are suggested below.

These suggestions are from the Museum’s permanent collection, as opposed to the temporary exhibitions that are mounted from time to time. Such exhibitions often include treasures from private or overseas collections that are only viewable on very rare occasions, and it is therefore a good idea to plan your visit so that you can take in a temporary exhibition as well as your selected items from the main collection. One factor to bear in mind is that the permanent collection is free to view, whereas an entrance fee is usually charged to view a temporary exhibition.

The Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles is the name usually given to the Parthenon sculptures that were acquired in Athens (Greece) by Lord Elgin between 1799 and 1810 and bought by the British Museum in 1816, although Elgin brought back objects from buildings other than the Parthenon, and some of these can be seen elsewhere in the Museum.

There has long been talk about whether the British Museum should continue to house the sculptures, or if their rightful home is in Athens. Although it is unlikely that they will be returned to Greece in the near future it is possible at some stage, so if your visit to the British Museum is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the opportunity to see them should not be missed.

The sculptures are housed in the Duveen Gallery (Room 18), which is on the extreme “left” of the building from the main entrance. The visitor with little time will therefore have to avoid the temptation to look at all the other treasures he or she will pass on the way!

Having reached the gallery, you could easily spend an hour or more taking everything in. What you have here is a huge collection of reliefs and three-dimensional sculptures that were carved in about 440 BC to adorn the upper walls and pediments of the Temple of Athene (known as the Parthenon) on the Acropolis at Athens. You can see these sculptures at eye-level, whereas the original viewers would have had to look far above their heads. The collection is far from complete, many pieces having been lost before Elgin’s time and others being housed in museums in Athens, Paris and elsewhere.

You will be rewarded with a view of beautifully carved marble figures of men, women and animals. Some of these, from the frieze of the temple, represent a ceremonial procession that presents a picture of life in ancient Athens in considerable detail. Other pieces show scenes from Greek mythology, the most dramatic being of the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths. This is sculpture of the very highest quality which, even in its damaged state, for example with heads and limbs missing, cannot fail to impress.

The Rosetta Stone (see photo above)

This is a stone slab (or “stele”) that is of immense importance to Egyptology. Consisting of a form of granite known as granodiorite, it measures 45 inches (114 cm) in height and weighs about 1,700 pounds (769 kg), although it is not complete and it is easy to see where parts of it have broken away. It dates from 196 BC but was only discovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s occupation of the Nile Delta, at the town of Rosetta (Rashid).

Its value as an object comes from the inscription on it, which the viewer can easily see is in three distinct sections. These represent the same text (a decree issued on behalf of Ptolemy V) but in three languages, namely Ancient Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Demotic (a script used in Egypt after hieroglyphics fell out of general use). Despite the fact that the amount of hieroglyphic text is relatively small in comparison with the other scripts, it was enough to provide the key to a lost language.

As it happens, the Rosetta Stone is not the only example of a trilingual or bilingual ancient text, but it is certainly the best known. Like the Elgin Marbles, it has been the subject of conflicting claims as to where it truly belongs, but it has been a central feature of the British Museum’s collection since 1802 and is now displayed in Room 4 (Egyptian sculpture), which runs alongside the Great Court at the centre of the building.

Also in this room is the massive statue of Ramesses II which weighs more than seven tons and was carved from a single piece of granite in about 1250 BC.

Sutton Hoo ship-burial

The discovery in 1939 of the burial site of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon king or warlord was one of the most important in the history of British archaeology. The dead man had been buried in a ship together with many of his possessions, the whole being covered with earth to form a barrow. The finds were presented by the owner of the land, at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, to the British Museum, where they are now one of its greatest and most visited treasures.

Pride of place goes to a ceremonial helmet which was originally found in about 500 pieces but which has since been reconstructed, and replicas have been made to show how it would have looked originally. The workmanship is extraordinary as is the decoration; for example, the nose and eyebrows of the mask form the shape of a bird, and it also has a moustache.

As well as the helmet, the display in Room 41 (upper floor) contains some other remarkable objects from the burial, including a sword, bowls, spoons, a magnificent gold belt buckle, an intricately decorated purse lid, and a reconstructed lyre.

Next door, in Room 40, are the Lewis chessmen that were carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth in the late 12th century, probably in Norway. The detail on these pieces is fascinating and bound to bring a smile to the face.

Hinton St Mary mosaic

This was found in a field in Dorset in 1963, having originally been part of the floor of a 4th century Romano-British villa of which hardly any trace remained. However the mosaic was in excellent condition and was carefully lifted so that it could be transported to the British Museum, where it is now on view in Room 49 (upper floor).

This is one of the most complete mosaic floors ever found and is remarkable in several respects, including its size (about 26 by 17 feet, 8 by 5 metres) and its excellent condition. However, what makes it stand out is the inclusion, in the central roundel, of a head and shoulders that could have been intended to be a representation of Jesus Christ. The clue is in the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” that are the first two letters of “Christ” and are often found in early Christian art.

If this is an imagined portrayal of Christ it is one of the earliest known, and it is certainly the only known example on a mosaic floor anywhere in the Roman Empire.

The rest of the design consists mainly of geometric patterns and hunting scenes, but there is also a mythological scene of Bellerophon slaying the Chimaera, which can be interpreted as good conquering evil. It is possible that the four heads within the corners of the main design are those of the four evangelists. Even if this is not the case, and there is no way of knowing, the combination of Christian and Pagan imagery provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of wealthy Romano-Christians of this period.

Other “must-sees”

If time permits, other items that might be high on your list could include the Easter Island statue in Room 24, the Egyptian mummies in Rooms 62 and 63, items from the Oxus Treasure in Room 52, and the 16th century mechanical galleon clock in Room 39.

You will soon decide that one visit to this amazing museum is not enough and you will want to come back as often as you can and stay for much longer!

© John Welford










Monday, 20 November 2017

The Randwick Wap



England is noted for its eccentric festivals that have their origins in medieval times but are still celebrated today for no reason other than to give those involved a good excuse for having fun. One such event is the “Wap” that takes place every year in the Gloucestershire village of Randwick, near Stroud.

The event dates from the Middle Ages and centres on the local delicacy of Double Gloucester cheese, but has also been known to involve the downing of much cider and beer. The rowdiness that resulted is probably the reason why the Victorians put a stop to it. However, in 1972 the local vicar decided to take a risk and revive the festival – it has been running ever since, much to the delight of locals and visitors alike.

The Wap, which probably takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon “wappenshaw”, meaning “an assembly of men who are ready for battle”, takes place in May with the first part scheduled for the first Sunday in the month. Three truckles of Double Gloucester (a truckle is a small wheel of cheese around six inches in diameter) are blessed at the church and one of them is rolled anti-clockwise around the churchyard by several parishioners. The original purpose of this was to ward off evil spirits, but today it is played as a game to see who can keep the cheese rolling on its edge for the greatest distance. After the roll the cheese is cut up and distributed, but the other two cheeses have another sort of role to play.

The following Saturday is the day of the Wap, when everyone dresses up in medieval and other period costumes for a procession through the village. The route is swept clear by the Mop Man, whose mop has to be kept wet enough to wash the path and flick plenty of water at the bystanders!

The procession focusses on two characters who have previously been chosen by the villagers for this honour. They are the “Mayor” and the “Wap Queen”, the latter being a teenager. Both are costumed appropriately and are carried through the village accompanied by their retinue of a swordsman, a flag-bearer, ladies-in-waiting and assorted princesses.

When they reach the Mayor’s Pool the Mayor is duly dunked in the pool before also being showered with spring water.

At the Well Leaze, which is at the top of a steep slope, the Mayor and the Wap Queen are presented with the two Double Gloucester truckles mentioned earlier. They then compete against each other by rolling the cheeses down the slope. They do this three times. The cheeses will eventually fall to pieces, and the winner is the one whose cheese breaks into the most pieces by the end of the third roll!

Needless to say, the event is a splendid day out for the whole village and plenty of other amusements are organized on the village field as a general fete.

The next day, of course, is another Sunday, when the vicar hopes to get as many people in the pews as he had the week before – assuming that everyone has sobered up by then!
© John Welford

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A military cemetery in Suffolk



A walk on the Suffolk coast brought me face to face with a story of courage and tragedy from the Second World War

Where the Rivers Stour and Orwell meet

The photos are of a military cemetery in a quiet and peaceful spot on the Suffolk coast, overlooking the estuary of the River Orwell (you can see the container terminal at Felixstowe in the background of the second photo). Out of sight to the right is the town of Harwich on the far side of the estuary of the River Stour which joins the Orwell at this point.

A group of headstones

What caught my eye in particular was a group of headstones that were placed much closer together than most of the others. These all bore the inscription “HMS Worcester” and the date 12th February 1942 (some of them were a few days later, suggesting that the men in question had died from their wounds rather than been killed instantly). The name of the ship meant nothing to me, so I decided to investigate a bit further and discover the story behind these graves.

The story of HMS Worcester

HMS Worcester was a W-class destroyer that was launched in October 1919 and was brought out of the reserve fleet at the outbreak of World War II. At various times she was part of the 16th Destroyer Flotilla, based at Harwich, and would therefore have been visible from the site of the cemetery when at anchor in Harwich Harbour. The main function of the flotilla was to protect merchant shipping in the North Sea and to undertake patrols.

On 11th February 1942 three large German warships, namely the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, left the French port of Brest with the intention of sailing along the English Channel to return to Germany by the shortest possible route. This operation, officially named Operation Cerberus, has also become known as the “Channel Dash”. This was a daring move, given that the ships would have to pass within a few miles of the British coast and right under the nose of the Royal Navy.

HMS Worcester was part of the flotilla sent to intercept the German ships as they emerged through the Strait of Dover into the North Sea, on 12th February. In the exchange of fire HMS Worcester came off worse, with shells hitting her from all three German ships. Despite serious damage, HMS Worcester survived the encounter, but seventeen lives were lost on board the ship.

After repairs, HMS Worcester returned to active service but struck a mine in December 1943 which again put her out of action. The damage was so great that she was decommissioned and ended the war as an accommodation ship with a new name, HMS Yeoman. She was eventually scrapped in 1947.

The sailors who died in 1942 were buried close together where they lie to this day, in a small cemetery within sight of the sea.

© John Welford


Friday, 6 January 2017

The modern martyrs of Westminster Abbey



Visitors to London’s Westminster Abbey can see a very interesting set of statues just above the main doorway at the west end. These celebrate ten “modern martyrs”.

Empty niches

Cathedrals and other large churches are notable for many things, one them being the serried ranks of statues of saints and bishops that occupy niches on the exterior stonework, with the west front being a common place to find them. However, on many such buildings all one can see are the niches, because the statues have long since disappeared for one reason or other – often out of Protestant zeal to destroy the “graven images” that adorned previously Catholic buildings.

Leaving the niches empty, however, makes the building look incomplete. The impression is of something missing. Is there not a way of dealing with these niches that will cause no offence to anyone?

The modern martyrs of Westminster Abbey

London’s Westminster Abbey solved this problem in a novel and interesting way, namely by commissioning statues of ten “modern martyrs” to stand in a row of niches that had been empty since the Middle Ages. They are on the west front of the Abbey, immediately above the main doors through which monarchs walk to be crowned or married or carried to be buried. They were unveiled on 9th July 1998 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.

The people chosen as “modern martyrs” had to meet the criterion of having been killed for their faith or for advancing the needs of others. They are all 20th century figures and they are from all over the world. The ten martyrs are:

Maximilian Kolbe – a Catholic priest who helped Jews in Poland and who died in Auschwitz in 1941 after offering to take the place of a condemned man.

Manche Masemola – a 16-year-old girl from South Africa who was killed by her parents in 1928 when she converted to Christianity.

Janani Luwum – the Archbishop of Uganda who was murdered on the orders of Idi Amin in 1977.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna – a member of the Russian Imperial family (by marriage) who founded a convent but was murdered by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

Martin Luther King – the American civil rights campaigner who was murdered in 1969.

Oscar Romero – the Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered by a death squad in 1980.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Lutheran theologian who was implicated in the bomb plot against Adolf Hitler and executed in 1945.

Esther John – a Pakistani nurse and Christian evangelist who was murdered by a Muslim relative in 1960.

Lucian Tapledi – an Anglican in New Guinea who was killed by invading Japanese troops in 1942.

Wang Zhiming – a Christian pastor in China who was executed in 1973 during the Cultural Revolution.


Presumably, had there been more than ten niches available, there would have been other candidates available for inclusion. As it stands, this memorial makes a powerful statement about the fact that people are still dying for their beliefs in the present age. Although most cathedrals only seem to commemorate people who are long-dead and long-forgotten, Westminster Abbey has bucked the trend in a dramatic and highly effective way.

© John Welford

Monday, 19 December 2016

A first-time visitor's guide to Wales



A visitor to the United Kingdom should be encouraged to include Wales on their itinerary, because it is a very special part of the country and different in many ways from England or Scotland.

Visiting Wales for the first time

Anyone who is not a native or a resident of Wales, but has spent an appreciable amount of time there, whether as a student or a holidaymaker or both (like me), will testify that it is impossible to “do” Wales in a single visit, whether that lasts a week, a fortnight or a month.

Wales is relatively small, being about 8,000 square miles in total in a roughly rectangular shape some 160 miles from north to south and 60 miles from east to west. It is therefore not quite as big as New Jersey. However, it is usually best to think of Wales as having three distinct zones, namely North, South and Mid.

This is because of the mountainous territory of most of Wales that makes travel between north and south quite difficult, as most of the road and rail links run from east to west. The visitor is therefore best advised to aim for one of the three regions and to leave the others for another time. Whichever they choose, there will be plenty to see and do.

The first timer should also decide their priorities in terms of what they want to get from their visit. For example, are they most interested in Welsh culture, or its natural scenery, or its castles, or its beaches? Do they want to surf, or to climb mountains, to pony trek, to watch wildlife or travel on its “great little trains”? There is no reason to plump for just one option, but if you have a particular aim in mind, it might not be so easy to plan your visit in a way that incorporates certain others.

For example, Wales is noted for several heritage rail lines that were originally built to transport slate and other goods from the quarries to the coast. These are to be found in Mid and North Wales, and a certain degree of planning would be needed to fit them all into a short break. If the visitor is also interested in the cultural delights of Cardiff, with its first-rate venues for music, opera and theatre, then combining the two interests would be difficult.

It is impossible, in a short article, to describe all that Wales has to offer, so a short breakdown of the three main regions will have to suffice.

South Wales

This is where the majority of Wales’s population lives, particularly in the only two Welsh cities of any size, namely Cardiff and Swansea. The wealth of Wales in the 19th and 20th centuries came from coal-mining and steel, and it was in south-east Wales that these industries were based, although there is little sign of them now.

For the tourist, Cardiff has far more to offer than Swansea, especially since the development of Cardiff Bay that has taken place in recent years. Cardiff, the chief city of Wales, was always an attractive city, with its castle and the civic centre and university buildings around Cathays Park, but the waterside developments, including the new Welsh Assembly building, are generally agreed as being particularly impressive. The tourist could make Cardiff their sole destination with no trouble at all.

However, South Wales has much more to offer, including the magnificent coastal scenery of the Gower peninsular and Pembrokeshire, and the brooding mountainous territory of the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountain. Walkers are well served, whether the choice is hills or coast paths, as are families who seek safe beaches and rock pools.

Mid Wales

The heart of Wales is a land of lakes, forests, deep valleys and windswept moorlands. This is wild country with only a few villages and not many roads. It is therefore a region that will suit people who want to get away from it all, but they will also have to be largely self-reliant.

The chief town of mid Wales is Aberystwyth on the coast, home to the oldest university in Wales and the National Library. It is also well used to catering for tourists, with many small hotels and guest houses. The railway line from Shrewsbury (in England) ends here, as does the steam-powered narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol line.

Aberystwyth is at the mid-point of Cardigan Bay, on which can be found many unspoilt and lonely beaches. Whether one goes inland or stays on the coast, this is excellent territory for wildlife enthusiasts, particularly birdwatchers.

North Wales

The region is dominated by Snowdonia, the mountainous area centred on Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. A mountain railway can take you to the summit, or there are a number of well-marked paths that are very popular in summer. The area is something of a tourist trap, so visitors would be well advised to explore other parts of the region if they do not wish to be where everyone else is.

Also popular are the large and well-preserved medieval castles of Harlech, Caernarvon and Conwy. These are reminders of Wales’s history and its eventual domination by England in the 14th century. Children love exploring castles, and North Wales has some fine examples.

The coast of North Wales, eastward from Llandudno, is popular with tourists from the cities of north-west England, so visitors might prefer to head further west, to the Lleyn peninsular and Ynys Mon (Anglesey). It is not difficult to get away from the crowds when one wants to.

Culture in Wales

The first-time visitor should make every effort to absorb some of the culture of Wales, which has a tradition of choral singing that goes back for centuries. If you can attend a concert given by a Welsh male-voice choir it will be an unforgettable experience. Even better is an “eisteddfod” (Welsh for “sitting”) which is a festival of music, dance and literature. The 8-day National Eisteddfod is an annual festival held in early August, but local eisteddfodau are also held at other times and places.

Food is part of a nation’s culture, and Wales has some culinary customs of its own, such as the use of seaweed to make “laver bread”. Welsh lamb is highly prized, with sheep rearing being the dominant agriculture in many parts of the country. Leeks are typical vegetables and are one of Wales’s national symbols. On the sweeter side, “bara brith” is a bread made with raisins, currants and fruit peel.

The national sport of Wales is rugby football, with most of the big clubs being in South Wales. National pride is very much to the fore when Wales play at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, especially if the opponents are England! Tickets are much more easily obtained for club matches, but the passion on display is always high.

The Welsh language

The first-time visitor, especially one from beyond the United Kingdom, may be surprised to find that a language other than English is spoken here. Welsh is an ancient Celtic language that was once spoken across most of England as well, before England was created by invading Angles and Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries. The invasion never reached Wales, so the language was preserved.

The visitor will soon see that all road signs and many other public notices are in both Welsh and English, with Welsh usually given priority. Welsh is spoken as the first language by about 20% of the population, although the proportion is much higher in north and west Wales.

You will hear Welsh spoken in shops and whenever local people get together, but this should not worry the visitor, because every Welsh speaker is bi-lingual, having learned both languages from an early age. That said, Welsh people are justly proud of their language and appreciate it when visitors take the trouble to learn a few phrases, such as “bore da” (“good morning”).

The first-time visitor to Wales is unlikely to be an “only time” visitor, because a first visit can only be a taster of what Wales has to offer. There is so much variety, especially in outdoor activities, and Wales keeps many of its secrets well hidden, only to be prised out by the determined explorer.

© John Welford


Fowey, Cornwall



The southern coast of Cornwall has several river valleys that form wide estuaries as they meet the sea and offer a softer landscape than that of the rocky headlands of the far west and north Cornish coast. One of these estuaries is at Fowey, a few miles east of St Austell.

A relic of the Ice Age

The river valleys of Cornwall turned into tidal estuaries when sea levels rose after the end of the last Ice Age; the technical term for such a feature is “ria”. These have created deep water anchorages at the river mouths and stretches of water that are navigable much further inland than would otherwise have been the case.

The enlarged valley of the Rover Fowey (pronounced “Foy”) has been used commercially since Roman times, when tin mining was carried out further inland. The trade in later centuries was in china clay, large quantities of which are still extracted from the quarries near St Austell.

The port of Fowey was also important in past centuries as a military base. In 1346 the town supplied 700 men and 47 vessels for the siege of Calais, as against only 25 that sailed from London. In later years the seamen of Fowey turned their hand to piracy.

Fowey town

The houses and other buildings of Fowey crowd closely together around a jumble of narrow streets (including a “Trafalgar Square”). The waterfront, with its tall buildings, is best seen from the other side of the harbour and makes a very attractive sight at night when lit up.

Just south of the town is St Catherine’s Castle on a rocky promontory above the sea. This was built on the orders of King Henry VIII as one the chain of castles intended to defend ports all along the English south coast at a time of threat from France. It was a small artillery fort that was never as well developed as other Cornish defences such as St Mawes and Pendennis castles (although it was extended during the 19th century Crimean War), but a visit is worthwhile If only for the views to be had from its walls.
  
Getting away from the crowds

The small towns and villages that dot the Cornish coast are notable for being tourist traps in summer, and the town of Fowey, with its narrow streets, is not immune from the effect of its attractiveness. It is, however, less commercialised than some other places such as Polperro, which is eight miles to the east. It is therefore advisable to explore Fowey on foot, having left your car at the car park on the edge of town.

It is, however, perfectly possible to get away from the crowds if one is prepared to forget the car and walk along the river and cliff paths on either side of the harbour.

East of the river

Access from Fowey is made possible by the ferries that cross the short distance from Fowey to Polruan (foot passengers and bicycles only) and Boddinick (cars and foot passengers).

A popular walk is the four-mile “Hall Walk” that uses both ferries and skirts the Pont Pill tributary estuary of the Fowey River. There are excellent views of the harbour and only two steep climbs.

Other walks can take in part of the Southwest Coast Path along the cliff tops.

West of the river

You are bound to escape the crowds if you take a walk on the peninsula to the west of Fowey Harbour, because much of this area is not accessible by road.

Not far along the coast is the secluded small bay of Polridmouth (pronounced Pridmouth) which is half a mile from the nearest road. A dam across the small river that empties into the bay has created a freshwater ornamental lake.

Another walk can take you to Gribbin Head, with its red and white “day mark” (a sort of unlit lighthouse) and the small harbour at Polkerris (which has a pub!). This walk affords magnificent views out to sea and along the Cornish coast to the west.

Wildlife

This is an area that is rich in plant, animal and bird life. Sea spurge and edible rock samphire grow along the shoreline, and the cliff tops abound with cornflowers, field pansies, speedwell and tormentil. The Pont Pill estuary is wooded, with oak, ash, chestnut, beech and sycamore being the prominent tree species.

Among the birds to be seen are kestrels, skylarks, meadow pipits, wheatears and stonechats.

A famous former resident

Fowey was the home for many years of the writer Daphne du Maurier (1907-89). One of her homes, Menabilly, was the model for “Manderley” in her best-known novel “Rebecca”. It has been suggested that Pont Pill was the original “Frenchman’s Creek”, although it is generally believed that she had in mind the Helford River much further west.

Fowey hosts an annual Festival of Arts and Literature in her honour.


All-in-all, this is a very pleasant corner of Cornwall to visit, especially for people who like their towns picturesque and their countryside unspoilt and uncrowded.

© John Welford

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Exploring Leicester



The best way to explore the centre of Leicester is on foot, and this has become a lot easier, and more pleasant, thanks to the efforts made during recent years to pedestrianize several main streets and extend the central shopping mall.

Shopping

For the shopper, Leicester has a lot to offer. From the Clock Tower, you can go east along Humberstone Gate, south along Gallowtree Gate, or west along High Street, and find many of the stores that are familiar in an English city centre, but without the traffic that usually separates one side of the street from the other. However, Leicester has a few surprises as well. For one thing, you may come across street musicians and other entertainers in this area, or fairground rides and stalls at certain times of the year. The various festivals celebrated by many different religious groups make their mark on these streets, which are decorated accordingly.

Just off Gallowtree Gate is Leicester Market, the largest covered market in Europe. There has been a market on this site for 700 years, and there is a huge number of stalls, many of them selling fresh fruit and vegetables but a variety of other goods besides.

From the market, you can easily wander into “The Lanes”. These are some of the oldest streets in Leicester, as narrow as they were when laid out in medieval times, with a multitude of small shops and places to eat. There are arcades and alleyways that are just asking to be explored.

Cross from the Lanes over High St and you will enter the completely different world of the Highcross Centre. This two-level shopping mall boasts around 120 retail premises, including many top names such as John Lewis, Top Shop and River Island, plus a 12-screen cinema and a variety of eateries.

With its combination of new and old, Leicester is now regarded as one of the top ten shopping centres in the UK. However, there is much more to Leicester than just its shops.

Historical Leicester

Leicester’s history goes back to Roman times, and there are still a few vestiges of its origins to be seen. Walk along High St to its end and you will not be far from the Jewry Wall which, despite its name, was built as part of the baths complex of the original settlement, in about 160 AD. At 18 feet high and 70 feet long, it is the second largest piece of Roam civil (as opposed to military) masonry to be found in the country. The adjoining Jewry Wall Museum tells the story of Leicester from the Iron Age to the present day.

If you walk back towards the city centre along Guildhall Lane, you will pass by the Guildhall, which is one of the best-preserved timber framed halls in the country, dating back to 1390. It is believed by many that Shakespeare himself performed in a play here, and the building is still used as a performance venue today. It is also reputed to be Leicester’s most haunted building, with five different ghosts having been reported.

Next to the Guildhall is Leicester Cathedral. This is not a graceful, soaring building along the lines of many famous English cathedrals, but a former parish church that was transformed into a cathedral when Leicester was designated as a city in 1927. It is well worth a visit, not least as an oasis of calm at the heart of a busy city.

The cathedral contains the tomb of King Richard III, whose body was brought to Leicester after his death at the Battle of Bosworth. However, the burial only took place in 2015 after Richard’s remains had been excavated from a site very close to the cathedral but not known about for more than 500 years.

The first burial site can be visited as it is now part of the King Richard III Visitor Centre, built on the site of the chapel of Grey Friars.

Walking on

An alternative route from Jewry Wall is along the towpath of the River Soar, which forms part of the Grand Union Canal as it passes through Leicester. Apart from admiring the swans, rowers and canoeists, you can look across to Castle Park, which is the site of Leicester Castle, of which nothing remains except the motte on which the Norman castle was built.

If you cross at the first bridge, you can walk up The Newarke and visit the Newarke Houses Museum, which tells the story of 20th century Leicester and the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. On a fine day, be sure to visit the gardens, which are themselves an historical exhibit of gardening through the centuries.

If you cross at the second bridge, you can walk between the buildings of De Montfort University. At the top of the road, where Bonner’s Lane meets Oxford St, is a Jain temple, the only one in Europe. This is a truly remarkable building, with a marble frontage covered in intricate carvings, many more of which can be found inside. This is a reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of Leicester, which is home to people whose origins are from all over the world. People of all the world’s major religions live here in peaceful harmony.

To your left you can see The Magazine, which was a gateway to the Castle site, with an attached three-storey building, built around 1410. It was through this gateway that Richard III rode on the way to his last battle in 1485.

Carry on down either York Road or Newarke St, cross Welford Place, and you will reach the start of New Walk. This article began with a description of Leicester’s latest pedestrianization, but here is proof that the idea goes back a long way. New Walk, despite its name, was laid out as long ago as 1785, with the stipulation that no wheeled vehicles were to be allowed along it, and the rule still stands to this day. It forms a pleasant, tree-lined route of some 1,100 metres, with substantial town houses built on either side, although many of these have since been converted into offices.

New Walk connects several open spaces, and eventually leads to the much larger Victoria Park, but you might like to stop at the New Walk Museum, and spend some time here. This is Leicester’s oldest museum, and its collection is very wide-ranging, specialising in the natural world and anthropology. Children will probably be most interested in the dinosaurs, including two skeletons that were discovered in Leicestershire, and the “Wild Space” exhibit which is an interactive exploration of biodiversity with many hands-on features.

The museum is also an art gallery, with artists represented including Durer, Pissarro, Hogarth and Lowry. The gallery possesses the largest collection of German expressionist art outside Germany.

When you’ve had enough, make your back to the city centre and gain refreshment at one of the dozens of pubs, cafes and restaurants on offer in Leicester. The cultural diversity of Leicester means that there is something to suit every taste, either in the centre or a short journey away along Belgrave Road, which is at the heart of the Asian community.

And if you still want more, there’s the National Space Centre only a few miles up the road by bus. Exploring Leicester is a very worthwhile activity, but you’ll need more than one day to do it!


© John Welford