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King Richard III by Unknown artist.
oil on panel, late 16th century (late 15th century)
Given by James Thomson Gibson-Craig, 1862
Primary Collection
NPG 148
© National Portrait Gallery, London.

 

It was a cold, dull and damp day in Leicester last Friday but I was determined it wouldn’t spoil the afternoon. A friend had come to stay for the weekend and I was going to show her around Leicester. I’ve never been hugely fond of the city, feeling a far greater affinity with the south of the country, but, on Friday, I saw it through someone else’s eyes for the first time and realised that it’s a far more interesting and friendly place than I ever gave it credit for.

 

We went to the cathedral first. Now I’ve written about the cathedral before: about what it means to me and why I think it is fit for Richard III, but things have changed. The way I feel about it hasn’t changed and nothing has changed that would be perceptible to the casual visitor, but it has changed. It’s stepped up.

 

My friend’s first reaction was to exclaim how homely she found the cathedral. It’s a warm and welcoming space and now, having stepped up to meet the coming challenge of caring for the remains of the last Plantagenet King, it is more so than ever before. There are more people to meet and greet you as you enter the church, to offer assistance and to show you around. They now offer free tours of the building to meet the increasing demand of tourists wanting to know more about it. And, most surprising of all, there’s a “pop-up” café in the south aisle. This isn’t a permanent fixture but has existed in some guise for a while now. Since the announcement that Richard III had indeed been found and would be laid to rest within the cathedral, they’ve opened the café every day. But, this is no ordinary café.

 

When we arrived there were quite a few people already seated at small tables adorned with pretty tablecloths. There were none free. A kindly gentleman asked us if we’d like a drink and set about making us a pot of tea. Once he’d filled a tray with the tea and some very dainty tea cups and saucers, we turned around to find someone had produced a table and chairs, complete with pretty tablecloth, seemingly out of thin air. People bustled about offering refills, making more tea and coffee, and serving some excellent looking home-made cake. Nothing about this is that unusual until you realise that we weren’t asked for any money. On the table where the drinks were being made was simply a small bread basket for donations should anyone have felt so inclined.

 

White roses left by the Richard III memorial stone. My photo.


When we made our way to the Richard III memorial stone there was a small crowd of visitors around it listening with rapt attention to a cathedral volunteer as she talked about the King. There were white roses placed by the memorial and I know the cathedral has seen a steady stream of visitors bearing more white roses in the last week or so. Some people come to view the church, some to view the memorial, some simply to pay their respects. All are welcomed.

 

We went to the Guildhall next and joined a small queue to view the exhibition – Richard III: Leicester’s Search for a King. We didn’t have to queue for long and the wait was alleviated by the easy banter of the lady who was controlling the queue. She was friendly and obviously very proud to be part of such an important event. We were given leaflets to read and then, once inside the exhibition, left to wander through at our own pace.

 

As someone who has avidly watched the press conference and read all the news I could get my hands on regarding the discovery of Richard III, I didn’t read all the information there but, considering the short timescale for putting the exhibition together, it is very impressive. It’s even interactive. For me the most interesting thing was being able to stand in front of the horizontal screen showing an image of the skeleton. You could touch various points on the screen and more information was then displayed with further photographs. It was very well done and was like having the real skeleton laid out in front of you. Everybody viewing the exhibition seemed to be engaged and interested. Most of all, they were enthusiastic.

 

The exhibition is housed in a modern extension of the Guildhall, but we also explored the old part of the building. It’s shocking to think that I’ve lived in Leicestershire since I was 5 years old and never been inside the Guildhall. It is a fascinating building, the Great Hall having been built around 1390. It has everything you might expect from a building of its age: lots of wooden beams, creaking stairs and floorboards and nothing is straight. It’s a wonderful space and is still fully used as a venue for music and theatre as well as weddings and such like. If you’re brave enough, you can peer into the Victorian police cells. I did this without realising there was a light you could switch on first and completely freaked out when I saw a shadowy figure seated inside. I don’t usually scare easily but these took me somewhat by surprise!

 

Jewry Wall & St Nicholas church, Leicester. Source.


Venturing back out into the cold we made our way to the Jewry Wall – a large section of wall that was once part of the Roman town’s public baths. I haven’t been up close to it since I was at school and was surprised by the sheer scale of it. It doesn’t look like much from a distance but up close you get a real sense of just how huge it must have been. Right next door to the wall is a small church: St Nicholas. This church has a very long and complicated history and is somewhere I have never visited. The external brickwork is interesting because it’s obvious that some Roman bricks have been used in its construction. We were especially lucky to find it was open so we stepped inside. The interior is quite dark but rather beautiful. A gentleman who appeared to be cleaning the chancel looked up and said something like, “You won’t find him here!” At any other time this might have seemed a little odd but we knew exactly what he meant.

 

Wandering around the city with my friend she reminded me to look up. Leicester is a modern city with modern shops and some very modern architecture; however, if you look up and venture away from the main shopping areas there is much to see. A lot of Georgian and Victorian architecture, some of it quite impressive, can be found all over the city but behind some of the façades and round unexpected corners there is still evidence of a much older city.

 

Leicester’s Curve Theatre by night. Source.

 
We spent the evening in one of the most modern attractions, Leicester’s Curve Theatre. It is unlike any other theatre and has no traditional backstage area. The theatre is in the centre of the building and at the end of each performance they raise the walls separating the backstage area from the foyer, thus revealing some of the mysteries of the stage. It is a wonderfully versatile and creative place that not only hosts touring productions but produces new works too. Its modernity does nothing to impede its sense of community and it’s just as important to the city as the remains of the Roman baths.

 

The impending reinterment of Richard III will bring a whole new dimension to Leicester. It will bring more people to the city and raise Leicester’s profile not just in Britain but worldwide. As for the cathedral: I mentioned that I thought it had stepped up, and for me the most important way in which it has done this, is by not changing what it is that makes it such a special place. They continue to do all those things that make people feel welcome; they just now do them on a slightly larger scale.

 

That Richard III will change Leicester is inevitable. But, I’m confident that he will never change Leicester people. We will continue to be a diverse and multi-cultural community. We will also continue to make visitors feel welcome. Whether that’s by sharing our knowledge and generosity in the cathedral, by encouraging people to share in our heritage, or simply by exchanging some banter in the shops, market or museums, I am sure that our friendliness will prevail.

 

UPDATE: Photos taken by my friend on our Leicester tour can be viewed on Flickr here.
 

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