Leicestershire, England’s heart

Dr Richard Jones, Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester

  • View from Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.
    View from Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

At only 912 feet, England has greater mountains and more picturesque peaks than Leicestershire’s Bardon Hill. Yet none can match its panorama. A quarter of England’s counties can be spied from its summit. From this unlikely vantage point—not a stone’s throw from where King Richard met his death and half a century later Lady Jane Grey, the short-lived queen, was born—unfolds by degrees the story of England and its people, their history and their legends. This is England seen from Leicestershire, the county in which a post raised by the Ordnance Survey marks the country’s geographic centre; Leicestershire, with its cordiform boundary; Leicestershire, the nation’s actual and figurative heart.

Leicestershire contains England’s mother earth. It was here 570 million years ago that our island originated in an outburst of volcanic activity. No other geological formation matches the antiquity of the pre-Cambrian rocks that form the rugged boss of Charnwood Forest of which Bardon Hill is a northerly sentinel. Half a million years ago Charnwood looked down on the Bytham, the great palaeo-river that swept its ribboned course to the North Sea. For those that first roamed this land, Homo Heidelbergensis and Homo Neanderthalensis, the Bytham was an arterial route. These pioneer populations, Leicester’s aboriginal Walkers, left us their stone tools as evidence of their ingenuity and industry along the Bytham’s banks. This broad valley is now long gone, its contours scoured away by the action of successive glacial tides and obscured by the clays, sands and gravels they deposited in their wake. It was through this thick plasticine expanse, that the lyrical rivers of Leicestershire—the Chater and the Mease, the Sense and the Swift, the Eye and the Medbourne, the Soar and the Wreake—began quietly to fashion their meandering courses to give the county its feminine anatomy.

Quintessentially English

Leicestershire is a quintessentially English county. Over its soft contours and sharp hawthorn hedges have galloped for more than two centuries the scarlet-clad riders of the Cottesmore, the Belvoir, the Fernie and the Quorn all in pursuit of the county’s emblem, the fox. It is to these huntsmen that we owe one of the nation’s celebrated culinary icons, the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, a hearty bite designed to be eaten on the charge. Even the county’s cheeses—the red of Leicester and the white and blue of Stilton—echo the colours of the Union flag. The very shape of the animals that give so freely of their milk and meat owes much to the vision and enterprise of one of Leicestershire’s eighteenth-century sons, Robert Bakewell of Dishley. His experiments in selective breeding produced the New Leicester, the county’s greatest agricultural export, whose DNA can now be found in flocks as far afield as New Zealand, America, and South Africa. But Leicestershire’s menagerie contains as much that is exotic and strange as familiar: its fearsome pack of Rugby Union Tigers, its unquenchable Rugby League Phoenixes, its soaring American Football Falcons, and its roaring Speedway Lions. It includes a mole called Adrian; ladybirds, for it was in Leicester that these children’s books were first published; is remembered for a king’s horse that was fatefully absent; and remains ashamed of its inhumane treatment of its ‘elephant’ John Merricks.

Welcoming outsiders

Like the ever-returning ice that prepared the scene, so this attractive shire has greeted wave after wave of colonizers and settlers. No English county can claim to have been so welcoming to outsiders over so long. Neolithic farmers with Continental roots, Leicestershire’s first permanent residents, began the process of cutting back the trees to clear space for their fields and homesteads. With their metal axeheads, their Bronze Age successors completed the task, heaping the newly revealed earth into mounds in which to bury their dead. Then came the great monument builders of the Iron Age, the Corieltauvi, who left their indelible stamp on the landscape in the embanked forts they constructed on the three hills of Burrough, Breedon and Beacon. It was they who established their regional capital on the banks of the Soar; they who at Hallaton constructed an open air shrine to be the focus of feast and faith.

Rome gave the county its first walled city, Ratae Corieltauvorum, the caester of Leicester, and two of its four great roads—the Fosse Way, piercing Leicestershire’s heart like an arrow from Mars not Cupid; his second shot, Watling Street, grazing its western flank—colliding at High Cross to form an imperial moniker. Along their more recent successors, the Great North Road to the east and the M1 motorway to the west, traffic thunders through paying scant regard to Leicester’s landscapes and rich heritage. Along the Roman routes small towns grew like Venonis ‘the place of poison plants’ and Vernemetum ‘the spring grove’, while in the countryside the indigenes, their minds giddy with exotic ideas from the Continent built villas and farmsteads, and manured their fields of barley with compost containing freshly broken sherds of new styles of pottery. To the natural soils of Leicestershire, then, these immigrant populations and all who have followed them have deposited their own cultural humus, laid here as thick as anywhere, the accumulation of which gives the county, indeed the country, its distinctive character and identity.

As the Roman garrisons retreated and their presence faded in the collective memory, so Leicestershire saw a new influx from abroad. These settlers were Angles, St Gregory’s blond and pale-skinned angels. To these incomers we owe our nation’s name. It was from their Germanic tongue spoken in Leicestershire’s fields and farmsteads that the English language and its Midland dialects emerged. To them we owe an indelible contribution to our collective DNA whose fingerprint would first be isolated in Leicester 1500 years later. From their hamlets and farmsteads the great majority of the towns and villages in which we still live later grew. We continue to use the names they coined to describe and distinguish these places. Nothing evokes Englishness more than Leicester’s ‘hams’ and ‘tons’, ‘wicks’ and ‘cots’, ‘leys’ and ‘worths’. Nothing moreover speaks louder of the influence later Scandinavian settlers would have on our culture than the ‘bys’ and the ‘thorps’ they introduced along Leicestershire rivers and on to its wolds from the ninth century. From these old places, many of the surnames of Leicester’s more recent finest derive: Lord Richard and Sir David Attenborough, Gary Lineker, Joe Orton, Mark Selby, Peter Shilton, and Sue Townsend. In their turn the Normans too, etched their mark on and added more linguistic depth to the Leicestershire landscape at Belvoir, Launde, Kibworth Harcourt and Beauchamp. Every village tells the Story of England, but revealingly it was these Kibworths, Leicestershire villages, that were recently asked to stand witness for the rest.

Today 70 languages are spoken in Leicester. No city represents modern multicultural Britain so well, its imperial past and its modern European and global present. Across the second half of the twentieth century successive communities have been drawn to the place. It was here that Polish servicemen established their home after the Second World War, and where many economic migrants from the Irish Republic chose to set down new roots. From the 1950s, Leicester began to welcome groups from the West Indies, the Indian Subcontinent and Pakistan. During the 1970s East African Asians came in numbers, twice-migrants from Kenya and from Uganda where they had been forcefully expelled by its repressive president. Among their number they could count Hindus, Muslims, Jains and Ismailis from Gujarat, Sikhs from the Punjab. More recently they have been joined by Somalis and from greater Europe, Ukrainians, Serbs and Lithuanians. In Leicester there has been a true reuniting of the people scattered from Babel. Each and all have imprinted themselves on the rhythm and fabric of the city. Diwali candles illuminate the largest celebration of the Festival of Lights outside India and burn as brightly as the Christmas lights that follow. Rundown and tawdry Belgrave has been reinvented as a Golden Mile of sari shops, jewellers, curry houses and sweet shops. The hemispherical roofs of Mosques now rise over Victorian terraces; nothing competes in beauty or is more loaded with meaning than the 44 ornately decorated pillars found within the Jain Centre; nothing takes your breath away more than the sumptuous exterior of the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir with its marble domes carved by Gujurati craftsmen representing the Himalayan peaks.

Busyness

The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was once a derelict denim factory, a remnant of Leicester’s great manufacturing age. Since the seventeenth century Leicester’s prosperity has been built on hosiery, textiles, and shoes. Evidence for this busyness can be found everywhere, from the glass-paned upper floors of houses and workshops in the small towns and villages of Leicestershire, their knitting frames lit by natural light, to the great gas-lit factories (in reality temples to capitalism) raised by Victorian industrialists in Loughborough, Hinckley and Leicester itself. Canal and railway allowed Leicester’s products to be sent around the world. By 1936 Leicester had become the second wealthiest city in Britain on the profits accrued from suiting and booting a nation and an empire. In turn it was these very factories which offered work to the new inhabitants of Leicester from a now defunct and dismantled empire in the 1950s and 60s. Today, the factories have largely fallen silent, but Leicester-based Next and Boden keep this textile tradition, if not local manufacturing, alive.

Trades such as shoemaking and stocking-knitting bred in the common man ideas of religious dissent through talk over frames and cobbler’s forms. Non-conformity marched with the textile industry and, in its wake, sprang up in Leicestershire many chapels. The Baptists were present in the county from the 1630s, the Presbyterians from the 1670s, the Methodists from the 1750s and the Congregationalists from the 1800s. Historically, when the folk of Leicestershire have dissented from the status quo, they have spoken up and the world has listened. The origins of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ are found in the gathering of rebellious barons brought together by Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, that met in Westminster Hall on 20 January 1265. Nearly four centuries later many in Leicester would side with Parliament during the English Civil Wars. The first rumblings of English opposition to the Catholic Church was voiced by the Rector of St Mary’s Church, Lutterworth, John Wycliffe, the Lollard towards the end of the fourteenth century. Two centuries later it was the inspirational preaching of the son of a Leicestershire weaver, born at Fenny Drayton in 1620, that gave birth to the Society of Friends and Quakerism. His name…George Fox. Could there be a more apposite Leicestershire surname?

Oddballs, querks, and geniuses

Like all counties Leicestershire has its oddballs, querks, and geniuses. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it could boast among its number Britain’s heaviest man, Daniel Lambert, that ‘Prodigy of Nature’ as his headstone proclaims, famously portrayed by the local artist Benjamin Marshall. Few now know, perhaps, that the Liberty Bodice was designed and first manufactured in Market Harborough in 1908 or have forgotten that Action Man was first produced and sold by Leicestershire firm Palitoy of Coalville in 1966. But the last word must be reserved for two men born outside the county but whose achievements are firmly associated with it. If the dominant narrative of Leicester and Leicestershire over the millennia has been one of the reception of peoples drawn from all over the globe, then these men opened up this wider world for the people of Leicester to explore. The first of these visionaries was Thomas Cook who, in organising a railway excursion for the temperance movement from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841 at 1s. per head (ticket and food included), gave the world wanderlust and the cheap package holiday. Those that now fly out in such of sun and relaxation are equally indebted to the genius of our second figure, Sir Frank Whittle, who patented the turbojet engine he had designed and built at Lutterworth in 1930 and which now power the aeroplanes which bring everywhere within reach.

From the ground in which King Richard will be buried to 35,000 feet in the air, from Leicester’s Anglican Cathedral to the sheep pastures of New Zealand, the essence of Leicestershire is everywhere. Leicester, made through inviting the world to its bosom, has in turn, spread her arms to touch every part of the world. The pulse of Leicester’s heart has become a global beat.

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