Welcome to my home town: How Leicester’s year of tumultuous local lockdowns made green space essential

·4-min read
Abbey Park: Leicester has plentiful green spaces (Getty Images)
Abbey Park: Leicester has plentiful green spaces (Getty Images)

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from.

I was born in Northampton but found myself becoming somebody entirely different in Leicester. I came here for university five years ago but now the city has become a surrogate home town.

Every day I find out new things about this city in the heart of England that’s known for the National Space Centre, Richard III and winning the premier league – whether that be its rich industrial history, or a hidden pocket of nature begging to be explored.

Amid the hustle of university, I missed what Leicester had to offer. I was the typical student, more acquainted with the city’s nightlife than its parks, but this year the pandemic has shone a new light on things I often overlooked.

Green spaces have become a lifeline for many during the pandemic, myself included. They’re vital to maintaining good mental and physical health – a fact I’d already experienced first-hand when struggling with panic attacks pre-lockdown. On this front, Leicester delivers: from the quaint Castle Gardens to the vibrant Aylestone Meadows and even the many green spaces that dot the river Soar, I’ve explored every nook of nature possible within walking distance over the past 16 months.

Castle Gardens has become my sanctuary during the lockdown. The park offers an attractive mix of nature and medieval heritage – set in the former medieval city, the surrounding area includes the recently refurbished Great Hall as well as the remnants of medieval defences. The castle motte can still be seen and is accessible by steep steps from the park’s interior, which takes you past John of Gaunt’s cellar – unfortunately no longer accessible to the public. Sometimes, I go up to the mound early in the morning to look out peacefully over De Montfort University, where I studied, or admire St Mary de Castro church. You can follow the cobbled streets out of the park and round to the Turret Gateway, which is parked next to the Trinity Herb Garden, where the university grows produce for its campus café.

Leicester Cathedral, helping prove the city is not just about football and Richard III (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Leicester Cathedral, helping prove the city is not just about football and Richard III (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Hidden behind some of Leicester’s busiest roads, you’ll find what is probably the city’s best-kept secret – several acres of meadows and woodlands, criss-crossed by streams. Everyone usually flocks to Bradgate Park, near Newtown Linford, when the sun shines but Aylestone Meadows is my preferred option.

If life in lockdown has taught me anything, it’s that a bland city can be revived by its green credentials

Then there’s Leicester’s meandering river Soar which stretches through the city. The routes along it deliver beautiful scenery, industrial heritage and the chance to ogle canal boats as they trawl across the waterways of the Grand Union Canal. The water pumps life into many of the city’s green spaces; as we emerge from the pandemic, I’ve already got my sights set on the annual Riverside Festival, returning in 2022. It has stalls, music, activities and arts and crafts, with an eco focus.

If life in lockdown has taught me anything, it’s that a bland city can be revived by its green credentials. As somebody who has struggled with mental health, this patchwork of verdant spaces, offering on-tap access to nature and wildlife all across Leicester, has helped keep me sane.

I never really thought Leicester would become somewhere I’d want to spend a good slice of my life but it just goes to show. If you think we’re just about football and Richard III, pay a visit – and let this misunderstood city prove you wrong.

Go shopping

Nature not your style? Check out an array of independent businesses on Clarendon Park’s Queens Road. Venture away from the city centre and the neighbouring Victoria Park to find stores worth shopping at. I’d recommend Coffee Ethic, which serves artisan coffee, cakes, breakfast and lunch, with gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options available.

Victoria Park, which was the city’s racecourse (Getty Images)
Victoria Park, which was the city’s racecourse (Getty Images)

Take a stroll

Victoria Park was the city’s racecourse but it now has thoughtfully laid-out winding pathways shaded by avenues of trees. It’s also home to Leicester Pride, an event celebrating diversity and freedom of expression every year. It starts with a spectacular parade through the city, culminating at Victoria Park with live music, market stalls, funfair rides and health and wellbeing information. The event is free and will be back this year on 4 September.

Culture trip

The Leicester Museum and Art Gallery in the historic New Walk brings people together to enjoy art, history and science, all for free. Travel through the age of the dinosaurs, ancient Egypt and the natural world. When you’re done, stroll down traffic-free New Walk to reach the city centre.

Riverside of the Soar in Leicester’s centre (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Riverside of the Soar in Leicester’s centre (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Eat up

Feeling peckish? Head for the city centre’s St Martins Quarter; whether it’s lunch or gelato, they’ve got you covered. St Martin’s Café and Gelato Village are both worth visiting.

Bed down

Ramada Encore in the cultural quarter is a good mid-range option with modern rooms, from £126 a night. But if, like me, you prefer a more affordable stay then head to the Premier Inn next to the train station for its proximity to the shops and quick access to transport. Standard rooms start at £35 a night.

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