26 June 2017

A Weekend in Leicester

Despite my life-long interest in 15th- and 16th-century English history — a passion I inherited from my dad — I had never managed to visit the city of Leicester, whose connection with the Plantagenet king Richard III has been in the news fairly regularly over the past few years, displaced only by a certain football team. My only previous visit to Leicestershire was when I did my PADI Open Water training in the murky quarry of Stoney Cove back in 2002, so it was high time I returned to the county.

One of my school friends is currently studying for a post-graduate degree in Leicester so I went up to visit her and her partner at the weekend. We were blessed with warm, sunny weather and I really enjoyed our adventures in and around the city. My train from St Pancras took about 1h15 and even booking a month in advance only brought the return ticket price down from £60 to £43; Leicester is a notoriously expensive place to visit, it seems. Nonetheless, I was soon walking past the red-brick buildings of the city to get to my friends' house, and then we headed out into the countryside for lunch.

Our destination was John's House, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Mounstorrel, a small village near Loughborough. The restaurant is located in a small complex involving a farm, farm shop and café and wasn't well sign-posted from the road so we missed it first time round, but before long, we were perusing the menus in the reception area, which felt like being in the cosy living room of a smart friend. There were three G&Ts on offer, and I chose one with apple marigold, lime and Mediterranean Fever Tree tonic, which was delicious. We also nibbled on some lovely Sicilian olives.

There was a £70 tasting menu, but although it looked great, we stuck to the three-course lunch, which was just £28. Upstairs in the restaurant, we devoured the freshly baked bread — one variety with onion and one with rosemary — and awaited our food. To start, we all went for the duck confit with brown shrimps, peas and shallots. It tasted wonderful and, like all of the dishes, was beautifully presented. My main course — confit of smoked salmon with shrimps (again!), wasabi, dill and cucumber — was even prettier and superbly combined flavours and textures. The other main course dish was pork belly with sweetcorn and mushrooms, which also went down very well.

For pudding, I had a sort of yuzu and lemon meringue with elderflower sorbet, which, again, was a real treat for the tongue with its sweet–sharp, warm–cold, soft–crisp contrasts. The trifle was also more than a trifle lovely! The service at John's House was impeccable and perhaps the only possible cause for complaint is that there aren't always vegetarian options — both starters and mains on Saturday involved meat and/or fish. After lunch, we strolled around the rustic farm buildings and the vintage petrol pumps.

We then drove to to Bradgate Park, a huge country park a few miles north-west of Leicester. Dozens of red and white deer roam the park, although as it was so busy on such a sunny Saturday, many of them had decided to hide. We did make a few friends, though. We also took a peek at the ruins of Bradgate House, which was completed in the early 16th century by Thomas Grey, the grandfather of nine-day-queen Lady Jane Grey, and grandson of Elizabeth Woodville, whose second husband was King Edward IV (older brother of Richard III, of whom more later). We couldn't tour the ruins, unfortunately, although there seemed to be a wedding reception taking place.

After our big lunch and lazy afternoon, we spent the evening at home, but went out on Sunday morning in such of further diversions. Although St Martin's Coffee had been on my list since I sampled some of their espresso at the London Coffee Festival this year, I hadn't done any further research for the weekend, but we happened to come across 200 Degrees when walking down Market Street and stopped in there too. I will be writing up a separate post about these two fine Leicester coffee establishments in due course.

As well as a personal interest in the Wars of the Roses (the Starks and Lannisters have nothing on the intrigues and rivalries of the Yorks and the Lancasters), I also had a professional reason to visit the shiny new King Richard III Visitor Centre, which opened in 2014 on the site of the carpark where the king's remains were discovered. More specifically, the publisher I work for published a paper that reports the scientific evidence for the identification of the remains as being those of Richard III, and the story kept my team rather busy around the time of publication.

It costs £8.95 to visit the museum, although you can return as many times as you like within a year using the same ticket. There is a lot of information there on the history, the king's evolving reputation, the discovery in the carpark and the scientific study of the remains, but it's well presented and very interesting. We spent a fascinating hour there.

Afterwards, we headed into the Lanes, a charming, pedestrianised shopping area. We had a decent, although not outstanding, lunch at a Central/South American cantina in St Martins Square; the BBQ joint just opposite may have been a better bet, and of course, if St Martin's Coffee's burger bar, Crafty, had been open, that would have been an obvious choice. My friends had been to the latter before and spoke highly of it. Instead, we settled for coffee and pudding at St Martin's and then continued our stroll through town.

A lot of the shops seemed to be shut on Sundays — I was particularly disappointed I couldn't go into a homeware store called Harriman & Co — but we had a wander through the shiny new shopping centre, before returning to my friends' house via New Walk, a leafy, pedestrianised promenade, which claims to have been traffic-free for more than 200 years.

By then, it was time for me to take the train back to London. In an effort to save a few quid from my ticket price, I'd decided to take the slow (2h15) train home. A mistake, perhaps, although the journey was pleasant enough with some lovely views of the English countryside at golden hour. More importantly, it's been good to remember that just because a train ticket to a UK city costs the same price as a flight or Eurostar ticket to somewhere in mainland Europe, it doesn't mean the former should always be eschewed. I still have so much of my home country to explore and really must get better at making time to do so.

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