By Hannah Silverman
There’s an excited energy in the city of Leicester, the kind of buzz you experience when you know something big is about to happen. Real big. Like a new city hosting the Olympics. Like Kate Middleton preparing to do anything anywhere in the world. Like reburying the Last Plantagenet King whose remains were discovered in a car park.
The spectacle leading up to Richard III’s reinterment in Leicester Cathedral next month is contagious and everyone, it seems, is on board. I was in Leicester last week to see for myself just what kind of impact 500-year-old history was having on the the city today and the Richard III effect was evident as soon as I walked into its centre. Signs directing tourists to King Richard III’s Visitor Centre feature as prominently as directions to the Highway, while plum flags bearing an image of Richard III’s statue flap proudly along the city’s main thoroughfares. The King of Tourism is drawing in the masses and the people are listening.
Leicester as a collective has done a brilliant job in both commemorating and educating visitors about Richard III while preserving his legacy and encouraging debate. The Richard III Society, as the driving force for much of this, is equally deserving of such acclaim for leading the charge with their ‘Looking for Richard Project’ which prompted archeologists to their headlining discovery back in 2012. They’ve also made it their mission to improve the reputation of the King, who in the eyes of many was a hunchbacked evil mastermind, and commissioned a statue to be erected in his honour in 1980. Thanks to several ubiquitous reminders, as a traveller to Leicester, it’s impossible not to take an interest and share in the intrigue in his life, or at the very least enjoy a pint in one of several Richard III referenced pubs. In many ways, there’s a curious sense that he’s still reigning.
I started my weekend on a walking tour with Footprints Blue Badge Guides where for two hours our guide, Caroline, led us to the significant Richard III sites in her tour, Richard III: Leicester Connection. For only £4, it’s a very un-London charge and oh so worth it if for no other reason than to pick her brains. We were taken to the now infamous car park, which is still in functioning order for Social Services, however in the 15th Century was home to the friary of Greyfriars (later destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monastries). Here we are told that it is believed Henry Tudor ordered the monks bury Richard III in haste after the battle, leaving little clues to future generations that there was a king buried beneath its soil.
And in haste they did. The grave the monks dug was too small and there is evidence that Richard III’s hands were tied together, so it’s safe to say they cut a few corners from a traditional royal burial. Yet now when 21st Century viewers look on from the roadside, its significance has been restored despite the incongruous surrounds. Here beyond an open gate, mere metres from where we stand, is the location where Richard III lay for the past 500 years. Of course instead of marked graves and magnificent architecture of the friary, is a skip and about half a dozen cars. The irony is breathtaking. A king. In a car park? This car park?
Part of the trench and the grave site itself (as above) has been preserved for viewing, although features within the newly opened King Richard III Visitor Centre, which is an absolute must-see. It’s just a short minute walk away and will take you a little more than an hour or so to explore Richard III’s history and an explanation of the dig and associated research. It puts perfectly into context everything else you’ll see in your travels of Leicester.
Leicester Cathedral was the next POI and will next month host the acitvities and Religious ceremonies for Richard III’s reinterment. As part of the preparation, extensive building work has been conducted to make room for Richard III’s tomb. I was fortunate to have a peek at the area, as it was finished just last week. It is here that Richard III will be buried in a coffin created by one of his descendants with, as I am told, a replica of his crown bearing precious jewels.
Bow Bridge, which features on the outskirts of the city’s centre, bears further reference to the King and honours the historic belief that Richard III’s body was thrown into the River Soar below. There are also legends that it was here Richard was cursed on this bridge on his way to Bosworth and that the horse carrying his naked corpse was paraded back to the town via the same route.
Despite the timely relevance of the Richard III experience, the Battlefield of Bosworth has been telling this story for more than 40 years. Bosworth, about 14 miles outside of Leicester, is an extension of the Richard III experience, completing the picture by allowing visitors to walk among one of England’s most significant battlefields. Although awkward to get to without a car (or a bus if you’re travelling Sunday) the centre is comprehensive and full of educational delights for all ages. Our knowledgable guide, Bill, seemed to have all the answers as he stopped along the route of the battlefield to share narratives from the war.
What struck me as the most powerful aspect of Leicester Richard III experiences is that we are living 500-year-old history now. This might be the final chapter on a story about about a Medieval king but whenever his tale is told, it will end with anecdotes about how his remains were discovered in a Leicestershire car park. A car park thousands of us have now seen and many of those who were involved in the process are still very much alive today.
Interestingly, one of the recurring comments from guides, tourists and bartenders was ‘you couldn’t write this stuff’ and as cliched as that sounds, they’re right. If Hollywood released a blockbuster about a king who was buried beneath a city for more than 500 years, audiences would demand a Razzie right away for being too far fetched, even for Tinsel Town. Yet it happened, and travellers can experience it for themselves.
But while he’s the star of the show, it’s not all about Richard III, and even if it is, hey, a girl’s got to eat (and sip cocktails). If you’re in town, recommended pitstops include 1573, a restaurant inside one of England’s oldest school buildings; Queen of Bradgate, an exceptionally friendly pub with a hipster vibe including its new addition of a Gin Parlour and The Case Champagne Bar.
Whether it’s a result of the increased attention surrounding Richard III and indeed Leicester, the city is now offering more than ever before. Locals tell me there are boutique wine bars popping up all the time and it’s obvious from the reconstructed park lands and squares that Leciester is well aware something hugely significant is happening. What will Leicester be like when this excitment dilutes? No doubt its royal calling card will resonate with travellers for years to come, but for the next month or so, travellers will join in the hype and live this rare historic experience as it happens.
Then again, perhaps it won’t subside. Leicester power players have now launched a programme to expand the city and county into a visitor destination to rival York and Stratford-upon-Avon. According to newspaper reports this could increase the value of the tourism sector which totalled £1.48 billion in 2013. Then there are the books… and the films…
Richard III is haunting Leicester, but the ghosts of England’s past are welcomed by Ricardians, tourism operators and this fascinated traveller alike. Unlike a sporting event or a royal meet and greet, long after Richard III’s tomb is sealed, this attraction is bound to endure.