Where east meets west - in the Midlands

Trails of the unexpected LEICESTER
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The Independent Travel
Even the Blue Guide gives up when it comes to Leicester. The entry begins "an unattractive place to visit". Nonsense. Few cities in Britain can offer so many varied delights.

Leicester has been spared both heavy bombing and grimy heavy industry: a single walk through the city introduces the curious to the Romans, the Normans, the Georgians and the Victorians at something close to their best. Today, the Asian community is stamping a lively and colourful presence on the city: a hosiery factory has become a Sikh Temple and a congregational chapel houses the Western world's only Jain Centre.

Start at the railway station, which has an attractive late-Victorian terracotta facade. On the corner is a statue of Thomas Cook who in 1841 organised the first ever "package tour" - from Leicester to Loughborough.

Follow the signs to the city centre. Pass through the subway into Granby Street with its pleasing variety of frontages ranging from the Grand Hotel of 1898 to several florid-looking banks. One of the best is the Midland on the corner of Bishop Street. Turn left down here into the square, complete with town hall of 1876 and fountain.

Pass through into the roar of the market. Stentorian traders offer bargains - from cut-price fruit to what is surely the largest quantity of ladies' underwear on display in Britain (appropriately, Leicester was once the centre of the hosiery trade). The Market Square is dominated by the Corn Exchange. Originally it was just a one-storey building, but a second level had to be added in 1855. Problem: how to reach it? A huge semi-detached staircase was erected alongside.

Leave the market via Victoria Parade and to the left in Gallowtree Gate is another strip of shops, one of which contained the former offices of Thomas Cook and still carries a frieze showing trains and paddle steamers. Ahead of you is a Victorian Gothic gem, the clock tower.

Turn left down Silver Street and stroll past the Victorian arcades. In front of you is Leicester's cathedral, St Martin's, which was a parish church until it was upgraded in 1927.

Turn back into Guildhall Lane. Here is the splendid half-timbered medieval Guildhall, now a museum. A few yards on is yet another medieval structure, Wygston's House, which today contains a museum of costume.

Leaving the Middle Ages and going still further back in time, walk through the car park towards brick-built St Nicholas. The church's Saxon creators economised by using Roman building materials now located on the other side of the last remains of the old Roman baths, confusingly called the Jewry Wall. For those not suffering from museum fatigue, do visit the pleasant little museum here. And if that still isn't enough, then turn right towards Welles Street and enjoy the museum inside the wonderfully exotic Sikh Temple, Guru Nanak Gurdwara.

Return to St Nicholas Circle and head right towards the River Soar. Stroll over West Bridge and in front of you is what remains of the old river, which was diverted. It is crossed by the small but perfectly formed Bow Bridge, decorated with the White Rose of York emblem.

On 21 August, 1485, Richard III rode out from Leicester over old Bow Bridge to Bosworth Field and his fateful battle with Henry Tudor. He came back two days later as a corpse slung over the back of a horse. Richard's remains were buried near the cathedral but later an irate mob dug up the bones and slung them into the river. Richard III is commemorated by a statue in Castle Gardens, best reached by carefully crossing busy St Augustine Road. The canalside walk here is delightful.

Stroll through the gardens towards the castle complex and the elegant tower of St Mary de Castro. Now we are at the heart of Norman Leicester, epitomised by the fine carved doorway of the church and the remains of the old castle. In fact St Mary de Castro was originally the castle's chapel.

Pass through Southern Gateway. On your left is 16th-century Newarke Houses Museum, which recounts the social history of the city since 1500 and is justifiably proud of its delicate herb garden to the rear. Turn towards the subway, walk through to Oxford Street and then turn right. Fifty yards on is one of this country's least-known but most stunning buildings - the Jain Centre (Jainism being an offshoot of Hinduism that preaches reverence and the avoidance of injury to all living creatures). Once a Victorian chapel, the Centre's white marble frontage barely hints at what is to be found inside. To walk through the 52 hand-carved stone and marble pillars is like wandering around a magical forest. The quality of the carving would have Grinling Gibbons himself purring with delight.

Take a deep breath before returning to the traffic outside. Turn right past the 14th-century Magazine Gateway, now the home of the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, then right again down Newarke Street. At the end is a fine grouping of buildings. First the public library and, behind it, the so-called Pork Pie Chapel designed by the early 19th- century architect Joseph Aloysius Hansom (better known for his cab).

We've seen Leicester through the centuries, but where's the Georgian bit? Simply turn down King Street on your right and there is the tree- lined New Walk, laid out in 1785, which stretches for a mile and is the equal of anything to be found in Bath. On the right is the lively Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery in an old school designed by Hansom. A few yards further on a pathway leads you back to the station.

Who to ask

Tourist Information Centre, 7/9 Every Street, Town Hall Square (0116- 265 0555)

When to go

The six public museums in Leicester mentioned in this article have the same opening times: Monday to Saturday, 10am-5.30 pm; Sundays 2-5.30pm. Admission free.

The museum at the Sikh Temple is open to visitors on Thursday, l-4pm and other times by appointment (0116-262 8606)

Visitors can view the Jain Centre by appointment (0116-254 3091)

The walk is approximately three miles long

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