Leicester may not strike everyone as a prime tourist destination but, trading heavily on its links with King Richard III, it's doing its best. It manages to combine modern shopping centres, hotels and traffic systems, with the historic pedestrianised city centre, where the medieval street pattern is preserved. Here, close to the Cathedral, a few ancient buildings survive, in partcular the magnificent Guildhall, built in 1390.
The body of the last Plantagenet King, slain by Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth, was found beneath a car park in 2012 and, after appropriate archaeological investigations, reburied with great ceremony in a splendid new tomb in the Cathedral. Close by, a new King Richard III Visitor Centre attracts a steady stream of tourists. Outside the Cathedral, his statue with crown in one hand and sword in the other, has the inscription "A good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people" - a somewhat kinder epitaph than the damning verdict of many historians, following Shakespeare and the Tudors.
Leicester has a strong non-conformist tradition. Many prominent leaders of the Baptist church, in particular, were born or served here. William Carey (1761-1834), shoemaker and founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, was born and grew up in Northamptonshire and we tell much of his story there. His last period of ministry before his departure for India was at the former Harvey Lane Baptist chapel from 1789 to 1793, living in a small cottage nearby. It was during this time that he preached his famous "deathless sermon" (actually in Nottingham) with its much quoted line "Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God". The chapel itself burned down in 1921 while the cottage survived till 1968. Today the whole of Harvey Lane itself lies submerged beneath the Holiday Inn Hotel complex in St Nicholas Circle, seen prominently as you approach the city from the west. There is a blue plaque somewhere here marking the site of Carey's cottage
The Central Baptist Church in Charles Street, with its impressive classical frontage, built by William Flint in 1830, has a William Carey Museum, but unfortunately opening times are rather limited. For more information visit www.central-baptist.org.uk.
Less well-known today, but still remembered in the city is Robert Hall (1764-1831), who also ministered at the Harvey Lane chapel. The youngest of fourteen children of a Baptist minister from Arnesby, Hall was a precocious child, studying ancient Greek and philosophy from an early age. He prepared for the ministry in Bristol and Aberdeen, and following several years at a church in Cambridge, arrived in Leicester in 1807. He was renowned for his eloquence and large numbers were drawn to hear his sermons. While ministering to souls of his hearers, Hall did not forget their material needs, and gave his support to the hosiery workers of the city whose wages were being depressed by the spread of industrial mechanisation. He was involved in the formation of the Framework Knitters Friendly Society, one of the first trade unions. There is a large statue of Hall in De Montfort Square - his hand resting on a volume entitled The Word and his name picked out in gold. To reach it, use the New Walk from Belvoir Street in the city centre, avoiding the busy roads. This delightful pedestrian path (200 years old, despite its name) is tree-lined, shady and bordered by fine buildings from many periods. Even the cast iron lamp-posts have trailing leaf patterns picked out in gold.
Replacing the Harvey Lane chapel, the Robert Hall Memorial Baptist Church (LE3 0PD) stands on the corner of Narborough Road and Upperton Road.
Another Baptist, best known as founder of the worldwide travel company, was Thomas Cook (1808-1892). Though born in Derbyshire, Cook's associations are mainly with Leicester. He trained as a cabinet maker and in his teens and early twenties was an itinerant evangelist, travelling hundreds of miles on foot to preach in the villages and hamlets of Leicestershire and the East Midlands. Perhaps because of this, he no doubt welcomed the growth and spread of the railways. In 1841, Cook arranged the first organized rail excursion - for temperance supporters to attend a meeting in Loughborough. 500 men and women made the eleven mile trip in open-top coaches from Leicester. In later trips, Cook gradually ventured further afield, initially for temperance meetings or Sunday School outings, before moving into general tourism.
Appropriately, his statue stands today outside the station. Cook, with suitcase, portmanteau and umbrella, consults his pocket watch, like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, reminding us that it was the coming of the railways that first compelled different regions of Britain to standardize their times. Cook's original premises are in Gallowtree Gate, close to the Clock Tower. Looking up to the second floor, cast iron panels can be seen, depicting the transports used by Cook at various stages in his career - three steam trains and a paddle steamer.
This small town was the home of two men, six centuries apart, whose labours changed the world forever, but in entirely different ways. As we drive in, a sign reminds us that Lutterworth was the workplace of both John Wycliffe (1324-1384) and Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. A model of Whittle's first jet plane stands on the roundabout at a junction approaching the town.
Wycliffe, described as the "Morning Star of the Reformation", came here as rector of St Mary's Church (LE17 4AN) in 1374, and spent his final years translating the Bible into English, sending out his Lollard preachers and continuing his attacks on clerical abuses. He was buried in the churchyard, but 44 years later his body was exhumed and burned and his ashes thrown into the river Swift.
The church with its pinnacled tower is built of rounded sandstone blocks, giving a pebbled appearance. At the east end of the south aisle is a memorial to Wycliffe sculpted by R Westmacott in 1837. It is a marble relief showing him preaching to villagers while two monkish characters look on with disapproval. The pulpit is probably the original one used by Wycliffe, but a chair beside the altar, sometimes described as "Wycliffe's chair", is certainly later. A portrait painted in 1786 (posthumous by about 400 years!) now hangs in the church.
In the year of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, the citizens of Lutterworth clearly felt that their most famous inhabitant deserved a more substantial monument. A granite obelisk was erected on the corner of Bitteswell Road and George Street, just next to the Wycliffe Memorial Methodist Church. The lettering, recording the reformer's achievements together with relevant Bible verses, has recently been picked out in gold. Appropriately, the national headquarters of the Gideons organization which distributes Bibles to schools and hotels is located a few yards from the memorial.
Born around 1324, Wycliffe was a native of Hipswell, near Richmond in Yorkshire. He was appointed of Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1360 and later held livings in several different parishes. He was a zealous reformer of clerical abuses and attacked ecclesiastical endowments, clerical celibacy, the mass and prayers for the dead. He was accused of heresy and cited to appear at St Paul's in 1377, but he enjoyed the support of John of Gaunt and the charges were dropped. In 1378, Wycliffe began his translation of the Bible which was the basis of all later English translations.
ASHBY DE LA ZOUCH
In the shire country between Leicester and Derby, there are memories of two noble families - the Ferrers and the Hastings - both of whom have lived here for generations. In the eighteenth century, a lady born into one of these families and married into the other was destined to become a significant figure in the evangelical revival. Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791) daughter of the second Earl Ferrers, was born at Wappenham in Northamptonshire, but grew up at Staunton Harold. In 1728, she married Theophilus Hastings, 9th Earl of Huntingdon, and bore him four sons and three daughters. Their marital home was Donnington Hall, but when her husband died in 1746, she moved to Ashby Place.
At the time, the life of an aristocratic lady was normally one of balls, banquets and gossip. In the 1730s, however, the note of revival was beginning to be heard, as George Whitefield and the Wesleys took the gospel message into the open air. One of their circle was Benjamin Ingham, and the earl's sister, Lady Margaret Hastings, was converted through his preaching and subsequently became Mrs Ingham. A fellow aristocrat sniffed that Lady Margaret "had disposed of herself to a poor wandering Methodist". It was through her sister-in-law that Selina was drawn into evangelical circles and became one of the most important supporters of the Methodist movement. Her husband was tolerant of her views but never embraced them himself.
St Helen's Church (LE65 1AA) in South Street near the ruined castle has a chapel devoted to the Hastings family, with memorials from the 16th century onwards. When her husband died, Lady Huntingdon erected a handsome memorial with an epitaph by Lord Bolingbroke. She herself died in 1791 and is buried in the chancel of the church. The brass plate set into the floor quotes her final words "My work is done. I have nothing to do but go to my Father". A medallion portrait by the Flemish sculptor Rysbrack can be seen in the Hastings Chapel and at the west end the stained glass "Annunciation window", with images of various biblical scenes, is dedicated to her memory.
Selina Hastings exercised her influence by using the aristocratic privilege of appointing able preachers as her chaplains. Some of these were men who had been refused ordination or promotion in the church for "enthusiasm". If they preached within her homes or private chapels they avoided the constraints imposed by hostile vicars or bishops. Her list of chaplains included, at various times, William Romaine, John Berridge and George Whitefield. Owning or renting houses in London and many fashionable resorts, she would invite her chaplains to preach to her distinguished circle beneath the chandeliers, just as they preached to ordinary folk beneath the open skies. While many of her guests remained sceptical or indifferent, a small but significant number became committed Christians.
She tried to remain within the confines of the Church of England, but towards the end of her life eventually withdrew and registered her own chapels for nonconformist worship. Most of her Anglican chaplains resigned. She founded a college in Wales for training preachers and supported missionary work in the new American state of Georgia.
Tucked away in countryside just north of Ashby de la Zouch, the setting of this estate has been described as "unsurpassed in the country". There is a garden centre and nursery, a stable block now used as a craft centre, a historic church and Palladian mansion with lawns sloping down to a lake (LE65 1RU). The church was built by Sir Robert Shirley in 1653 "at a time when all things sacred were throughout ye nation either demollisht or profaned", as the intriguing inscription on the outside declares. Sir Robert was a Royalist and the church was a statement of his High Church principles in defiance of Cromwell's Commonwealth.
The Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts gives a clue to the former occupants. The mansion was originally the home of the Ferrers family (Shirley is the family name) and Selina, daughter of the second Earl Ferrers, was brought up here. She later became the Countess of Huntingdon. The mansion was rebuilt in 1763 but incorporates parts of the earlier house. Until recently it was used as residential care home but has now reverted to private ownership.
There are a significant number of old and attractive houses along the main street but Castle Donnington is better known for its motor racing circuit and East Midlands Airport immediately opposite. Donnington Park was the family home of the Earls of Huntingdon and Selena Hastings came here after her marriage to the 9th earl in 1728. John Wesley was a frequent visitor between 1742 and 1746. After her husband's death she moved to Ashby de la Zouch.
The present Donnington Hall is not her original home. It dates from 1795, four years after her death, and now serves as the headquarters of British Midland Airways.
Just off the busy A5, this was the birthplace of George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. At the point where George Fox Lane meets Old Forge Road a stone obelisk erected in 1872 marks the site of his former home (CV13 6BE).
Fox was son of a devout weaver called Christopher Fox, known to his neighbours as "Righteous Christer". After long spiritual struggles, he began to preach his own version of nonconformity, which emphasized the "inner light", rather than formal creeds or doctrines. This brought him into conflict with both civil and church authorities and Fox and his followers endured frequent spells of imprisonment. We meet him in many other places usually in trouble with one authority or another.
Despite their turbulent beginnings, the Quakers gradually gained a reputation for absolute integrity in business and personal affairs. Excluded from universities and government appointments, they often prospered in industry and commerce.
At the point where Main Street through the village meets the busy A6 to Leicester is a handsome house - so long that it could once have been two or more separate cottages. It is called the White House (No 53), with nothing to betray its former role (LE8 0NQ). In the early eighteenth century, this was a nonconformist academy of John Jennings and one of his pupils was the hymn writer Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) who came here at the age of seventeen. Doddridge later became a teacher here and used this as the model for his famous college in Northampton.
About a hundred yards to the north on the same side is the Congregational Chapel (No 79) founded by Jennings and attended by Doddridge. The windows have leaded glass in unusual shapes. There is also a link with Thomas Cook who, before starting his travel company, was a Baptist missionary in these parts. In 1994, plaques in memory of Cook were placed on the wall of this and several other chapels, marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of the company.
The Baptist preacher Robert Hall (1764-1831) was born here, the youngest of fourteen children. His father was minister of the Baptist chapel in St Peter's Road, although the present building is later (LE8 5WJ). Hall became assistant minister at Broadmead Chapel in Bristol in 1785. He was renowned for his eloquence but fought a continuous battle against pain and suffering, and on two occasions completely lost his mind, probably due to the drugs he was prescribed.
In 1807, he became minister at Harvey Lane Baptist Church in Leicester, where he preached for twenty years. He was involved in social welfare projects, organising relief for unemployed stocking workers and pioneering early forms of trade unionism.