On Location - Touring Richard III's Leicester

Since the discovery of King Richard III’s skeleton under a Leicester parking lot, the English city has stepped up its connection to the notorious monarch. For years, there have been statues and plaques and even businesses honoring Richard (the King Richard III Pub? Why not?), but now there is a brand-new museum and a new walking tour...and a new hole in an otherwise unremarkable parking lot...so we decided to spend a day exploring and seeing what we could learn about the controversial king.

First off, getting to Leicester from London is wonderfully easy: Trains depart St. Pancras regularly, and depending on the number of stops in between, the trip can run between an hour and 75 minutes. The trains have electric outlets and Wi-Fi (good for business travelers), and a snack cart is available.

From the train station, it’s a quick walk to the Belmont Hotel, a family-owned property comprised of several historic buildings turned into one gorgeous maze of a hotel. It’s got winding hallways and big bay windows and fireplaces and a genuine Old English sense of place. (No one would ever mistake this hotel for a brand property. And the below was our room:) 

We dropped off our bags and headed out with Simon Gribbon, Head of Communications for Leicester Shire Promotions, to explore the city where Richard III departed for his ill-fated battle at Bosworth Field.

We met up with Virginia Wright, a Blue Badge guide, who took us around to all the sites in the city that have a connection with King Richard. Some sites are historic, like a house that was standing in 1485 when the King marched out of the city, and some are more contemporary, like a statue raised by the Richard III Society to help rehabilitate his image. The Leicester Cathedral was renovated in the Victorian era (and was only consecrated as a Cathedral in the 1920s), and has a large central flagstone dedicated to Richard’s memory. The Bow Bridge that Richard crossed when he set off to Bosworth was dismantled years ago, but a new bridge in its place has plenty of Tudor and Yorkist iconography to celebrate the spot’s place in history.

And then there’s the Guildhall, a central building that has served as a Town Hall and theater and meeting space for centuries. The old-fashioned architecture has been maintained, the windows are largely original from Richard’s time, and it is very likely that the king himself (and other kings, and Shakespeare) spent time in the main room. It was in the Guildhall that researchers from the University of Leicester first announced that they had discovered a skeleton that might be Richard’s, and an adjacent building has been turned into a museum about the search for the long-lost monarch. The temporary “Richard III: The Search For a King” exhibition at the Guildhall is free to the public and covers details of Richard’s life, death, burial and discovery. (A permanent museum will open next year.) A table has a life-sized touch screen with a digital model of the king’s skeleton, and visitors can “touch” different bones to see what scientists were able to learn from them. A more permanent exhibit is in the works, but the current one is absolutely worth seeing...and taking one’s time to explore.

The parking lot (or “car park,” as the English say) is used by a private business, and ever since the bones were found the space is closely guarded. Tour guides, however, can access the site and walk right up to the hole in the ground--all the more reason to book with a local guide. And there we were, looking down into a trench where, 528 years before, the last English king to die on a battlefield was unceremoniously stuffed into a too-small grave without a coffin. With most of the cars gone from the lot, and with only a few people standing around, the site suddenly becomes very quiet, and the solemnity of the place becomes palpable. It’s hard not to wonder who is under all of the other streets and parking lots throughout the city, and what the next great historic discovery will be.

Leaving the Wars of the Roses behind, we wandered from the hotel down the New Walk, a lovely tree-lined walking path through the city that goes straight through the heart of the town, passing plenty of local pubs and restaurants. Just off the New Walk is the Chutney Ivy, a wonderful upscale Indian restaurant where foodies should plan to spend several hours sampling the “feasts”--multi-course meals that bring out a little bit of everything on the menu. (There is a vegetarian option as well.) Ask for Shaf Islam when making reservations: He’ll make the meal extra special.

The next morning, after a fortifying English breakfast at the hotel, we set off for a 30-minute drive with Simon to visit the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage & Visitor Centre and learn all about the 90-minute fight that ended one dynasty and launched another. (It’s strange to think that a tour of the museum and the memorial can easily take longer than the battle that changed England’s history so dramatically.)

For the record, the Centre is not located exactly where the battle took place, but nearby. Scientists were only able to determine the exact location of the fight a few years ago, and the Centre had already been well established in the general area. One advantage to the Centre’s location, however, is that visitors can look across all the surrounding farm fields to get a broader sense of where the different armies were at different points during the conflict. Hills, copses of trees and marshes all played a part in the battle, and they are all visible from the Centre.

The museum is geared for families, and presents a fully immersive experience to explain not only the Battle of Bosworth but its overall place in English history. Videos recreate not only the battle, but the daily lives of people in the conflict (a soldier, a serving girl, etc.). Visitors can pick up recreations of medieval weapons and try on era-appropriate clothing and even armour. Guided tours help put everything in context: For example, while the armour feels unbearably heavy to us, boys in the 1400s would have been used to practicing in it, and would have been much more comfortable than we are today. Also? Chain mail is heavy. Really heavy.

Good to know: The Centre gets plenty of school groups during the week, so ask in advance when booking if crowds are expected. Those looking for a more exclusive experience would do well to get there early. It’s worth the effort to have a quiet moment overlooking the peaceful fields that, for one day more than 500 years ago, were anything but peaceful.

 

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