I arrived to the Campanile Hotel in Leicester before noon on a Saturday. “Is it possible to check in?” I ask at the front desk. “No, check-in is at 2 o’clock, you’ll have to come back later.”
I knew check-in was not until 2, but most hotels allow early arrivals if they have any empty rooms. Or if they don’t, they at least pretend to. “Sorry, we don’t have any rooms available at the moment,” sits better with me than, “check-in is at 2.” But that is the rule and that is the reason presented.
I head into the streets towards downtown. In the very centre of town is a clock tower from-which emanate pedestrianised streets in every direction. My first impressions of Leicester are bleak. Driving in, the Sat Nav was not well able to navigate the mixed-up combination of twisting one-way streets combined with road construction and diversions. I did a few circles before deciding not to listen to Audi’s GPS system and actually making progress. I may set-up the Tom Tom before I leave this city, I am finding Audi’s Sat Nav to be quite poor indeed.
I chose the hotel because it looked very convenient, just outside the ring road of the downtown. But my area of downtown seems to be rather downtrodden, an industrial area now partially boarded-up. “Where have I taken myself now,” I wonder as I walk in the direction of the clock tower, taking some desolate photos on the way.
This is a bank holiday weekend and the shopping streets are packed. In fact, it’s incredible. For a smallish city of around 300 thousand, it seems like we could not conjure these kinds of numbers in a city of more than 10 times the population, I am thinking of my own city of Toronto. The crowds moving through the extensive pedestrian area make me feel like I am at a carnival, it’s like walking through the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition, an 18-day festival in Toronto).
My first impression of Leicester is of feeling claustrophobic. The buildings crowding the streets, the streets crowded with people. I wander in search of somewhere to linger as I explore, but I don’t feel comfortable.
At the Tourist Information centre I discover that I missed the once-weekly walking tour, it was this morning. The office is of no real use to me whatsoever as I ask what options I have for seeing this city. I pause here staring at the pamphlets for some time, I can’t seem to filter out the interesting from the banal today and nothing catches my attention. I’m feeling overwhelmed by my continuous travel this weekend, I wan’t the ladies hired to work here to tell me what is interesting but they don’t seem to have any opinions, they just try to answer specific questions. Well, they don’t really “try” but they do answer if they know. “Go the the Guild Hall,” one tells me, “they might know if any other walking tour exists.” Or, since this is an information centre and since knowing this kind of thing should be something you would want to know, perhaps you could call over there and find out. Eventually I make my way back to my hotel around dinnertime and I stay in my room until the next morning.
My room at the Campanile is small and basic. Just a bed and a corner table with a chair that pulls up, the table holds a tv and an electric kettle, so there is just enough room to do some writing there as well. So it is surprising to me that there are at least 6 Eastern Europeans in the room next door, how different could their room be? I assume they aren’t actually sharing the same room, they must be just visiting, they’ll separate in to their own rooms when it’s time for bed. Eventually. Clearly having a great time, at first just chatting and later watching some seriously comedic television programs after midnight. I watch Netflix in bed using my headphones so that I can hear, my speakers are not strong enough to compete with the noise emanating from my neighbours.
There is no fitness centre in the Campanile. It really is just a faceless but clean economy hotel, the most boring possible choice really. I had seen them other places before, but now I know to avoid them. I’m glad I’ve tried it for a 3-day stay rather than a week somewhere. It is fine if one does not want any character or sound-proofing.
I’ve not had proper exercise for several weeks, not since my first week in Birmingham, so I prefer to take the stairs over the elevator. I exit my room and enter the nearby stairwell, the door labelled, “Push Bar to Open”. A simple mechanism. If you can read, you probably do not need the aid of this sign to aid you. I open the door and bound down the stairs to the bottom. “Door is alarmed,” a sign on this door only, reads. Oh dear. I retreat. On my way up, I notice that the other doors do not have handles from the stair side. I stand at the door I entered from on the 2nd floor. No handle. The door is engaged from the handle on the other side, effectively locked from this side. Hmmm. I may be here a while. Fortunately there is a window into the hallway so I can see if someone walks by and bang for them to open the door for me. Except this stairwell is at the end of the hallway, there are only two rooms I could even see someone exiting from as it is alongside rather than at the very end.
I wander the stairwell down again and on the other side of one door I can hear the noise of dishes. I pound on the door and the clatter of dishes pauses then starts again. I pound again, the noise pauses again. After a third time the noise stops and I can hear someone fighting with deadbolts. It sounds like they are not often undone, someone is wiggling and jiggling making slow progress in sliding one that sounds to be at the top of the door. The door opens.
“Are you here for breakfast?” a curious little ball of an Indian woman asks me as I stand there with a stupid smile on my face. “I got locked in the hallway,” I admit. Would someone really try to come into the restaurant to get breakfast from the fire escape door?
She guides me through the kitchen to the dining area where I do not pause and finally I am out in the gorgeous air. Sunny and a high of 18 Celsius today, not a rain drop expected. This is a faultless day here in the UK. At home 28C feels like summer, but here 18C does. A beautiful, summery, sunshiny day. Honestly, I prefer these temperatures, comfortably warm rather than hot.
My second impression is better than my first. Not immediately, my hotel is still situated in the most ugly possible area of the city so I do walk through a mess of sad buildings before coming to the more picturesque area. I stop for breakfast at a patio-side cafe where a few minutes after ordering a mother lets her 5 year-old play a portable gaming device at what must be it’s highest volume. Very English, I say nothing but passive-aggressively look over disapprovingly. A family of two seniors and a younger couple arrives, with a 2 year old. This young one doesn’t like to eat and the rest of us have to suffer the battle that ensues. Thankfully the mother takes him for a little walk after he has completely lost his wits in a long screaming fit. It looked like such a peaceful place to sit when I came upon it on this little cobble stone pedestrian lane near the Cathedral and Guild hall.
After dining I happen in to the Guild Hall where there is a very popular exhibition. The remains of King Richard III were found and verified in Leicester just last year (2012) and this exhibition shows the excited public all about it. Well, there is too much public for me here today and I leave more quickly than I arrived. The visiting public completely fill the space as they progress from segment to segment, there is no room to move apart from with the general movement of cattle. The recreation of his head is by the exit, so I saw that. Most of the display seems to be written panels of explanation, it is quite a small room and I can see what’s here from the entry vantage point. I may come back, but probably I’ll just look at it online. Later I notice that I missed seeing the main hall of this 600 year-old building.
I don’t think the door to the right was properly marked to suggest you are about to lock yourself in a stairwell and had better hope that there is someone in the kitchen to hear you pounding on their back door. At the Campenile in Leicester.
In looking for things to do here, I decide this might be a good place to while away some time having afternoon tea. One place in particular stands out online, the Belmont Hotel. I enjoy a nice walk to the hotel but once there I am informed that they do need 24 hours notice to book their afternoon tea. “I will go ask the chef if it’s possible today but you’ll probably need to come back tomorrow,” I am offered at reception. After some moments we determine that tomorrow it is. What could be so elaborate that it takes 24 hours notice to be able to serve afternoon tea? I’m anticipating tea, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, crustless sandwich wedges, and some sweets. This is a sizeable place, it has several drinking and dining venues sharing the kitchen. I will be most curious to discover what cannot be provided on an impromptu basis tomorrow at 3PM. I’ll treat it like a late lunch.
This is a very multicultural town, like Toronto, there is no majority race. Certainly white people make-up the largest demographic, but they are less than 50%. How does it happen, what makes someone in Somalia think, “I’m going to live the dream by moving to Leicester in England.” I think in this that Leicester may share in common with Winnipeg, Canada, the feature of being more affordable than most other cities. Easier to start a new life, easier to buy a first home, easier to get-by. End result? It’s probably a comfortable, mediocre town. Those with big dreams go to more competitive Birmingham or London. I should suggest Leicester and Winnipeg may wish to become twin cities.
My time in Leicester has been diminished by having a sinus cold. I wish I had chosen a more comfortable hotel, but I did not realise upon booking how much time I would end-up spending in it.
I arrive 15 minutes early for my afternoon tea at the Belmont Hotel on the holiday Monday. I am shown to a dining room where I am the only occupant, although I can hear some young ladies chatting in the hall around the corner. A few minutes later and my food selection has arrived.
I am shocked that they could not have thrown this together yesterday. It was clearly made in advance, in that cold from the fridge just pulled off the cling wrap sort of way. But apart from the sandwich pieces, nothing else would have been prepared especially. A sandwich of four segments, each with different filling. A selection of 5 cakes, each basically a partial dessert piece, but here was the disappointing bit, 3 of the 5 are the very same lemon cake. A small apple tart (mostly crust with a touch of apple slime) and a chocolate browning complete the cakes. The chocolate brownie is wonderfully chocolatey, although I would prefer it wasn’t cold. On the top tier are four little French macaroons.
In all, the cakes all taste like they came from any coffee shop or supermarket. If their macaroons were house made I’d be embarrassed for them, or proud how they so accurately replicated store-bought. The tea is disappointingly the same PG bag (not loose tea) that comes with the free tea service in my hotel room and it’s in a generic metal teapot. The dishes are a motley assortment of white basic catering dishes, each of a different generic maker apart from the triple-level cake plates which are English, Dudson from Stoke-on-Trent. The side salad is meant as garnish only, I eat some for vitamins only to find dirt and wilted leaves.
Were I to ever happen through Leicester again I would probably look to stay in the Belmont Hotel, it is much more the kind of feel that I like in a hotel and I like it’s location, connected to the city centre by a 200 year-old walking path called “New Walk”. But I wouldn’t bother with the afternoon tea, there was nothing special about it whatsoever. For an afternoon snack perhaps the cream tea would be fine. That is tea with a large scone, served with clotted cream, butter, and jam. I didn’t have it here, but it couldn’t be that bad. Unless they serve the scone cold, it should be served warm. Come to think of it, I would ask that before I ordered here. One can’t assume. I would have assumed, but not after having cold cakes and sandwiches here for afternoon tea.
This is a good value afternoon tea, £12.95 ($20) for a lot of dessert, but I would happily have paid more to have better. Or received half the amount to have better. The only difference in the more expensive options were the addition of several price-points of Champagne.
I think Leicester may be a nicer city than I have experienced. I will not know what this city is like during it’s normal days, I was here during the three days of a bank holiday weekend. The city was probably filled with visitors from the surrounding towns and villages on Saturday and Sunday. The information centre was useless to pointing me towards interesting distractions, and I was not entirely well for the duration.
My final night at the Campanile, the hotel is nearly empty except for the room beside me. It’s 2:48 AM when my neighbours finally settle down for the night. I think they may actually work at the hotel too.
Off to Norwich tomorrow.
I always feel pangs of nostalgia when I encounter one of the remaining Coffee Republics. I was their 2nd ever manager of the first Coffee Republic location which was on South Molten Street in Mayfair, London. Soon after I left to move to Edinburgh, they opened their 2nd and 3rd locations and eventually had over a hundred across the UK. The original location has since closed, as have many others.
I hope you enjoyed this posting and that you will read other postings on my blog. Thank you for visiting and I hope you’ll follow me, the follow button is on the bottom right of your screen. Cheers! Darren