Sleepy Leicester awoken by a king and the gods of football


Off the tourist trail and loved by few but its residents, Leicester was a sleepy place until a king who died over 500 years ago and footballing triumph roused it from its torpor.

Some people even believe that the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III and Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League win are linked.

One thing is for sure — since Richard’s bones were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012, things have never been the same in the city, whose population is 330,000.

Located in the centre of England, Leicester had always been seen as a place en route to somewhere else.

It was known, if at all, for its successful rugby team, pop acts Kasabian and Engelbert Humperdinck, and record number of traffic lights.

“People didn’t really stop here,” Rory Palmer, the city’s deputy mayor, told AFP.

That was until Richard’s remains were discovered, and everything changed.

Britain was swept up in “Par-King” fever, as Richard was nicknamed, and thousands started flocking to Leicester, where the king was reburied at the cathedral.

“We thought it would slow down a bit” after the fanfare of the 2015 reinterment, shown live on British TV, Palmer said.

But nobody had banked on Leicester City, who before the start of this season were 5,000-1 with bookmakers to win the Premier League.

– Barcelona, watch out -Is it sheer coincidence that the Thai-owned club’s success came hot on the heels of the other biggest event in Leicester’s recent history?

Emma Lay, who manages a new museum devoted to Richard III, dismissed any supernatural theories but offered a more practical explanation.

“We can’t attribute it to Richard III (but) it clearly had some kind of impact on the city,” she told AFP.

“Leicester is in a really good place at the moment — you can tell there is a buzz in the city, in the shops, at the market.”

She added: “Leicester is definitely on its way up.”

Residents are showing an increasing sense of pride in their city.

“It’s looking good. It’s not quite Barcelona yet but we’re heading that way,” said resident Salim Seedat, 46.

“It has always been a fab city but a lot of people from outside didn’t know that,” added Colin Crosby, a guide who has organised walking tours in Leicester for 22 years.

– ‘Too modest’ -While much of the city is shaped by its industrial heritage, Leicester has plenty of history dating further back, including five medieval churches. Its name is traceable to the ninth century.

Leicester is also one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse cities, according to the last national census in 2011.

While white Britons make up 45 percent of the population, British Indians make up 28 percent, other ethnic groups 21 percent and other whites five percent, the census statistics showed.

“It’s very nice, multicultural,” said Prabha Pankhania, who works for the tax collection agency.

“You’ve got to give space for everyone to live their own life and it works here, you don’t step on anyone’s toes.”

This is particularly visible on Narborough Road — dubbed Britain’s most diverse street by a London School of Economics study and dotted with Indian restaurants, Polish grocery shops and Turkish kebab joints.

“I love living in Leicester because it’s very colourful, it’s really friendly, it accommodates everyone,” said Chydo Sande, 34, originally from Zimbabwe.

Leicester is not the kind of place where many people boast, whatever its past, present or future achievements.

“It’s fair to say we were a very quiet, unassuming city. People from other parts of the UK, nevermind Europe and the wider world, didn’t necessarily know about Leicester,” said Palmer.

“But now people do know. We’ve been too modest, too quiet.”

According to him, the Richard III reburial has brought £59 million (76 million euros, $86 million) into the local economy.

It is too early to know what impact the football club’s success will have.

But Palmer said it has already had a “really important impact on the city’s identity and what people feel about Leicester”.

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