Home Coming

Home Coming: Leicester

A tour of one writer's hometown, one potato fritter at a time.

by Marianne Eloise; photos by Chris Bethell
27 November 2018, 11:22am

Until very recently, when asked where I was from I delivered a stock answer. "Leicester," I would say, and before anyone had the chance to ask "where?" I would have followed up: "It's, like, in the middle of England. It's a shit-hole." If pressed, I could add that we were the birthplace of Walkers Crisps and the Elephant Man.

And then, in 2016, we won the Premier League. "Leicester! The football! You come from a good city!" the man at Amsterdam passport control told me in July of that year. In April, just before we won, I went home for a festival and the American band I was watching congratulated us. Earlier this year, someone from LA exclaimed to me in an Uber: "Oh! Jamie Vardy's having a party!"

Thanks to one of the greatest sporting stories of all time, my hometown is no longer anonymous. People might not know where Leicester is, but they are vaguely aware of what it is – and, as a result, the Leicester the world now knows is no longer the Leicester I once knew. After the 15/16 Premier League win – and, to a lesser extent, the 2012 unearthing of Richard III in a town centre car-park – we had enough money and attention to warrant a full makeover.

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As a teenager, going into town was a weekly treat. I'd scrape together money for the bus and maybe some McDonald's fries, before meeting all the emos I knew from the internet by the clock tower to hang out and drink White Lightning. Once we were feeling suitably ill we'd go to the alternative shops Voodoo and Haze, where we'd buy enough shag bands, badges and studded belts to setup the Midlands' inaugural Hot Topic.

Those shops are gone now. Rising rents and the fact subcultures died when Mark Zuckerberg's bank account hit its first billion meant that, after years in the city centre, they could no longer survive. In Voodoo's place stands a bridal shop; gone is the neon paint and the obnoxious signage, no hint it was ever there at all.

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The clock tower, while still very much there – as it has been since 1868 – stands alone. Of course, I didn't expect to see swarms of skunk-haired scene kids standing around its base blasting My Chemical Romance out of their Walkman phones. However, I also didn't expect to find clock tower merchandise for sale at the visitor centre. Tea towels, coasters, prints and tote bags of "clockeh" – once an alt institution and now a landmark of a legitimately thriving city.

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Everything in the town centre that didn't fit the city's "regeneration" vision has gone or been given a facelift. The arcade I got my lip pierced in? It's undergone a £3 million "full refurbishment project". The café I ate chip cobs in with my mum every Saturday as a child, the appetisingly-named Crusty's? Closed down, like the rest of its arcade. The indoor market where I bought studded belts and dog-tags? Destroyed to make way for a market square. The graveyard I used to smoke weed in? It sits outside Leicester Cathedral, the final resting place of Richard III, and is now beautifully paved and full of lavender bushes.

Old Dickie lies peacefully underneath, completely unaware of the stir he's made just by being discovered.

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Even The Shed – a venue that exists in my memory as a grotty place watch my friends' shitty ska bands in 2008 – is now fully refurbished and sells vegan paninis. Everyone has had to adapt, and while it's sad to see some of these places go, it's not necessarily bad that Leicester is now a place people might visit on purpose. Growing up, I spent as much time as possible in other cities: the scenes I was a part of thrived in Nottingham and Birmingham, where actual bands played shows. Now, it's possible to see those bands at home.

Still, growing up, I remained adamant that Leicester was completely devoid of any sort of culture, of any places worth being. Now they're gone, I miss the city I was once ashamed to be from.

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I hung out in the city centre on the weekends, but the majority of my formative years were spent in the surrounding countryside. For 15 years I lived in Enderby, a village most famous as the place where murderer Colin Pitchfork – the first person to be convicted based on DNA fingerprinting evidence – killed his second victim, in 1986.

While Enderby and its residents aren't particularly affluent, the village itself is not without amenities: it has a leisure centre, a nearby retail park, shops, pubs, parks. And yet, as is often the way with these sub-suburban satellite towns, to keep ourselves busy, myself and the other young people who lived nearby often preferred committing minor crimes to playing badminton.

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My friends and I were spread in villages over five or so miles, each with their own draw: a quarry, a Big Hill, a skatepark, a reccy, a shop that was willing to sell us cigarettes, a home with regularly absent parents. The buses weren't great, so I spent a lot of time walking miles in all conditions to fill time I would otherwise have to spend at home.

The draw of my own village, for me, was Whistle Way: a disused railway line running through Enderby and nearby Narborough, ending in a bridge over a dirty river. I spent my summers sitting underneath the bridge, trailing my feet in the water and using it to chill 3L bottles of cider.

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Returning to that bridge with an outsider on a warm July day, I was struck by how idyllic it looked. We found a rope swing and a small rocky spot to sit by the water, before heading down Whistle Way, which, as an adult, looks like a perfectly pleasant place to walk a dog on a Sunday morning.

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But my memories here are not of idyllic Sundays. We would smoke weed out of a homemade Fanta bottle bong and walk for miles, spooking each other out with stories of Colin Pitchfork and demon train conductors. We climbed trees, we made fires and dens, some of the boys would throw rocks at cows, and I once hit one for it once. It was the only part of the village that the police didn't really bother with; we were completely free.

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Right at the bottom of the river, under my bridge, it was filthy. Either way, we used to strip off and swim in the river, finding old trolleys and hacksaws and other trash resting at the bottom. I spent all seasons down there; the only thing that could stop me from sitting under that bridge like a little cider troll was when it was flooded. Even then, I tried.

Despite the beautiful scenery, there are remnants of the place I knew: I got a laugh out of seeing one word of graffiti – something that only my friends could be responsible for – that hasn't been scrubbed or sprayed over: FLAP.

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We walked through the village to my secondary school, where, after spending my early years being the teacher’s pet I would become again, my performance suffered. I was unhappy and acted up, and as such had the best time of my school career in that building. But like so many of my memories, that building's been torn down too. It was literally sinking into the ground and becoming a liability, so fair enough, really. In its place is a shiny new building straight out of High School Musical, where my sister probably learns more than I ever did on those grounds.

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Walking from my school through the village, I was struck by how quiet it was; I guess kids tend to spend more time inside than in the street now they don't have to deal with dial-up.

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Hungry, we headed to the chip shop, because I wanted something that tasted of home: a glorious golden potato fritter. Until I moved from the Midlands to Brighton, I thought these battered slices of potato were a universal food. I might not have moved if I knew they weren't.

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Potato fritters were a staple of my diet for my entire life in Enderby. Only 25p, waking up at friends' houses hungover, we would scrape together the coins we needed to buy a handful. As a teenager, I worked at the chip shop for three years and still ate at least one a week. When I buy chips anywhere that isn't my village, I become an insufferable brat: there are no fritters! It's too expensive! The curry sauce is too watery! But fritters in the park six years after I moved out of my village, it feels exactly the same as it did back then. It's perfect. It's still my favourite meal, and I can't believe I took it for granted.

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Despite it being the school summer holidays, the park – a place I spent my early years drinking and snogging and fighting – was empty. When I went back to my village, I saw it through my sister's eyes; far better behaved than I was, she mostly skateboards and sits inside.

She asked what I used to do. I told her that, on Saturday nights, the most exciting thing we could do was sneak into the leisure centre to watch other people roller skate, but that we mostly just sat under a bridge. "Doing what?" she asked. I spared her the details.

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Since I became aware of where I was from, I not only wanted to leave, but stamped my feet refusing to call Leicester "home". But between the outrageously good behaviour of kids today and the regeneration of a city centre once known for absolutely nothing, the city is no longer the shit-hole that made me the person I am.

As an adult, I'm very happy that I can buy avocado toast and visit an Urban Outfitters when I go back home, but I'm also aware of the value of all the days I spent setting fires down the reccy or drinking under a bridge. I'm proud that Leicester is no longer anonymous, but I hope there's still a little bit of that grotty side I've come to be grateful for lurking in the shadows.

@marianne_eloise / @CBethell_Photo