Leicester and the Hotel Brooklyn – Review
By Clare Jenkins
I like Leicester. It may not be the prettiest of Midlands cities – successive town planners have seen to that. But I like its people, its pride in its history and its British Asian-ness. If you can’t visit India, you can at least experience some of its flavour here, particularly along the Belgrave and Melton Roads, popularly known as The Golden Mile. I like the fact that Leicester won the right, over York (many Yorkshire folk might disagree), to keep the body of Richard III in its (currently closed) cathedral. That its story includes not just Thomas Cook (the travel company started here in 1841) but also hosiery and textiles. That it has two good universities, Europe’s tallest piece of street art (up the side of St George’s tower in the city centre) and fragments of history scattered all over in the odd medieval wall, Tudor archway and ancient church. I also like the fact that I spent part of my childhood here.
For four or five years, my father was gardener at Abbey Park, where we lived in a half-timbered lodge. One day, my mother, who was Catholic, took me, my older sister and younger brother to see an exhibition of Indian artefacts. Indians from both the sub-continent and East Africa had started settling in the city, and some of her relatives had lived in India. There were glass cases with Hindu statues, elaborate silver necklaces and earrings in them, gorgeously exotic saris and the heady scent of joss-sticks. We couldn’t have been there more than half-an-hour, though, before my mother became overwhelmed by the incense and we had to leave. I’ve always thought that rather ironic, given that we’d all been brought up with the equally heavy smell of Catholic incense burners.
There are no joss-sticks burning at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, Rebuilding Lives: 50 years of Ugandan Asians in Leicester. But it’s a fascinating account of the experiences and contribution of a community expelled from Uganda (in August 1972) by General Idi Amin with just a few weeks’ notice, allowed to take with them only £55 per family and one small suitcase each.
More of that later, after leaving my own suitcase at Leicester’s latest addition to the accommodation scene, the Hotel Brooklyn. It’s the second HB to be built in the UK by Bespoke Hotels, the first having opened in Manchester just before the pandemic. From the moment you phone and hear the American answer message with its reference to ‘our ambassadors’ rather than ’a member of staff’, to the clocks in reception showing the times in New York and Los Angeles as well as London, the 191-room hotel has a NYC stamp all over it.
Located between two of Leicester’s bewildering array of one-way roads – one side faces the Royal Infirmary, the other the Nelson Mandela Park – and joined by a covered walkway to Leicester Tigers’ rugby union club ground, the V-shaped hotel has a quirky Stateside feel throughout. There’s a playful sculpture of two dogs fighting over a hotdog right by the front door, corridor collages blending Leicester and the Big Apple, and a tall interior brick wall bearing the name Runyon’s, in tribute to short story writer Damon Runyon. Then there’s the sign to the Guys & Dolls and Curveballs function rooms. As its website humorously states, “Brooklyn welcomes the world to its streets, and we invite the world through our doors. Guys, dolls, grifters, shifters and all folk in between.”
From the receptionists through the porters to the waitresses, the staff are refreshingly down-to-earth and decidedly five-star – knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the hotel and the city, friendly and ever-helpful.
“Flashes of woodland green”
Our room – the Attenborough – is one of a few named after Leicester notables. Both David and Richard spent much of their childhood and adolescence in the city, their father being principal of what is now Leicester University. The ‘highline executive suite’ boasts an ‘Emperor size’ bed with integrated side tables and wide desk behind, striking photographic montages on the wall, a fridge disguised as a retro music centre, a bag marked ‘Hooch’ replacing a mini-bar, a retro telephone and radio, and a quartet of stylish books – three by F Scott Fitzgerald and, yep, Runyon’s Guys & Dolls. There’s a standalone bath as well as a separate bathroom with excellent, easy-to-operate showers and White Company toiletries.
The décor throughout is shades of grey, black and brown, with flashes of woodland green and dark orange. Around The Lair bar and restaurant, there’s a jungle theme, the walls awash with tigers and foxes – in tribute to both the city’s rugby club and its football team. The integral lounge area offers corners for people to work in, as well as to relax in – there are beanbags and tiered seating in the Grandstand TV area, games of chess and Scrabble lying on tables, retro Crosley record-players with Sinatra records – including, of course, It Happened in Brooklyn. It’s all bright and colourful without being brash.
The hotel – which also offers two rooftop-terrace hot tub suites, 11 accessible rooms and lifts wide enough for wheelchairs – is just a 15-minute walk from the railway station and a ten-minute walk across the park to the elegant New Walk. This tree- and Georgian-house-lined avenue leads to the 1849 art gallery and museum, home to Richard Attenborough’s priceless collection of Picasso ceramics, as well as to “the largest and most significant” collection of German Expressionist art in the UK – including Oskar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and George Grosz, plus the odd Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Other galleries are devoted to Egyptian, Roman and Victorian art and to the Arts and Crafts movement. Regrettably, the inter-cultural World Arts Gallery has now closed.
My husband and I headed straight for the Rebuilding Lives exhibition with its oral histories, information boards, photos, videos (including TV reports from the time) and the few mementoes the Ugandan Asian refugees could bring with them half a century ago – a doll, jewellery, a well-used briefcase, a record player, saris, wedding shoes, cooking utensils.
There were 76,000 people of Indian origin living – and prospering – in Uganda when Amin uttered his edict a year after seizing power. After 70-odd years, they owned shops, controlled the trade in cotton, coffee and sugar and ran most of the big businesses there. And so resentment grew among the country’s 6.5 million Africans.
Of the 60,000 people forced to leave, 10,000 settled in Leicester, joining the 20,000 East African Asians (many from Kenya) already here. Together, they helped make Leicester the first ethnic majority city in the UK, and one that – until disturbances the weekend before we visited – was proud of its community cohesion. “The model for living in a diverse society,” as one exhibition board puts it. “A model of racial tolerance and harmony between communities,” says another. Certainly, as you walk along its streets, past the Chaiiwala Café, say, or Bombay Bites or the famous Keralan Kayal restaurant on Granby Street, you’ll hear people speaking not just in English but also in Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi and Urdu – and Polish, Rumanian, Somali… Of the three taxi drivers we had during our visit, the first was Sikh, the second Hindu, the third Muslim.
The BBC’s Asian Network started here. Annual celebrations include not only Diwali – the largest such Festival of Lights outside India – but also the equally Hindu Holi, the Muslim Eid, the Caribbean Carnival and the Journeys Festival celebrating Leicester’s status as a City of Sanctuary. There’s also a Faith Trail, taking in the synagogue, Central Mosque, Jain Centre (a short walk from the hotel), medieval St Mary de Castro Church, Swaminarayana Hindu Mission and a Sikh gurdwara in the curiously named Holy Bones, where free lunches are on offer. They’re all here – Baha’is, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhists… There’s even a Secular Hall if you’re that way inclined.
After our exhibition fix, followed by lunch at the gallery’s very pleasant and reasonably priced café, we took the 127 bus along The Golden Mile. We passed the Eggless Cake Shop, Café Delhi, Bobby’s vegetarian restaurant (an institution, founded in 1976), the Saree Mandir and the competing House of Sarees. We passed Shiva Shakti Foods, the Sharmilee Sweet Mart, Ram Jewellers, Mohan’s Barber Shop and the local Conservative Party office, along with TF Cash and Carry – a bustling basement shop full of plastic garlands, chrome cooking pans, glittering bangles and CDs of prayers, Vedic chants and Bollywood songs.
We got off outside the Chaiiwala café on Loughborough Road, where we drank very sweet Indian coffee. Then into the Hindu Sahitya Kendra (Hindu Literature Centre), with its portrait of the Queen outside garlanded with marigolds. We browsed among books with such titles as Protecting Cows – A handbook of principles and practices of vegetarian cow husbandry and Auto-Urine Therapy, before buying some Moghul postcards, a coffee table book about the Royal palaces of Gujarat and Paramahansa Yogananda’s Where There is Light: Insight & Inspirations for Meeting Life’s Challenges. As you do.
At Elite News and Off License (sic), we bought some roti and a copy of Femina magazine before getting paneer samosas for lunch from the nearby Royal Bites. I was tempted by boxes of sweets – Anjeer Barfi, Habshi Halwa and Kajoo Katri, maybe – but my waistline protested.
We were heading for Moira Street – one of many long straight streets made up of small, smart terrace houses, some with bay windows and small front gardens, others without, nearly all with satellite dishes outside. Built in late Victorian times, they were called Villas (Jubilee, Victoria, Ivy, Rose) or Houses (Oscar, Elton, Bernard). In truth, they would originally have housed factory and mill workers, and some of my childhood friends lived here, joining me at the local Catholic primary school. On Sundays, we went to Our Lady’s RC Church in Moira Street, which for the last 30 years has been a Hindu temple, the Shree Shakti Mandir. As we approached it, we could hear chanting. A woman in a jewel-like sari was outside, on her mobile phone. “It’s a family gathering,” she said. “Do go in.”
As we were already running late, we just stepped over the floral rangoli (floor pattern) to watch from the doorway, listening to the hymns and the ringing of the bells, seeing the flame being offered to the deity – statues of Ram and Ganesh having long replaced those of the Virgin Mary.
Leaving India behind, we travelled (metaphorically speaking) back across the Atlantic to the hotel, where we had dinner in the glass-sided Lair restaurant, all charcoal grey and burnt orange, with metal chairs and metallic lamps creating a gritty feel. “It’s very bougie,” said our waitress, Skye. “Luxurious and middle-class,” she explained, seeing our blank faces.
The menu unsurprisingly includes burgers and steaks as well as fish and chicken dishes, but not much for vegetarians. So for the first time in three years, I ate fish and chips (£16.50) while my husband chose the one veggie option of falafel and grilled halloumi (£15). The puddings, too, have a distinctly American feel – hot Nutella Donuts, fried apple pie sandwich and New York cheesecake with praline cream and toffee popcorn (all £8). We passed on those, and on the Bloody Runyon’s and Brooklyn Rickey cocktails (£9.50 a throw).
Earlier, as we’d been bussed back along Belgrave Road, past the vehicle testing centres, builders’ merchants and companies selling ‘powertools and fixings’ – what in India would be called Car Parts Bazaar – I glimpsed Memory Lane, another street familiar from childhood. I didn’t get off the bus, though. I didn’t need to. It’s where I’d already been for two days.
The Hotel Brooklyn, 101 Welford Road, Leicester LE2 7QS
Prices range from around £90 for a standard double with B&B
The city’s 2022 Diwali celebrations run from October 9th-24th – more info: visitleicester.info