It was another night out in Leicester. There have been a lot of them over the years. Between the late eighties and 2001 there was a hell of a lot of them. In all the time since 2001 this was only the fourth. It was a hastily put together last minute arrangement to try and meet up with a couple of old friends. However due to the last minute manner of it and other commitments it ended up being a solo night out. There had been a fair few of them over the years as well.
When I arrived in Leicester there was no actual plan in place. I was in the Highcross. It wasn’t a place I used to go to when I lived in Leicester, and for a lot of the years I used to go out it used to be shops. I was sat there nursing a pint waiting for the confirmation of my hotel booking at the Holiday Inn.
As soon as it popped through I finished my drink and headed over to the hotel to change. The view out of the room’s window was out over the Jewry Wall, and St. Nicholas’s Church. Two of the older parts of Leicester’s history, being Roman and Saxon respectively. When they had been building the foundations for the Holiday Inn they had found some more Roman remains of the reasonably sized town they had taken over on the banks of the River Soar. They let people down into the basement to look at them from time to time as well. My stay wasn’t one of those times.
The historic view gave me an idea for how to start out my trip through the pubs of Leicester. Pub one of my journey was going to be the Castle Inn. A place where I had never drank at before. I hadn’t even stepped foot into the buildings it occupied. It is set in two small cottages that made up part of the Castle’s estate, and looks out to St. Mary de Castro church, now sadly without its spire.
There had been an inn on this site up to the first half of the twentieth century, and one of my friend’s – Tony – predecessors had run the inn at one point. However it had always been private cottages when I lived in Leicester, and it had only opened as a bar in June. It was made up of two small rooms with low ceilings and a tiny bar in the corner of one. I was the only person in there (apart from staff) when I arrived, and they were struggling with no draught beers. A couple more people came in before I left. It is tucked away off the beaten track, but it is a great historic building and location, so I hope that it catches on and does well.
Pub two of the evening was another historic location. (Roger) Wygston’s House. I had been in this building countless times as a child, but never for a drink. The medieval timber framed building with its sloping uneven upstairs floors had used to house the Costume Museum. It had only opened as a bar and restaurant this year.
I sat outside in the cool autumn night, admiring the ancient building from its courtyard, whilst trying not to be distracted by the large big wheel in the Jubilee Square opposite the pub. I’ve been on the London Eye, and a big wheel in Manchester, so one in my home town was tempting, yet alcohol was calling. It would have to be saved for another time.
Moving on to pub three, well, more a bar really, and from this point the evening took a longer detour into history, personal history on the whole.
Bruxelles bar is a stunning Victorian reproduction of Georgian architecture. Inside they have very much gone with the Belgian theme; Tintin and Mannequin Pis have statues there. And then you look up at the domed ceiling. Vividly painted with scenes from around the world. Then the place names are painted around the bottom of the dome, attesting to all the twinned cities Leicester is linked to.
The domed roof gives a hint to an older name for the building. Back in the late eighties, this used to be the Leicester Dome, and for the best part of a year it was my, and a number of good friends of mine’s spiritual nightclub home. Granted we were probably the majority of the clientele on any particular Friday or Saturday night, and we probably treated it as our own personal fiefdom.
It wasn’t in the slightest bit salubrious back then, but we had some amazing nights in there, and it was a shame when it closed, though not a massive surprise. Not when the old-school style bouncers Marco and Franco were playing games such as ‘the most ridiculous reason not to let someone in’, that included the immortal “sorry mate, no white shirts” line. They should have been stopping people in the street and throwing them into the club, not thinking up bonkers reasons to prevent people not getting in.
It is a lot more upmarket and salubrious nowadays. This evening’s clientele is a much higher class than we used to be, or at least they look that way. There is a surfeit of ball-gowns and tuxedos as it seems to be a meeting point before a number of Christmas parties that are happening around town tonight.
Pub four is The Globe. Of all the venues visited on the night’s tour, this is the one that has changed the least. The look, the people, the beers, the music. It could all have been from any one of a few hundred nights out in the nineties. It was rare back then to have a night out that didn’t involve at least one drink here. I can see people, and hear conversations that could have been myself and friends twenty five years ago. It is a wrench to leave, but more history calls.
Pub five had personal and physical history. It is an O’Neill’s, the ubiquitous Irish chain pub. Growing up and being of Irish descent and having sat in the corner of many an authentic, run by the Irish for the Irish pubs in Leicester, I hate O’Neill’s as a chain with a passion.
The one here in Leicester is now massive. Mainly because it acted like the Borg and assimilated another pub and a couple of shops during the late nineties to become the sprawling monstrosity it is today.
The pub it assimilated used to be the Fourpence & Firkin. Back when Firkin pubs ruled the world in the mi- nineties (or at least that how it seemed.) The Fourpence part of the title was a nod to the peppercorn rent bestowed to the building by one of the fifteenth century Henrys. (I can’t remember if it was IV, V or VI anymore). An Inn had been on this site ever since, and before it became a Firkin pub in the early nineties it was called the Crown & Thistle, and was still a great place to go.
On a personal level I remember many nights in there drinking Caffey’s or Addlestones. And I remember my dad being so drunk on a session after we’d been for wedding suit fittings that he kept sliding off his seat. In the original part of O’Neill’s a couple of months later came the point where everyone on my stag do thought they had finally got me to hit the wall. The pint of Caffey’s didn’t want to go down at all, and I thought I was done for the night as well. But it all kicked back into place and I ended up being the last man standing in the Fan Club (which we’ll come back to later).
Pub six was the Knight & Garter. Well it had been for about a year. When I left Leicester it was called Molly O’Grady’s, playing up to the Irishness of its landlords and clientele to compete with the faux Irishness of places like O’Neill’s. Prior to the renaming it had been the Saracen’s Head, and a proper old-school Irish pub. My parents had always gone in over the years, and my grandma had worked there at some point in the past.
Being on the edge of the formidable Leicester market, it used to have a hatch out to the little jetty than ran along the back of the pub. This was used to serve out of hours drinks to the market traders as they came to set up their stalls at stupid O’clock in the morning. There were a few times I took advantage of a stiff drink before heading into my Saturday job at Superdrug after a heavy night out.
This was the venue that had changed most from my memories. The layout was vastly different, and there is polished wood and shiny copper piping everywhere. There is no sign of the spit and sawdust that accompanied my childhood visits.
Pub seven does still have some of that feel to it. Duffy’s is another place that has changed its name to play up to the Irish market. It used to be called the Town arms, and was another place that had always been an Irish run pub. There was the year we were in there when St Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday, and I met my parents in there with two of my friends – Chris and Tony. My dad wouldn’t let us finish one drink before another miraculously appeared in front of us. It didn’t shut at three as it should have done back in those days, so there was no respite in what became a very messy afternoon.
It is located opposite the block that Leicester’s registry office is located. There was always a steady stream of pre and post wedding drinkers in there. I particularly remember Barry and Dawn getting married on a Friday and the extended lunch break pre-wedding drinks caused. We had also been in there the week before on Barry’s stag do. He had been dressed as a Boer War British soldier, resplendent in his red tunic, pith helmet and not-necessarily replica rifle and bayonet. His mate Ian only had an afro wig, y-fronts with a bamboo grass skirt over it and flip flops on. He was however covered head to toe in smeared coffee residue and carrying a six foot long spear. And hardly anyone batted an eyelid as the rest of us walked through town with the pair of them. There would be lynch mobs nowadays.
There is a band playing in one of the back rooms in the pub tonight. A few people crowd round the makeshift stage, whilst others just wander in and out as the mood takes them. The name may have changed, but the spirits remains the same.
Pub eight is now called Broood. (Yes, the extra O is supposed to be there.) Back in the day it used to be called Vin Quatre, a play on the fact that it was primarily a wine bar and was situated at number twenty-four King Street. It was the Friday night haunt of the old DSS building that sat on the corner of Norton Street. It was also the home of the gallon challenge – drink eight pints without having to break the seal and pee. Unsurprisingly it was rarely completed, and to be honest, nowadays I can’t imagine trying to complete it; such bladder control is a younger person’s game.
The layout inside is very similar to what it had used to be. I think some of the older furniture looks the same as it was a quarter of a century ago. A folk band is coming to the end of its set as it reaches the old traditional chucking out time of 11pm. They pack up, but the bar carries on serving. I sit on an old over stuffed leather sofa towards the back, where the windows look out over the New Walk, and the signage still shows the sign of being called Vin Quatre.
I had made it through the plan of pubs in my head. There were some other places I had thought of whilst I was wandering around, but The Pump and Tap, Princess Charlotte, George’s, Jacey’s and Cheers are all now sadly departed. What a night it would have been with them still being in the mix. But it’s now time to hit the club.
And what a club. The Fan Club. A behemoth now, but it hadn’t always been that way. When I get there, the entrance is one building across from where it used to be, and you pay on the ground floor. It had been the case that you dragged yourself up the narrow stairs to pay at the booth at the top, and then make your way into the single room, either left to the bar, or right to the dance floor.
At the same time in the eighties there was another club on the same block, on the corner. That was Sector 5, again a single room, paying at the top of the stairs. There were three units in between the two clubs then, now it is all one club stretching across the whole of the first floor of the block.
Sector 5 had expanded to two rooms when they rebranded as Alcatraz, and introduced paying downstairs. The Fan Club has expanded to two rooms, but with as little partitioning as possible. The unit that now sat between the two clubs was used as the fire escape for both, down into the car park / loading bays that sat behind ground floor shops. Bouncers would be on the fire escape doors either side of this and you could see one club from the other when the doors were left open to let some fresh air into the boiling atmospheres.
In the nineties, these were my clubs of choice, and of a hell of a lot of other people I knew at the time as well. It was common for me to be in one or the other of them four or five times a week. The Fan Club staple drinks were Grolsch, out of the big pint bottles with the flip top lids, which ended up being used as adornments to the front of shoes or trainers, and oversized earrings. Or for light relief Orange Hooch. There is a picture somewhere of Chris and I sat at the solitary table in the Fan Club with the table being full of empty Orange Hooch bottles.
Over in Alcatraz the main drink was a cocktail called The Sacred Mountain of The Pekinese Cloud Gods, a green mixture that included Martini, Southern Comfort, Blue Bols and Orange Juice. All for only two quid a pop. This was taken alongside Prairie Fire, a shooter that was Sambuca and Tequila with a floating line of Tabasco sauce in the middle. For a quid. There were a lot of messy nights.
None of those drinks survive the new super club version of The Fan Club. The initial room from the first incarnation is back doing their eighties night stuff as of old. It is this room where I witnessed one of the most spectacular un-choreographed pieces of dance floor action ever. Being ejected from my house the night after my stag do, so the hen do could happen, I went alone to the Fan Club and was leaning against the wall overlooking the dance floor. The Beastie Boys’ Intergalactic was playing, and when it got to the line “let the beat drop” and it went silent, the whole dance floor’s crown dropped as one, and from a mass of dancing people I could now see straight across to the DJ booth. Everything stood still in silence for a second before normal service was resumed.
This is now soundproofed off from the middle three rooms, full of dry ice and flashing lights and a more mainstream dance mix, before you make your way into what had been Sector 5. The Tank Girl adorned walls are now painted over, in what they call the indie lounge. It’s much more chilled in here, the music isn’t as loud, and there are lots of over-stuffed leather sofas.
Which at after one in the morning, after reaching double figures of mainly wheat based lagers, is deadly. It is when the bouncer taps me on the shoulder for the second time that night as I’ve dozed off that I decide it is time to go.
Automatic pilot takes me outside, around the corner and into the kebab shop. I didn’t know there would be a kebab shop open there. I was making the assumption that seventeen years since I’d last popped out of the Fan Club, nothing had changed around there. If there hadn’t been a kebab shop there I don’t know what I’d have done. Food and a taxi back to the hotel. So blinkered on getting home I didn’t even notice if the bus station was still there across the road from the kebab shop.
I didn’t remember the taxi back either. A joke really as we used to walk back to my house from the clubs. A route that would have taken us around the Holiday Inn, less than half way along the journey.
It’s not just the pubs, bars and clubs that change over time, it’s the people who used to go to them as well, they are older and more tired and lazier than they used to be. But it was still a great night out walking through mine and the city’s history.