Market Harborough, 0 miles, 0 locks
Sunny today, so I was up early and on the bus to Leicester. My plan was to see the National Space Centre and if there was time I'd heard that the next door Abbey Pumping Station was equally worth a visit.
I got to Leicester a little after 12 and got off in Charles Street, by all the shops. From here it's a short walk to the clock tower which is the centre of the city. I don't know Leicester at all, having been only twice before (and one of those was at nearly midnight for a curry) and I'd stupidly not taken my Nicholson's, but I figured that there would probably be tourist information. Apparently there is because I kept seeing signs for it, but I completely failed to find it. I couldn't find any boards with maps either, so in the end I resorted to Google Maps on my phone. While it can give you directions, it assumes that you're travelling by car and it wasn't until I'd walked a goodly distance in what turned out to be the wrong direction (because I was being directed to the inner ring road) that I realised. The other feature of my phone that would have been useful—the built in GPS—followed that fine tradition of phone GPS' and was completely useless.
Having walked around much of the city centre by now, I was starting to get the hang of where everything was, although this wasn't getting me to the Space Centre. Like Birmingham, Leicester is encased in a dual-carriageway inner ring road and although this was the best route to get to where I wanted to be, it's not the nicest. In the end, knowing that the Space Centre is next to the canal, I headed for that and walked along the towpath. It's okay I suppose. Not actually unpleasant, but not lovely either. There are lots of derelict factories by the canal and you get the feeling that if you were mugged down there, no-one would find you for days. At a couple of the locks there were heavily graffitti'd boards telling you that you were fine if the indicator boards were green and not to proceed if they were red, but I couldn't see anything that vaguely resembled what I'd call an indicator board.
The Space Centre is actually next to the River Soar, not the canal, and I remembered this when I got to the junction between them at Swan's Nest bridge. From here you get a great view over both Belgrave Lock and the huge Swan's Nest Weir. Although the Soar itself didn't look too high, you could see that there was a lot of water from the way it surged and foamed over the weir. Walking back along the banks of the Soar, I thought there might be a bridge over to the Space Centre, but there isn't until you get to Abbey Park Road. All of the industry that was on the island bordered by the Soar and the canal is being erased. The Wolsey factory (textiles, not cars) is in the throes of being flattened and the old shoe factory next to it has been turned into luxury 'riverside apartments'. Next to the shoe factory is the rotting carcass of the bus depot, which was once the proud home of Leicester's tram fleet back in the 1920's. This is next for the demolition ball, to make way for some glass blobs that are trumpeted on the billboards as 'Eco Homes'. Might it not be more 'eco' to restore the tram sheds to their former glory and reintroduce trams, as Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon have done? Turn Swan's Nest into a hydro-electric plant and they'd even run on renewable energy.
When I eventually got to the Space Centre it was 3pm. This is an awkward kind of time as you don't know whether there'll be long enough to see everything, and there definitely wouldn't be time to see the pumping station as well. The pumping station was only open until 4:30, but was free; the Space Centre was open until 5, but was £12. I figured that I should look at the pumping station first—given that it was free, I could have a quick look then head to the Space Centre. What a good thing that I did.
First of all, let me say that the Abbey Pumping Station is wonderful in every respect. It's set in nice grounds, there are exhibits with interpretation boards as soon as you walk through the gates, including a huge steam excavator operated by no less than three steam engines—only one of three left in the world—and that far from being a mere pumping station, it's also Leicester's museum of technology. If you like mechanical things (and I do!) then it's a joy. There are narrow gauge railways, electric cranes, steam turbine generators, a police box—and that's before you've gone in. Once inside, there are several steam engines, including an A-frame beam engine, a wall-mounted engine (to save space), a horozontal engine, a Lancashire Boiler (the Foxton Inclined Plane also used these), lots of motorcycles, a section on the Leicester tramways (including a picture of those moribund sheds back in their heyday), an area devoted to cinema, and a very large section about water purification and sanitation. This emphasis on water is because the pumping station was originally built to move sewage from Leicester's newly built sewers up to the filtration site at Beaumont Leys and the highlight of the whole museum is through a small door at the back, which takes you into the hall containing the four magnificent beam engines that did the pumping (if you look at the picture above, the hall is the entire front of the building and there are two beam engines behind each of the bay windows). Almost all of the engines in the museum still work and there are special 'steam days' from time to time, when they're all set in motion (the next one is this Sunday—14th September 2008, from 1pm until 5pm). I was having a rare old time looking around at everything, when I noticed that there was a loud roar starting to fill the air. I wandered over to find the cause of it, to see that the engineer had started their steam boiler (a modern one that runs on gas, rather than the Cochrane boiler they used to use, which is now outside). Asking about this, it was explained that a film crew were here doing a documentary and that some of the engines were to be fired up so they could take pictures. I was thrilled! Although the big beam engines weren't going to be started, the small A-frame engine, the wall engine and the horizontal engine were. It was wonderful. Of course, it isn't until you're standing watching these in full steam that you really appreciate how quiet they are. Other than the hiss of steam from the boiler, the engines themselves make almost no noise. You can see how when steam was introduced, it must have seemed very natural, since like the horses it replaced it was practically silent. It's only in our modern world, powered by petrol and diesel engines that rely on thousands of little explosions per second, that we accept the noise levels we do as being 'normal'.
After leaving the pumping station, I popped into the space centre to make use of their café before they closed. I was quite surprised to find that after having such a marvellous afternoon, I was quite disinterested in seeing the centre itself. Maybe tomorrow.
Had a quiet walk back into Leicester and found myself a restaurant where I could have a vegetarian thali. I like Indian food a lot, although I rarely make it at home, and there's something very homely and comforting about lots of little dishes filled with lovely tasty goo, served with bread and rice. The next bus home wasn't until 9pm so I had plenty of time to enjoy it.
I'd taken my e-book reader with me to Leicester and ended up reading Jules Verne's Around The World in 80 Days. I've seen the film several times and David Niven, for me, is Phileas Fogg, but it's interesting to go back to the original book, which is a rip-roading read and one I thoroughly recommend. It's also pleasantly short and can easily be finished in a day.