At some point during your time at Leicester, you will almost definitely spend a considerable portion of it in and around Clarendon Park. Whether you live there for your second and final year, or just end up attending a disproportionate amount of pre-drinks there due to the area’s proximity to the O2, there’s little doubt that most people reading this will know the area quite well. Centered around Queens Road, the vibrant artery of this leafy, trendy enclave, you’ll find a diverse mix of students, professionals, hippies, artists and academics, as well as more hip brunch spots, bars and vintage shops than your maintenance loan can handle.
Moving from the comparatively barren first-year living zones such as Oadby to this neighbourhood which is practically on campus, one may feel spoiled for choice at the amount of things on offer. There’s the fabulously named brunch spot Salvador Deli, synonymous with hearty hangover cures and a boho Saturday morning crowd, as well as choice Spanish watering hole Bar Dos Hermanos, a cosy, unpretentious dive where the cocktails and tapas are as cheap as they are delicious.
If you’re in need of rejuvenation half way through a gruelling day of post Let’s-Disko studying, then you can just pop into the adorable Tiny Bakery on Clarendon Park Road, or try the uber-chic newcomer The Northern Cobbler on Queens Road for your caffeine fix. Besides these there’s an endless array of eclectic, locally-run businesses such as Babelas Bar, Rosebud Café, Vintage Utopia, Cultura and Café Jones, offering considerably more than the Village Hub.
In the summer you also have the sprawling Victoria Park as your own back garden, perfect for revising in the sun and enjoying some post-exam barbeques. Indeed, the area’s prime location has made it a long-time magnet for students, and Clarendon Park is pretty much synonymous with student life, with The Guardian once describing the place as “a redbrick uni nirvana”, comparable to Hyde Park in Leeds, or Selly Oak in Birmingham.
However, whilst students make up such a large and visible section of this neighbourhood’s population, they are only ever a temporary feature, rarely staying for more than a couple of years, and rarely engaging with the local residents. Although students have been flocking to Clarendon Park for decades, it’s unlikely that most of them will ever become involved with the local community, or develop relationships with their neighbours who call this place home all year round. It’s not unique, as students in most British cities will often live in an academic bubble with little day-to-day contact with the locals, however it does seem a shame, especially in a neighbourhood as community-spirited and socially engaged as Clarendon.
With this in mind, I spent a few days exploring the area I have lived in for two years and am happy to call my home, talking to some of the local residents. These included my own neighbours and the owners of some of the independent businesses which characterise the place, in order to hear how they felt about it, and what it’s like living shoulder to shoulder with such a large student population.
One of my first ports of call was my next door neighbour Rick, 47, a former city banker turned entrepreneur living with his wife, a policewoman, and their children. Whilst Rick has lived on and off in and around Clarendon Park since 1975, he has also spent long stints in London, Moscow and Botswana, embodying a kind of cosmopolitan worldliness which I found quite common among Clarendon’s denizens. He’s lived at his current home for the past seven years, and out of all the places he has called home, Clarendon is his favourite. That the first thing he did upon arrival for the interview was hand me some colourful books, which detail the history of the area, is a testament to his affinity for it. Whilst loving what he describes as the “quaint, twee and eccentric” character of Clarendon Park, he is quick to point out the segregated nature of how the students and locals live together here. He believes that “everyone would benefit from the University doing more to engage with the area and facilitate contact between students and locals”.
Many of the locals are very active members of the community, passionate to the point of protectionism, and it makes perfect sense that the university and its students should engage in a similar way so that all of Clarendon’s residents can have a say.
The next stop was Clarendon Books. The dusty, cosy, Diagon Alley-esque book shop on Clarendon Park Road has proved a lifesaver countless times for me when I couldn’t find a book I needed for an assignment, or simply didn’t want to pay the prices in the David Wilson book shop.
I spoke to Julian, 50, the thoughtful-looking, curly haired owner who took over the shop in the late ‘90s, and has lived in Clarendon Park since the ‘70s. Given that he has been a part of the community for such a long time, I was eager to hear about how much the area has changed over the years. Whilst he talked of changes such as the replacement of family businesses such as butchers and grocers with the boutiques, coffee shops and bars of Queens Road, what surprised me was that for as long as he can remember, the area has always retained its “vibrant, quirky and bourgeois” atmosphere.
The rapid changes undergone by Leicester in the last few decades has done little to change that. On the topic of Clarendon’s student population, he seems very happy with the diversity and business that they bring, observing that we are a largely well-behaved bunch His only complaint was the proliferation of predatory letting agents that have sprung up in the area, trying to cash in on the student housing boom. Julian, like the other residents I spoke with, was more eager to voice concerns regarding the activities of fellow locals as opposed to the students, particularly what he sees as a kind of “snobbery” amongst some of Clarendon Park’s more vocal and pushy residents when it comes to local issues such as parking and the effects of big business on the local character of the area.
Strolling down towards the park, I next popped into Green & Pleasant on Queens Road, an ethical wholefoods shop which is always well-stocked with affordable vegetarian treats, and a regular hunt for my herbivorous partner. I approached the counter and chatted with Michela, 50, a cheerful Italian woman who has lived in Clarendon Park for fifteen years, working at Green & Pleasant since 2014 (the shop itself has been a fixture on Queens Road for nearly seven years). Her feelings towards Clarendon are ambivalent; while she loves the community feeling and lively atmosphere, she thinks that the local community can be quite small and insular, suggesting that it’s not just students that could do more to engage with the wider populace. However, one of the more positive changes in recent years for Michela is the increasing diversity of the area, with many of the city’s more international and multicultural elements now decamping in this traditionally white British area. She also voiced grievances over the steadily increasing rental prices in an area which is already a hotspot for Leicester’s moneyed middle-classes, claiming that, if she wasn’t subletting a flat from an old friend, she probably would not be able to afford to live here.
Like the other residents she was eager to give her opinion on some of the more recent local dramas, such as resident parking and protests against the opening of a Tesco Extra on Queens Road (which seem to have been successful), demonstrating the dedicated and civically engaged attitude to be found amongst the locals here. Above all, she enjoys this kind of frenetic energy that they bring to the area, concluding that “there is a real small life to be found here”.
Saving the best ‘til last, I strolled into Vintage Utopia on Montague Road, the quirky and lovingly-curated vintage shop which was also the very first place I visited the day I moved to Clarendon Park in 2014. I got a chance to speak to the owner, Richard, 58, during a relatively quiet Wednesday morning in the back office of his ultra-instagrammable shop. He’s lived in the area for nineteen years and has ran Vintage Utopia for the past seven, and couldn’t see himself anywhere else. Having witnessed big changes in the types of businesses and facilities here, he says that “the people haven’t changed at all”, and that the area has retained its status as a magnet for the quirky and quaint.
When asked about his feelings toward the student population, he smiled and began describing how he appreciates the liveliness and energy that we bring to the area, remarking that “when you go on Queens Road on an early summer’s evening, it’s like being on holiday”. He always knew that Clarendon Park was the only place in town to set up a shop like Vintage Utopia, as the ideal clientele are right on his doorstep. However, he laments the fact that far less students shop there than in previous years, which is a shame given its cheaper-than-IKEA prices for pieces that will make your student house a much less bland place than your friend’s pad.
There were other people I spoke to on my journey through the lives of those who call Clarendon Park home all year round, whom I unfortunately have not mentioned in this article.
It feels to me that my conversations with the individuals above best paint a picture of the unique character of the Clarendon community, and demonstrate how we, as students, can benefit from getting involved with it.