I feel like a hideous fraud. Unlike other Great Central contributors to this ‘guide to’ series, I can’t claim that I have a ‘love affair’ with the St. Martin’s area of town. I’ve never lived there and it’s been some years since I spent hours in my anorak flicking through the new record releases at Rock-A-Boom or, ever the cheapskate, taking advantage of 2 for 1 offers at Pizza Express. Both of those establishments have now moved on from St. Martin’s Square and, in truth, so had my interest.
I can’t deny though that I’ve been hearing interesting things about this ‘independent heart of Leicester City Centre’ of late. A new breed of cafés, bars, eateries and salons has apparently been emerging. ‘A genuinely original retail offering, a new experience for people looking for something different’, suggests the PR company tasked with promoting the fortunes of St. Martin’s. The time seemed right for me to don my curious detective garb and find out more.
“We absolutely love the ‘Old Town’ location and the fact we work alongside other fabulous small & local business – It feels like a village sometimes”, says Drew Harriman, owner of Harriman & Co. Perfectly positioned at the entrance to St. Martin’s, Harriman’s offer an eclectic range of furniture, lighting, mirrors, art and everyday items hand picked for their beauty, functionality and pureness. Their produce comes from their own workshop in Leicestershire along with items by talented makers and producers found around the globe.
Aware that the life of a retailer can’t be easy, I ask Drew what challenges Harriman & Co. face. “For us, it’s the size of the store. We love our location but we could do with more space. It’s a challenge to make people aware of our upstairs space and then encourage them to make the journey up those stairs!”
For any retail scene to truly prosper, an area needs to have interesting bars and eateries attached. It would appear that there’s been a plethora opening around St. Martin’s Square in recent times. Kal Ruparell, proprietor and bartender at 33 Cank Street, a fine cocktail bar in the area, seems well placed to comment. “It’s a great area to visit, whether it’s to wander about, window shop, chill or grab a coffee, something to eat or a cocktail”, he enthusiastically observes. Kal’s particularly aware of the competition that new bars in the area might bring but doesn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. “It can be a good thing as long as they are quality venues. We welcome new places to drink and I hope over the coming years the bar scene keeps getting national recognition and producing great bartenders.”
There’s an emerging trend in St. Martin’s to offer people something ‘a little different’ as they pass through. Escape Asylum has picked up on the growing desire of work colleagues and friends to play exit games and has positioned itself in the square. Crafty Sew & So offer sewing workshops and arty pursuits, as well as a wide range of craft products, for those who wish to find their creative sides. Co-owner, Sarah Wadey, is equally as proud of this area as the other retailers I chat with commenting that it’s “vibrant yet peaceful- somewhere to relax and have fun any day or night of the week in a safe and welcoming space. A welcome change from the busy high street.”
Evidently, St. Martin’s is an area of town worthy of further exploration. Never standing still, much has changed here in recent years. I’ve no doubt that it’ll continue to adapt and embrace the independent as new retail trends emerge. That makes it a pretty vital destination for those visiting Leicester city centre.
St. Martin himself, the patron saint of innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and more will surely be looking down from on high proud of what’s being created in his square.
Photography by David Wilson Clarke