Leicester’s Cultural Quarter has seen more change than just about anywhere else in the city. During the industrial revolution, this part of town was thick with smoke and reverberated with the roar of machinery as tightly-packed factories churned out textiles, hosiery and shoes. Decades of decline followed, during which many of the workshops were abandoned and the neglected streets became host to all manner of unsavoury activities. Fast-forward to the present day and the Cultural Quarter is a magnet for creatives of all kinds, as well as home to some of the city’s most vibrant bars and music venues. With its chequered history, award-winning architecture and colourful nightlife, this is an area of Leicester with plenty to offer the curious urban explorer.
“There is such rich history in this area,” says Chris Stafford, Chief Executive of Curve Theatre, who both lives and works in the Cultural Quarter. “This was once an industrial hub that fell into disrepair. Curve has been here since 2008 and we have seen the Cultural Quarter transform into this thriving creative space. The rejuvenation has given Leicester and its communities a unique opportunity, bringing people together to appreciate the wide range of arts and culture our city is producing.”
Curve was instrumental in establishing a Cultural Quarter for the city and remains among its best-known landmarks, as well as being nationally renowned as one of the country’s leading producing theatres. For anyone hoping to perform on its stage themselves, Studio 79 offers the opportunity to learn from industry professionals just around the corner on Midland Street. This college runs a programme of full-time dance and performance training courses and aims to make professional dance training accessible to students from all backgrounds.
A short walk away, in the oldest surviving hosiery factory in the East Midlands, Makers’ Yard is home to a medley of other creative businesses. The sombre listed building has been beautifully restored into ten studios, which house a growing community of artists and designer-makers. Also housing multiple creative businesses under one roof is LCB Depot on nearby Rutland Street, which supports enterprising creatives with workspaces, studios and networking opportunities. It also hosts a gallery space and the incredibly popular culinary event Canteen, which takes place on the last Friday of every month and packs live comedy and cocktails as well as some of the best street food traders in the country into LCB’s bijoux courtyard.
Further north, on Brougham Street, StudionAme is a thriving community interest company which offers up a project space, an art gallery and a calendar of creative workshops. “The Cultural Quarter feels different, partly because of the architecture and partly because it’s still under-used or under-appreciated,” says Steven Allbutt, one of the Founders and Directors of StudionAme. He adds, “Our business has benefited from being close enough to the city centre to attract many artists and some visitors while not suffering too much from the pressure of developers.”
Alongside theatre and the visual arts, music contributes significantly to the identity of the area. The Soundhouse on Southampton Street is a vibrant live music venue with a pub-style atmosphere which caters for both local and touring musicians across an array of genres. Their Tuesday open mic sessions are legendary and offer the chance to see some of the city’s best hidden talents. A short walk away on Yeoman Street, The Shed is another music venue, but one that’s diversifying into a number of other creative pursuits following a recent change in ownership. It’s now also a coffee shop by day and plays host to creative networking events and an expanding gallery space for local artists.
Right in the heart of the Cultural Quarter is Phoenix Cinema and Art Centre, a celebrated hub for independent cinema and digital art. Patrick Welsh, Marketing Manager at Phoenix, has no doubt that the centre’s location has contributed to its success. “Since relocating to the Cultural Quarter seven years ago, we’ve seen our visitor numbers double,” he says, adding, “In that time, other artistic organisations – Leicester Print Workshop and Two Queens for example – and some fantastic bars have also set up here, making it a great alternative destination close to the city centre.”
Fantastic bars indeed. The newly-opened Brick and Beam on Queen Street is the latest drinkery to open in the area, serving coffees, cocktails and beers in a renovated factory setting that is the ultimate in industrial chic. Meanwhile, The Exchange and Manhattan 34, both stylish bars with their own loyal followings, sit side-by-side on nearby Rutland Street. Marc, owner of Manhattan 34, told me, “The Cultural Quarter has a great sense of community. We as a cocktail bar experience this on a daily basis by seeing so many regular faces, hosting monthly events and supporting local businesses like Gallery Without Walls.”
The Cultural Quarter plays host to a number of lively annual events. Each year, An Indian Summer transforms the city into a mecca for South Asian arts and culture through film, food, talks, workshops and exhibitions, all centred on Phoenix. Meanwhile, the St George’s Day celebrations in Orton Square offer family-friendly activities including a fancy dress parade and a dragon hunt. And while we’re talking about events, its would be remiss not to mention the incredible Bring the Paint festival, which last year transformed the austere factory walls of the Cultural Quarter into breath-taking works of street art that continue to inspire and astonish.
From Victorian steampunk fantasy to creative hipster heartland, this part of our city has transformed itself while retaining its gritty, industrial edge. Its this delicate balance between old and new that gives the area its distinct personality and makes visiting it a unique experience. Whether you’re a theatre-goer, a gallery-hopper or a cocktail-sipping night owl, Leicester’s Cultural Quarter will welcome you with open arms. Just don’t wait too long before you pay it a visit – it’s next reinvention may be just around the corner…