The original text is available on line and can be downloaded free. You can take a copy with you as you do the walk and make your own notes; what seems important to her? Is it important to you? How does she, and how do you, think and feel about the places you see and the people you meet?
I’ve attached the notes I made on the original text below. I’ve highlighted text that I think is significant, and added footnotes. What do you think?
I thought these points (amongst others) were interesting, and significant. But what do you think?
Watts doesn’t tell her reader very much about herself – in fact, she suggests she is a “he” (p1). But such ambiguity has a long literary tradition – think of (“male”) George Eliot or (ambiguous) J K Rowling.
She has a sense of humour at the status of women, and refers to a “nominal degeneracy from St. Peter’s to Woman’s Lane” (p8). She meticulously credits her Uncle, founder of the Leicester Infirmary (p30).
Watts has a lovely literary turn of phrase: “that interest which the native spot binds around the mind” (p1).
Watts and the Enlightenment:
For Watts, escaping the past is particularly important (p2), emphasising her evident relief at living in an age of enlightenment. A part of the text that strikingly brings her themes together is when looking at the canal basin (p4): “Indeed, these water-roads , as navigable canals may be termed, reflect the greatest honour on the ingenuity of man, exemplified in their formation, and prove most strikingly to the thinking mind, how boundless are the advantages of civilized life, and how inviolable the security afforded to property by laws, wisely framed and judiciously enforced”; a powerful sense of modernism and progress, the result of thought and reason.
“The slightest glance at past ages is a moral study, that renders us not only satisfied but grateful” (p20); how do we feel today?
(p23) a digression on monetary policy and inflation is a chance to take a swipe at the simplistic nostalgists for the past and their “whining complaints” about progress.
Progress means clean streets (p5) – or at least, less filth. Disputes are settled by debate (albeit amongst the local elite), rather than by arbitrary fiat (p25). The picturesque – a term coined by Romanticism – is an opportunity to reflect on the blessings of the present (the Abbey Grounds, p14) rather than a sense of the sublime, awe for those that had gone before. That said, she does enjoy a good view (p16) and is (justifiably) proud of New Walk (p31).
Watts as a public historian:
(p2,3) she looks at evidence of Leicester’s origins and isn’t afraid to reach a reasoned conclusion (or pass scathing judgement on “flights of conjecture”! The myth of “King Richard’s Bed” is given short shrift (p10) and she recognises Shakespeare’s exaggerations of that much-maligned King (p17).
Watts sees conservation, preservation, and presentation as appropriate for remains of the classical past (p4).
There’s an interesting digression on the origins of the power of English arms (p7), a useful reflection in times of peril from French invasion; the local Yeomanry get an honourable mention (p15). The war is notable by its absence, which says a lot about the socially transformative impact of total war in the C20th compared with the almost-incidental Napoleonic war, many miles from the English Midlands.
All (well, most) guidebooks are designed to attract visitors, and Watts makes Leicester sound interesting. The words and descriptions she uses, and what she includes and excludes, is interesting. Leicester is blessed with agricultural plenty, and booming industry, but above all is “respectable” (p2).
(p3) Not quite as well-known as Georgian Bath, the speculative developers in Leicester were clearly ready to emulate fashionable spa resorts, an opportunity for the domestic tourism industry given the inaccessibility of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. It has a newly-developed pleasure ground (p8) and a Bowling Green (p26) – a symbol of modern pleasure dropped right on top of the Norman Motte, perhaps the Georgian version of turning arms into ploughshares! Leicester has new houses, a new Hotel, and a new theatre (p32), best of all, “nearly on the plan of the London houses”. What could be better for a provincial town?
Links to Rome, the embodiment of the enlightenment, were vital for any forward-thinking Georgian town (p3, 4, esp 21), and even where Roman workmanship was not to the highest standard, still worth defending (p11). The turnpiking of the County roads from the mid C18th is contextualised as a project important to Roman road builders (p18, 20). The Romans were “scientific” (p13), a high accolade indeed.
Non conformism and religion:
Both St Mary’s and St Martins are well described, but the variety and number – not to mention scale- of the non-conformist houses are striking. A good number of Leicester’s hosiers were non-conformists and (after reform) came to dominate town politics and government in the C19th.
She identifies the worship places of General Baptists (p4), Presbyterians (p7), Independents (now called “Congregationalists”, and partly absorbed into the modern United Reformed Church) (p8), Episcopalian Baptists (p8), and Calvinistic Baptists (p22); she does have a sly dig at the architectural form of non-conformist meeting houses (p5).
Watts may have had more than a little respect for non-conformism; she makes a brief reference to a work by a Protestant divine, William Perkins’ ‘Treatise of the Vocations’ with its identification of four classes (and excoriation of three of them, including “a set of idle retainers” – page 28).
Notably, the followers of “that Romish religion” seem to be very low profile (p8), hardly surprising after the Gordon Riots; although Watts makes her distaste for Catholicism clear , she accurately and specifically acknowledges (p16) that it was to the Popish monasteries that science and learning retreated during the middle ages. Puritan iconoclasm is coyly referred to as “intemperate” (p33).