Leicester and its River

Speaker: Adrian Lane

15 January 2019

Adrian Lane is keen to share the knowledge he acquired during a 30-year career on the riverside team of Leicester City Council, and his enthusiastic talk entertained a record audience at our January meeting.

As the River Soar passes through Leicester it follows the course of the prehistoric River Bytham, which flowed north then east towards Great Yarmouth.  The Ice Ages reshaped the landscape so that water from the Soar now reaches the sea at the Humber Estuary.  The Soar is very much Leicestershire’s river, draining 90% of the county but hardly extending beyond it.

It is believed that Celtic settlers’ name for the river was Leire – possibly from the same origin as the River Loire – which in turn gave rise to the name Leire-cester.  The chosen site of the town was a small, glacial hill, close enough to the river for convenient transport and water supply but high enough to avoid flooding.  The Romans built walls on three sides, with the river forming a boundary to the west.   Although Leicester eventually grew and spread beyond the walls, there was almost no development on the other side of the river until the 19th century.

Coal was four times more expensive in Leicester than in Loughborough until the opening of the Soar Navigation in 1794, which allowed cheap supplies from Derbyshire to be brought to a wharf near Belgrave Road.  The Leicestershire coal owners soon fought back by building the pioneering Leicester and Swannington Railway, with a station at West Bridge.  Industry has since declined and factories no longer face onto the river and canal but many of their chimneys still form landmarks on the skyline and are preserved by planning rules.  The owners complained at first but later reaped the benefits when sites for mobile phone aerials were needed!

Flooding was a recurrent problem in Leicester until a grand scheme in the 1870s lowered the bed of the River Soar by 10 feet.  This also made it possible to create Abbey Park on land between the river and the canal.

Commercial use of the waterways dwindled after WWII but a rally in Leicester in 1967 attracted 350 boats, marking a renaissance of the river and canal for leisure activities.  Today nature is returning: there are badgers living in Abbey Park and otters have been recorded along the whole length of the River Soar.