Aylestone Meadows is a 271 acre Local Nature Reserve that forms a green wedge within the city boundary, just over a mile from the city centre. It has a wide variety of habitats including species rich grassland that benefits immeasurably from the occasional floods. Historically, a much larger river than the Soar ran up through Leicestershire from the West Midlands, the River ‘Bytham’, the course of which was agreed upon by archaeologists and geologists during the 1980s. When the Great Anglian Ice Age began, it froze for 200,000 years in glaciers that were a mile long, which afterwards retreated in a south-eastern direction, although the river normally flowed north-west. Because of this, evidence of the river disappeared with time except for that preserved by the River Soar, which followed the route carved out by its gigantic predecessor.
The Meadows have a long history of being used for transportation links; the Leicester line of the Grand Union Canal stems from the main canal at Norton Junction, where it moves north through Foxton Locks with these two points serving as the beginning and end of the original Grand Union Canal. The canal continues to Leicester via Aylestone Meadows where it forms the eastern border of the reserve. The canal spans 35 miles and was primarily for transporting resources. Nowadays, it’s used by holiday narrow boats, and towpath walkers. The Canal and River Trust assist with preserving and maintaining it, with volunteers operating King’s Lock near the Tearooms in the southern half of the Meadows.
The Great Central Railway was opened in 1899 for travelling between London and Sheffield and at the time was one of the most advanced railway systems. . Services to London ceased in 1966 and the line closed completely in 1969. Leicester City Council gradually developed the track bed during the late 1970s as the Great Central Way, a walking and cycling route. Sustrans adopted the route in the 1990s as a segment of their flagship project, the National Cycle Network. The Great Central Way forms part of National Cycle Route 6, which runs from London to Keswick in the Lake District; so if you fancy a challenge …
For a short while in the 1960s a heliport was placed on the Meadows by British European Airways to provide an easy way for businessmen to travel from city to city, but this didn’t prove to be a very productive concept and was stopped after a few months.
Finally, the beautiful Packhorse Bridge is located in the southwest of the reserve and is thought to have been built in the 15th century, with additional construction at later dates, as a means of crossing the wetlands. While it was originally 200m long, the bridge is now only a quarter of its original length.
The area was used as a landfill site for a number of years, but eventually converted into the country park that we know and enjoy today. Further historical information can be found in a fascinating booklet produced by the late Roger Hutchinson.
Facilities on the Meadows today
There are four car parks for visitor use – at Evesham Road to the west, Marsden Lane at the Southern end of the Reserve, Canal Street and Aylestone Mill Lock, off the Aylestone Road. A children’s play area is in the southern half of the reserve, in the playing fields off Braunstone Lane East, and is good for families to visit.
The King’s Lock Tearooms, opened in 2004, are next to King’s Lock – named after George King who lived there for fifty years and was the lock keeper until 1899. Other keepers were hired until the commercial use of canals practically disappeared in 1963. The cottage itself was built in 1795, but after the keepers ceased to live there it was not long before it was partially burnt down by vandals in 1979, and would not have survived but for the efforts of a newly married couple (Adrien and Lou Snell) who bought it in 1980, living outside in a tent whilst restoring it, even through harsh winters. They sold it, and it eventually became a café. It is currently open all year round, Wednesday to Sunday.
The boardwalk located in the north part of the reserve keeps the site accessible during extended periods of rain, when the river Biam is prone to overflowing.