The city of Leicester is about as far from the sea as one can get in England.  But one sweltering August day, when everyone else was heading down to the beaches, we were driving in the opposite direction so that I could fill in a long-troubling gap on my mental map of England.  I had wanted to go to Leicester not just because I had never been there, but for a much more important reason—because it is projected to be the first city in England that will become majority ethnic minority.

As we progressed west, the land got warmer, as if we were driving into a moderate oven.  Marshland became wolds, wolds fens, and fens the gently rolling Vale of Belvoir, Stilton-making and fox-hunting country, dominated by its neo-Gothic castle.  We skirted the untidy edge of Melton Mowbray, the official home of the pork pie, and so on along increasingly congested roads into an unprepossessing Leicester city center.

We disembarked in a multistory carpark on Abbey Street, which commemorates the vanished Augustinian foundation of St. Mary of the Meadows, where Cardinal Wolsey arrived on the morning of November 26, 1530, telling the no doubt flustered abbot, “I am come to leave my bones among you”—which was astute of him, because he died that night.  The abbey itself would not outlast him long.

John Wycliffe had previously left his bones in the county, George Fox would be born in Leicestershire some time later, and the industrious local Baptist missionary William Carey (1760-1834) translated the Bible into 40 Indian dialects.  Leices­tershire has an unusual concentration of former religious sites—and retained a reputation for religiosity up to the 19th century, when Leicester was “the metropolis of dissent.”  It may be not just the center of England but the center of Christian England.

The map machine digested a pound coin without disgorging the map.  So far, very unpromising—but a helpful woman showed us where we needed to go, and the city started to reveal its character.

A hideous but handy Victorian clock tower marks the city’s center, from which wide, pedestrianized streets hosting the usual brands radiate in all directions.  But one can discern handsome frontages above the 60’s to 80’s plate glass and plastic brand-name signage—the legacy of architects informed by taste, who had designed and built to last.  Looking along the streets we saw glints of arts and crafts, Tudorbethan, and neoclassical, and a couple of spires to make the feet fidget.  I had to keep telling myself I was here on a kind of mission, to see what effects immigration was having on the city, and what might be at stake as the city’s indigenous population voluntarily relinquished control over its ancient territory.

This significant event is scheduled for as early as this year, according to figures from the former Commission for Racial Equality based on ethnic-minority growth between the censuses of 1991 and 2001.  These figures have been disputed by academics at the University of Manchester, who point out that minority members also leave the city.  One may disagree with the schedule, but no one disputes the general direction of travel.

There had been a little immigration into Leicester before the war—it was the second-richest city in Europe in 1936—but it became a major destination for Asians from the 1960’s onward, to fill actual vacancies and projected “skills shortages” in the factories turning out hosiery, footwear, and engine components.  Soon afterward, many of these factories became outmoded and closed or moved overseas, leaving behind not just workless indigenes but thousands of unassimilated immigrants with high birthrates, high levels of welfare dependency, and low levels of academic achievement.  In Leicester, as in so many other places in England, evanescent economic considerations won out over long-term thinking—and the demographic die was cast.  The city’s motto of Semper Eadem (“Always the same”) was destined to become an historical irony.  One can only speculate what the factory owners and local politicians of the 1950’s would think of the present and future they inadvertently shaped.

In recent years, Asian immigration has slowed and been partially counterbalanced by Eastern European immigration, but Leices­ter is still an exotic island in the otherwise mostly English East Midlands.  The latest available figures are from the 2001 census, but 2006 extrapolations by the Office of National Statistics suggest that, of the urban-area population of approximately 293,000 persons, white Britons make up 58.3 percent; other whites, 3.7 percent; Asian British, 29.4 percent; black or black British, 4.6 percent; mixed race, 2.6 percent; and Chinese or other, 1.5 percent.  Gujurati is spoken by around 16 percent of city residents, and Punjabi, Somali, and Urdu, by between 2 and 4 percent each.  English is “not the preferred language” of 45 percent of primary-school pupils.

On first impression, the city seemed much less subcontinental than I had expected, with even the traders in the city’s famous outdoor market being almost completely white British, bawling out their special offers cheerfully from below chalked signs carrying English names—even if a few of the stalls offered such exotica as lemongrass, okra, sweet potatoes, and yams.  Upstairs in the indoor part of the market, surprisingly well-stocked fishmongers carried red grouper from the Caribbean and rubbery-looking beasts from the Bay of Bengal among the more usual fare, while the butchers (including the unappetizing-sounding “Leicestershire’s Oldest Tripe Stall”) stocked goat meat between the bacon and sausages.  There were Rastafarian market stalls and people selling Polish specialities, but the overall impression was one of unchallenged Englishness.

A sense of continuity was also evident in Leicester Cathedral, an externally plain, internally intimate former parish church that was only granted cathedral status in 1927, adjacent to a half-timbered 14th-century guildhall.  This is the smallest cathedral I have ever seen, almost square, and was much “restored” (to put it politely) by the Victorians.  But it is highly attractive, despite a temporary exhibition that had blocked the south aisle with several large lumps of wood collectively called “Humanity. Inhumanity.”  These interfered with inspection of the humorous medieval carvings called “The Ailments”—near-life-sized, pained-looking figures with ear trumpets and empty eye sockets.

In the chancel, there is a large memorial slab to the still-divisive Richard III, who was killed at nearby Bosworth in 1485 and buried in the churchyard of the now-vanished city church of Greyfriars.  There is an apocryphal story that his bones were disinterred and precipitated into the River Soar, but more likely they were just swept away when the church was dissolved.  A few remember and even seek to rehabilitate this subject of Shakespearean traducement; there was a fresh wreath on the slab from the Richard III Society.

St. George’s Chapel in the cathedral contains the faded fustian of the Tigers, the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, who earned their emblem and soubriquet, plus the superscription “Hindoostan,” by battling against the ancestors of those now colonizing Leicester in their historic turn.  The regiment, which was originally founded in 1688, was subsumed into the Royal Anglian Regiment in 1964, whose uniform buttons retain the tiger but not the Hindoostan.

Back along fine streets and a busy inner ring road in quest of the so-called Jewry Wall, actually part of a third-century basilica.  This is a 73-foot-long remembrance of the 400-year presence of the legions who left Leicester its name—although they had merely taken over the site from Celtic tribesmen, now almost forgotten like their relict trackways leading to the ford over what they called the Legro or Leire (Leire-castra—the fort on the Leire).

That name Leire recalls an even more tenebrous past, during which legends became men, and men legends.  According to agreeable tradition, the city was founded by a mythical king of the Britons called Leir.  Leicester is still Caerlyr in Welsh, or “the fort of Leir.”  According to that same folktale, his youngest daughter, yclept Cordelia, buried him in a chamber beneath the river—and from such Mercian archetypes the same Midlands dreamer who so disliked Richard III wove an equally famous story, of a mythical monarch hagridden by suspicion and madness.

All these tribal trackways became the Roman roads of the Fosse Way and the Via Devena, leading appropriately to and from this hub city devoted to Janus.  It was curious to consider that some of the people walking around must be lineal descendants of those overlaid Celts—or their Italic overlords—or more recent blow-ins, like the Angles, first recorded in this area in the sixth century.

Beside the wall, inside the footprint of the fallen basilica, huddles Leicester’s oldest church, the Saxo-Norman St. Nicholas, with Saxon window openings and sturdy Romanesque arches carrying massy brown-gray stonework in a randomness of irregular angles and odd perspectives.  The organist was glad to have company and played us an Elizabethan dance tune from Warlock’s Capriol Suite to demonstrate both the acoustics and his prowess—the product of five decades’ service to this church, abutting this invaders’ wall and ghostly masonry courses recalling hypocausts, the forum, the medieval ghetto, and the precinct of Holy Bones.  He was concerned about the shrinking number of congregants and half smiled, half sighed, “I don’t know where all the years have gone,” as we said goodbye.  Then he sat down again to play, this time the tune from The Dambusters, engrossed in the misplaced martial Englishness of the air as we heaved open the oaken door to admit briefly the hideous drum and bass of the ring road.

So we processed to Leicester Castle, originally a Norman motte-and-bailey later lived in by Simon de Montfort, one of several celebrated earls of Leicester, who in 1265 forced his brother-in-law Richard III to hold the first elected English parliament, which included two citizens from every borough in England, so introducing the “knights and burgesses” into British constitutional history.  More parliaments followed in Leicester, some overly exciting affairs like the 1414 “Fire and Faggots Parliament,” so called because it passed the Suppression of Heresy Act against Wycliffe’s Lollards—or 1426’s “Parliament of Bats,” to which attendees were not allowed to bring their swords and had to rely on cudgels.  As if that were not enough of a claim to a place in Holinshed or Bagehot, John of Gaunt lived in the castle, Lady Jane Grey visited, and here Robert Dudley feared and then desired the Virgin Queen.

A 17th-century earl of Leicester gave the castle’s riverside elevation a lamentable brick frontage.  But on the land side, there is what feels like a cathedral close, as the road racket is muffled by the 12th-century bulk of the castle and the 14th-century crocketed spire of St. Mary de Castro (where Chaucer was supposedly married) and the high, silent, shuttered houses of the Newarke, or New Works.  Beyond, there is a 15th-century gatehouse, and beyond that again yet more handsome houses, and finally a magazine of around 1410, this outpost marooned unhappily on a concrete plain above a confusion of charging cars—the mayhem oddly apposite for the hometown of the man who invented the Hansom cab.  It was a picture-perfect juxtaposition of ancient and modern, stability and flux—of firmness surrounded by ferment.

Leaving the city at last, tired and uncharacteristically thoughtful, we headed eastward and home past a long, unlovely line of sari shops, halal butchers, and kebab establishments—the new Leicester, the new England springing up around the edges of the old, not to support but to supplant her.  It is a revolutionary act—one not of violence but indifference, a mild metamorphosis effected by inoffensive newcomers, to resist which stampeding lambs seems to many too difficult.

And yet in some way it matters that one of England’s greatest cities, a history-haunted place central not just geographically but also imaginatively, is passing permanently out of the English orbit.  When and how exactly may be open to question, but what is certain is that this place which originated in such poetic obscurity is moving ineluctably toward an even more obscure tomorrow.