Bright lights, film premieres, tourist crowds, M&Ms World... just a few of the things that come to mind when Leicester Square is mentioned. But the world-famous area is merely a duplicate — the original Leicester Square can be found in the tranquil village of Penshurst in Kent, and couldn't be more different.
Despite their dissimilarities, both Leicester Squares have the same origins — the Sidney Family, who held the title of Earl of Leicester between 1618 and 1743, and were prominent landowners in the Kent countryside as well as central London, gave their name to both squares.
Why are there two Leicester Squares?
Penshurst's original Leicester Square sits right next to Penshurst Place, a country manor house and estate owned by the Sidney family since 1552. They still live there today, though parts of the estate are also open to the public.
London's Leicester Square only took that name sometime after the 1700s, though the Leicester moniker had been in the area for a while. Leicester House was built in 1635 to the north of what we now know as Leicester Square, and was named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester.
The area then became known as Leicester Fields, when several more wealthy residential properties were built in the area. Leicester House was demolished in the late 1700s, and as a result, the area became less affluent, transforming into an entertainment district rather than a residential area. It was then that the area became known as Leicester Square.
Though we've found no concrete evidence of when the name Leicester Square was first used to reference the Penshurst courtyard, it's widely agreed that it predates the usage in London, possibly by over a century, giving Kent the honour of claiming the 'original' Leicester Square.
Visiting the original Leicester Square
Sadly, no tube line will take you to the original Leicester Square, and even Penshurst railway station is a couple of miles away. Instead, we recommend taking a day to explore the whole area, including Penshurst Place, by car.
From Penshurst Place's car park, walk back along the drive, underneath the ornate redbrick entrance arch, and take the right hand branch of Rogues Hill, back towards the village. Just a few steps along, on the right, is Leicester Square, though it's often hidden by parked cars lining the road. A gap in the stone wall (a Grade-II listed structure itself) gives way to five steps, which lead up to a courtyard enclosed on three sides. This is Leicester Square.
It's hard to tell where one building ends, and another begins, but Leicester Square consists of approximately six cottages, and an archway leading through to the churchyard. Unfortunately the buildings don't all date back to the days when the Sidney family held the Earl of Leicester title, but most of them are considered important enough to have been listed by Historic England.
The mismatch in dates is due to the fact that architect George Devey was commissioned to do a lot of work on the Penshurst Place estate in the 1850s, which included updating and replacing some of the existing buildings. His signature style involved mixing materials and trends from different eras, which explains the architectural mish-mash on display in the courtyard today.
The easiest structure to date is the beige building on the left closest to the road, thanks to the large 1850 plaque on its outward-facing wall (here's an image of it a year later). It's the former Post Office and adjoining house, though these days it's Grade-II listed and used as a private residence. Most interesting is the King George era postbox still embedded in the wall in the courtyard.
The Grade-II listed building in the north-west corner of the courtyard is the Old Guildhouse, now split into two cottages and thought to date back to at least the 16th century, possibly earlier. The cottages at 2-3 Leicester Square, on the opposite side of the courtyard, are thought to date back in part to the medieval period, though they too were restored as part of George Devey's work. 1 Leicester Square was a 19th century addition, built to link the original cottages to Wall Cottage, another of George Devey's additions.
At the far end of the Leicester Square is an archway linking the other buildings, built on timber posts dating back to at least the 16th century. Wander under the arch to enter the churchyard of St John the Baptist, also part of the Penshurst Place estate, but take the time to look back at the archway, and notice the phrase "My flesh also shall rest in hope" carved onto wooden boards. It's taken from Psalms 16:9 in the Bible. This spot also offers a good viewpoint towards the Kent countryside beyond Leicester Square — something you don't get in WC2.
You may not see film stars arriving for premieres at Kent's Leicester Square, but next door, Penshurst Place has an impressive cinematic history — The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall are just some of the productions filmed there, and the sound of a squeaking floorboard in the Long Gallery was used in the Harry Potter films.
Although the Sidney family still own Penshurst Place today, they only held onto the Earl of Leicester title between 1618 and 1743 — after going through several incarnations, the title now belongs to the Coke family whose family seat is in Norfolk. No Leicester Square there yet though, that we know of.
Leicester Square, Penshurst, Tonbridge, Kent, TN11 8BJ. Nearest car park, toilets and tea rooms are next door at Penshurst Place. By our estimation, the nearest tube station is probably Morden, which is almost 30 miles away. Nearest railway stations are Leigh and Penshurst, but they're both a couple of miles away across the countryside. Alternatively, take to two wheels and enjoy the Tudor Trail cycle route from the nearby town of Tonbridge.