Cotswold Towns: Loving Leamington Spa
PUBLISHED: 15:37 19 July 2017
© by Mischa Haller 2012
Jane Leigh visits the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa to find a thriving independent sector amongst the Regency architecture
Like the best bits of London, in a 10-minute walk!” That’s the proud boast of Royal Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, where visitors can enjoy the enticing combination of a range of independent shops and high-street chains with wide boulevards, award-winning parks and stunning Regency architecture.
Stephanie Kerr is executive director of BID Leamington, which works with businesses to promote the town. She says: “The thriving independent sector is the lifeblood of ‘Leam’, as locals call the town, and the centre has an enviable reputation for a variety of businesses, offering everything from boutiques, homeware and curiosities to well-known brands, as well as an impressive selection of bars, restaurants and cafes. And this summer there’s a great line-up of free events to make a visit even more attractive.”
Some 200 years ago it was a very different tale, with residents of the tiny village of Leamington Priors simply getting on with life in rural Warwickshire. Everything changed in 1784, however, when the royal fashion for “taking the waters” spread and the mineral waters of the area, known since Roman times, were rediscovered.
Early development of the spa business was followed by rapid growth, and in 1814 the Royal Pump Rooms and Baths (1) were opened, offering visitors the chance to drink the water, and to experience its healing properties by bathing: it was claimed to cure tendon and joint stiffness, relieve the symptoms of gout and rheumatism, and even cure rabies.
The Pump Rooms are still the first call for many a visitor, although the spa side of the business was closed in 1860. The building now houses the town’s Assembly Rooms, Art Gallery and Museum, Library, Tourist Information Centre and Café, and the museum features displays on the history of the Pump Rooms and its Spa Treatments. It also offers visitors the opportunity to sample a taste of spa water (although be warned: it’s known as a mild laxative).
The popularity of the Pump Rooms led to further expansion and, in 1838, to royal approval, when Queen Victoria granted the ‘royal’ prefix to the newly-renamed Royal Leamington Spa. The elegant days of Regency ‘Leam’ can be recaptured today by a stroll to take in the classic townhouses for which ‘Leam’ is famed, notably in Landsdowne Crescent (2) to the east and Clarendon Square (3) to the north.
No visit to the Pump Rooms would be complete without enjoying the formal gardens beside the river: originally for the recreation of Pump Room visitors only, they were opened to the public in 1875. Today they provide a pleasant walk beside the River Leam, while Jephson Gardens (4), just across the main road, offers more space for a riverside stroll together with formal planting, a fountain, sensory garden and glasshouse.
If you’re visiting on a family outing, parents and childrens should all enjoy Victoria Park, further west on the north side of the river, which comes complete with children’s paddling pool and play areas, skate park, bowls, tennis, and coffee shop.
Or maybe you’d prefer to recapture the leisurely pace of days gone by in a traditional Victorian rowing skiff, available to hire from the Leam Boat Centre (5), just across the river. The centre is open seven days a week, weather permitting, from June to August: canoes, kayaks, pedalos and motor boats are also available.
Whilst over the South side of the river, visitors should take the chance to look at the Elephant Walk (6), a slipway leading down to the river just off Priory Terrace. Legend has it that this was where world-renowned elephant trainer (and Leam resident) Sam Lockhart took his elephants to bathe while in town. Unfortunately there seems to be no record of this actually happening, but there is no doubt that Sam and his six elephants topped the bill at the Theatre Royal in 1897, and that the beasts were regularly quartered in the town.
The elephant theme continues with this year’s Art in the Park 2017 festival which takes place on August 5 and 6 in Jephson Gardens. The theme is ‘The Three Graces’ as Lockhart’s most famous trio of animals was known, and there’ll be circus-related fun and activities as well as artists and craftsmen offering everything from fused glass to jewellery, mosaics to water colours, and ceramics to needle felting.
Head north of the river along the Parade (7), adorned with hanging baskets and bunting, and you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice in the heart of the shopping centre, with independent retailers rubbing shoulders with major national chains.
Those keen to enjoy some retail therapy are sure to enjoy browsing the boutiques, high street names, salons, bars, cafes and brasseries within the central area. The choice ranges from fancy-dress shops, specialist lingerie and vintage stores to shoe shops and fashion outlets for mens’, ladies’ and children’s outfits. Even the independent sweet shops are a cut above the rest, with Moomoo in Park Street and Sweet Tayloula on Regent Street vying for trade.
If you are planning a trip, you can do no better than visit two websites newly created by BID Leamington. ‘Love Leam’ offers an events guide, together with ideas for things to do and places to shop, eat and drink, while ‘Taste Leamington’ features all the foodie facts that gourmet visitors will want to know. Since its launch in February this year, the latter has been helping hungry tourists find their perfect place to eat by searching for venue, facilities, cuisine and meal time. The website also includes news and special offers so it’s well worth a look, featuring eateries serving everything from British traditional (with a twist) fare at the Tame Hare (8) in Warwick Street, to Middle Eastern food, drink and ambience at Elma Restaurant (9) in Augusta Place.
And if you fancy a night out after a busy day sightseeing and shopping, the town comes alive with live music, dance clubs, pubs, bars and restaurant to bring your visit to a memorable end.