PUBLISHED: 11:01 17 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:51 20 February 2013
Rustic village to spa resort to thriving modern town - Leamington moves with the times, David Rudge reports.
It is rather appropriate that Queen Victoria should gaze stonily down at the throngs of shoppers in Leamingtons famous Parade.
It was the Queen who gave the town its regal title - Royal Leamington Spa. She visited the place at least twice during her reign, as did many other famous Victorians, in search of the healing properties of its brackish spring waters.
Her imperious statue stands in front of the town hall, built by other Victorians who decided that a big, brash, squat, square, redbrick building would fit neatly into the towns otherwise well-preserved and restrained Georgian architecture.
Many older Leamingtonians will remember the building during its black phase the result of the affect of decades of chimney smoke. It was given a clean up in the 1980s, and as it was unveiled, many of the townsfolk will have recoiled with a similar degree of shock as those original inhabitants who saw this red baroque monster when it was first built.
The Victorian town fathers clearly didnt mind disturbing Leafy Leamington, as it was, and still is known with the shock of the new. The architectural critic Nikolas Pevsner, while noting that is was quite out of keeping, nevertheless thought it "very large and proud". Describing some of the towns Georgian gems, he admires the "giant pilaster strips with sunk panels, and also the Grecian cast-iron balconies" in the Bath Street area, before adding, rather icily: "The railway cuts through the junction of Bath Street and High Street with characteristically Victorian ruthlessness." One doubts the Victorians would have worried too much about the route of HS2 had it been their project.
But Leamington survives, and is still one of Warwickshires fairest towns. The Jephson Gardens, beside which the gentle River Leam flows, are still a sheer delight, at any time of year, and attract visitors from all over the country.
And the towns famous Pump Rooms still operate.
Leamington is physically joined to the county town of Warwick to the west. The boundary is crossed as one approaches from Warwick down Emscote Road or the parallel Myton Road. The half-timbered gives way to the Georgian stucco very suddenly. And while Warwick suffers from its medieval road layout, Leamington is laid out to an organised plan, like a modern American town.
Many of its streets are lined with trees, and new buildings (with the possible exception of the Town Hall) have been sympathetically developed in order to maintain its Regency character.
And the literal source of the towns fame, the Pump Room at the bottom of The Parade, has been enjoying a new lease of life. As English spa towns slipped out of fashion during the 20th Century, the Pump Rooms slowly declined to the point where, by 1980, the building was in a sorry state.
The local authority, identifying its cultural and historic significance, ploughed more than 7 million into a restoration project in 1997. The building is now home to the towns Art Gallery & Museum, the Tourist Information Centre, the Assembly Rooms and Tea Rooms.
Leamingtons remarkable transformation from a rustic village to internationally famous spa resort, to thriving modern town is described in a book by Jeff Watkin Royal Leamington Spa Revisited (Tempus Publishing Ltd, Stroud). Jeff is currently the Heritage and Arts Manager at the towns Art Gallery & Museum.
In its heyday as a spa resort, Leamington attracted many affluent visitors who came to "take the waters". Their presence and, more importantly, the presence of their money quickly led to a blooming of many new businesses.
Indeed, the Ladies of Leamington, with their flowing gowns and parasols, came to symbolise the very nature of the town. As the fame of the spa increased, so did the number of traders who came to cater for the needs of these wealthy tourists.
The town still attracts visitors and shoppers in their thousands. There is much to entice the modern shopper, from the big national chains to the small independent businesses which thrive.
Unlike many towns of a similar size, Leamington has generally beaten the "empty shop" syndrome that blights much of the countrys older centres.
New developments, including the recently opened Regency Arcade, nestle snugly within the towns Georgian streets.
Its true that the main thoroughfare, The Parade, with an array of big name stores, is one of the major shopping attractions. But theres much more to Leamington that its Regency facades. Parking is generally good in Leamington, with plenty of small pay-and-display car parks, and adequate number of on-street spaces. And the clean, neat street plan means that one can hardly ever get lost. Keep turning left and youll find yourself back at the corner where you started. Walk along The Parade on a busy shopping day and youll witness ladies laden with bags branded with designer names.
Just off The Parade, though, youll find plenty of independent and long-established businesses doing a good trade, despite the consumer gloom elsewhere.
Frances Thackery, who runs a boutique of the same name, specialising in lingerie, jewellery and perfume, epitomises the independent spirit in Leamington.
She has recently completed an impressive refurbishment at her Park Street premises. "People want to feel welcome and special," she says. "Thats what we aim to do. Weve got a very good independent sector in Leamington. Its what gives a town its unique feeling."
Not very far down Park Street is another independent The Little Black Dress Co, run by Mags Gorman. "These are tough times for independents," she admits, "but we maintain our commitment to serving the customer. Leamington is different to many towns simply because weve got a strong independent sector."
There are many examples of that independent style in the Spa town. Just around the corner theres a hairdressers business which is licensed to serve alcohol to its customersor just a coffee if they prefer.
And there are good local restaurants, bars, bistros, hotels and delicatessens which do good business by providing what the customer is looking for.
Shopping in Leamington is a real pleasure. One never knows what one might find around the next corner.
The energetic Stephanie Kerr recently took on the challenge of becoming Executive Director of BID Leamington an organisation committed to supporting the town and helping it to flourish.
She says: "Its the retailers themselves who are the driving force, committed to making the town a beautiful and exciting place to visit and ensuring that their customers have a fantastic experience here. Were here to support this and help enable business to thrive. But the energy comes from the beauty, vibrancy and a rich history of creativity and optimism that exists in the town itself. We have something quite unique here which I encourage everyone to experience". "
Whether it is in the vastness of an English Cathedral, or in the confines of a tiny village church, the taking of Holy Communion is a spiritually uplifting event, writes Pamela Iredale.
Unfortunately, because of the increasing pressures of modern day life, some people for whatever reason are unable to commit themselves as much as they would like.
There are those, of course, who attend Communion on a daily basis. Some attend monthly; others less frequently, while there are those who only seem to celebrate during the great Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter.
The commemoration of the Lords Supper is celebrated with great solemnity, with the reading of the Scriptures, the breaking of bread and the pouring of communion wine, yet an important aspect of the service is also to share fellowship. Indeed, the benefits of companionship and a network of friends can be every bit as uplifting as being in receipt of spiritual comfort.
Some time ago I found myself falling into the category of those who say: Id love to attend Communion but I dont always have the time." The reason was because I had gone into partnership with my youngest son, Andrew, and opened Seasons Restaurant in Warwick Street, Leamington. As I became more and more involved in the day-to-day running of the establishment, and working on Sundays, it became increasingly difficult to regularly attend our local church.
Then one day, the Rev Denise Hiscox called into the restaurant and introduced herself as the town chaplain attached to All Saints Parish Church and Holy Trinity Church, Leamington. After that, Denise often popped in for a coffee and chat, and eventually I asked if it would be possible for my husband, Brian, and myself to take Communion at the restaurant in view of the difficulties we were encountering.
Denise readily agreed and for almost a year the three of us met on the first Friday of the month. It was a convenient arrangement and I was quite content with the situation 0 until one Sunday there was a dramatic change!
We went to a presentation about the future of the diocese and I was so inspired by what the then Bishop of Coventry had to say that it was up to the Church to get out of church buildings and go into the community to reach out to people wherever they were.
My thoughts were in over-drive and the words "Communion & Coffee" came to mind so naturally! At the end of the service I rushed over to Denise and said: "We have a building, a time-slot and the space. We can organise posters and open up our Holy Communion to fellow-workers and people passing by the restaurant."
And thats how it all started.
Five years ago this month we held our first "Communion & Coffee," attended by twelve people. Since then, the service has maintained its popularity and we now have more than 20 regular attendees, mainly communicants from Anglican and Baptist churches.
Last year we had some newcomers to the town who attended because they said they hadnt yet been able to find a church in which they felt "comfortable." They considered Seasons to be a "real blessing" because it provided them with the opportunity to partake in fellowship and Holy Communion.
Sadly, due to ill-health, Denise is no longer able to lead our services and our grateful thanks now go to the Rev Christopher Wilson, priest-in-charge of Holy Trinity and All Saints, who has taken on the vision with such encouragement and enthusiasm.
If you are interested in joining the "Communion & Coffee" services at Seasons Restaurant on the first and third Friday of the month at 10 am, please telephone 01926 424340.