Leamington Spa - The Bath of Warwickshire
PUBLISHED: 11:04 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:43 20 February 2013
Royal Leamington Spa has an elegance that hints at its opulent past. But the town was nothing more than a small rural village until it jumped on the spa town bandwagon.
Whenever people think of Royal Leamington Spa, they are most likely to picture it as the Bath of Warwickshire, for centuries crowded with opulent aristocrats descending on the historic town to take the cure from its natural saline springs. The truth, however, is not that straightforward.
For unlike Bath, which has been a major spa town since Roman times, Leamington Priors, to give it its full 17th century name, was a simple rustic village dwarfed by neighbouring Warwick until the dawn of the 19th century. Even when it did finally became a spa, its golden age lasted barely 60 years.
The settlements ancient origins are lost in the mists of time, but it probably grew up around a crossing point on the River Leam in the Dark Ages as Roman Britain gave way to the Anglo Saxons. Its name means farmstead on the Leam and the name of the river is of Celtic derivation meaning either elm or marshy. The health benefits of its springs were recognised during the Middle Ages or even earlier, but their healing properties remained more a matter of myth and legend spoken of by travellers venturing through the vast forests which then covered central England.
That all changed during the Georgian age when sumptuous living and over-eating spawned a new health industry and, as natural spas opened throughout the country, Warwickshire wanted to cash in on the new fashion and a number of small bath houses were built at Leamington.
During the first decade of the 19th century, however, it quickly became obvious that these facilities were hopelessly inadequate to cater for the increasing numbers of visitors and plans were drawn up to build a bathing establishment on a grander scale than anything previously seen.
A company was formed to buy land for the project on the western side of what is now the Parade, but attempts to discover a reliable source of saline water in this area failed. Then in 1810, a spring was discovered on land owned by a member of the syndicate on the northern side of the river, but close to the old village centre.
Four years later, the Royal Pump Room and Baths were built at a cost of 30,000. The Pump Room gardens were laid out and enclosed for the exclusive use of the patrons who were entertained on summer evenings by military bands. The venture was a huge commercial success at first, but by 1848 the fashion of taking the waters had begun to decline and the original syndicate decided to cut their losses and sell.
In 1860, the new owner, the Honourable Charles Bertie Percy, closed the Pump Rooms and put them up for sale for redevelopment. However, a newly-formed company took over the building and, after extensive reconstruction work, the facility continued at a much reduced level for the next 90 years. However, it never regained the exclusivity it had once enjoyed and in 1875 the gardens were thrown open to members of the public. After World War Two, the complex became a medical centre offering a range of spa treatments including the treatment of sports injuries.
In 1996, Warwick District Council, in collaboration with Warwickshire County Council, produced proposals to relocate Leamington's Art Gallery, Museum and Library to the Pump Rooms.
The scheme was extended to include the refurbishment of the Assembly Room within the Pump Rooms and provision for a Tourist Information Centre and caf. The days of spa treatments had finally come to
Some vestiges of those grand days still remain, however, and the grandest of these are to be found opposite the Royal Pump Rooms and bordering the River Leam.
These are the Jephson Gardens which originated in the 1840s as a testimonial to Dr Henry Jephson who was a leading figure in the town's early expansion as a health spa.
The gardens opened to the public in June 1847 and included a temple with a marble statue which was officially unveiled in May 1849.
Like many parks in Britain, the gardens fell into slow decline after World War Two, but since 1999 have been restored by Warwick District Council with the help of 3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The renovation included a contemporary lakeside pavilion housing a restaurant, education unit and a temperate house which represents plant evolution from 500 million years ago to the present day.
The gardens were voted the best park in Britain in 2004 by the Royal Horticultural Society and are hugely popular with visitors and local residents.
There is also another reminder of those heady days when Royal Leamington Spa was one of Britains most fashionable inland health resorts. If you feel really adventurous, it is still possible to drink the natural spring water in the pump rooms.
It is said to be good for the liver, will relieve rheumatism and arthritis and can cure gout, but there is a drawback. It is also a mild laxative.
Take in . . .
The Pump Rooms where the towns art gallery and museum are housed. Look out for the fascinating medical history section which details the hydrotherapy and physiotherapy treatments meted out to patients.
Taste . . .
Local produce at Leamingtons Farmers Market every fourth Saturday of the month in the Pump Room Gardens (9am2pm).
Stroll . . .
Around the Jephson Gardens a green lung in the heart of the town.
Take coffee at . . .
Ardens deli-caf in Regent Street we guarantee you wont be able to resist a biscuit or cake!
Book a table at . . .
Restaurant 23 in Dormer Place where local lad Peter Knibbs shows off his talent for fabulous British cooking.
Shop til you drop . . .
All over town. There are plenty of shopping arcades, malls and dont miss the independent shops in Warwick Street and surrounding streets.