Saturday, April 30th 2016
We caught the 205 bus to Marylebone Station and just had time to buy baguettes and coffee for breakfast before departing on the 10:05 Birmingham train.
We were not going to Birmingham, however, and disembarked here, at a town once famous for its medicinal waters.
The present Art Deco styled railway station was built in 1938 though the railway had reached the town long before that, in 1852.
Previously known as Leamington Priory, owing to the fact that the land hereabouts was owned by Kennilworth Priory, Leamington was a little known village. However, that was to change in the latter part of the 18th century when springs of chalybeate waters were discovered and the town began to attract those who followed the fashionable habit of ‘taking the waters’. Development began in earnest at the beginning of the 19th century and the town doubled in size between 1831 and 1841. Queen Victoria visited Leamington and in 1838 accorded it the ‘Royal’ accolade, so that it is officially known as Royal Leamington Spa.
The town stands beside the River Leam, pronounced ‘Lemm’, as is the first syllable of the town’s name. That name is thought to come from Anglo-Saxon times and to derive from Leman-tun, meaning ‘the farm on the Leam’.
The canal tow path offered a pleasant path towards the centre of town. It was very quiet and there were ducks, coots and moorhens to entertain us along the way.
There was just one awkward moment when we passed under Sparford Bridge, also known as Grand Union Canal Bridge 41. This is so low that I had to bend almost double to pass under it and found myself leaning uncomfortably towards the water! The path here was presumably designed for barge ponies rather than for human ramblers.
This Classical-styled building gives us an insight into the rapid growth of Leamington in the 19th century. It was built in 1831 to be the Town Hall. Small as it seems now for such a purpose, it nevertheless contained meeting rooms and offices, a ballroom, a magistrates’ court, and a police station with holding cells, while fire engines were garaged at the rear. In the 1880s, this pretty but perhaps insufficiently prestigious town hall was replaced by a bigger and grander building. Leamington has a large Polish community which bought the old town hall and opened it as the Polish Centre in 1968. It is now a Grade II listed building.
In nearby George Street, we found another building in much the same style as the former town hall – unsurprising, perhaps, as the same architect, John Russell, was responsible for both. This one is today the home of Seventh Day Adventists though it is generically known as the Leamington Spa Mission. The statue in a niche above the door gives us a clue as to the building’s history. Though this disciple is more often shown holding keys, it’s a pretty safe bet that he is meant to be St Peter and indeed this building was originally the Roman Catholic Church of St Peter, a role it performed from when it opened in 1828 until 1864 when it was superseded, like the Town Hall, by a bigger and grander replacement. It too is Grade II listed.
We continued along George Street into Mill Street which, at its end, meets Priory Terrace coming from the left. Here you see a paved path or drive sloping down to the river. You might not take any notice of this until you discover that it rejoices in the odd, if colourful, name of Elephant Wash. Though there seems to be some uncertainty as to the exact facts of the case, we are sure that it had something to do with a local man called Sam Lockhart.
Born in 1850 into a family with a circus background, Sam apparently went to Ceylon where he bought two (or was it three?) young elephants and brought them back to Leamington. According to some accounts, he went on to acquire up to 20 elephants, though not necessarily all at the same time. The story recounts that Lockhart was in the habit of taking his elephants to bathe in the river from a slipway near Victoria Bridge. As a result of complaints about the noise of the elephants (among other things it was alleged that they interrupted Sunday church services), in 1882 an application was made to the authorities, and was granted, to move their bathing place to Priory Terrace. That document is still extant in the Warwickshire County Record Office. Lockhart and his elephants have left the scene but his charming story is still recalled in the name of Elephant Wash.
Mill Street leads on to Mill Road which turns right before reaching the river. Off it runs Mill Passage which crosses the river via Mill Bridge. This is a Grade II listed iron suspension bridge dated 1903.
The structure includes both a bridge and a weir. The name of the bridge, and the aforementioned streets, comes from a water mill for grinding corn that once existed where the Leam Boat Centre is sited today.
The Mill Bridge leads pedestrians across the river to Jephson Gardens, a fine park that forms part of Leamington’s extensive set of gardens.
The path from the bridge leads to a paved area dominated by an impressive clock tower. This is dated 1925 and was presented by Mrs William Davis as a memorial to her late husband, alderman and thrice mayor of Leamington. A separate notice tells us that the ‘Chimes [were] reinstated 1986 in memory of Mrs Joy Beeby’. We had lunch in a cafe called the Aviary in memory of an aviary that once stood here but is no more.
Following a path through the gardens, we came upon a round, temple-like structure. The door is accessed via a flight of steps and is open, though protected with a grille. This is to allow the visitor to admire the statue inside. The little Grade II listed building is the Jephson Memorial and the statue is a likeness of the man that it honours.
Henry Jephson (1798-1878) trained to become a surgeon-apothecary and set up his medical practice in Leamingon. He rose to prominence both professionally and socially and did much to encourage people to come to Leamington to benefit from the curative propertied of the waters, thus gaining the approbation and gratitude of his fellow citizens. The memorial was begun in 1848, the year in which Jephson retired, and was completed in 1849. I think this must be a fairly rare case in which a person is present for the unveiling of his own memorial.
Edward Willes was owner of Newbold Comyn, a large property that he was developing. In 1836 he donated part of this for use as a public garden. The gardens were consequently called Newbold Gardens until they were renamed in honour of Henry Jephson in 1946. The obelisk was dedicated to Willes in 1875 and is a Grade II listed structure.
The most ornate of the memorials in the garden must be the Grade II listed Hitchman Fountain raised in honour of Dr John Hitchman (1805-67).
(Unfortunately, when taking this photo, I had the sun in my eyes and didn’t notice that I had cut the top off!)
Hitchman established himself as a renowned medical practitioner in Leamington and was active in helping the poor. His main claim to fame was in creating the Arboretum which was open to the public and which formed the basis of his Aboretum Hydropathic Hospital.
The fountain is made mainly of sandstone but with parts in the famous artificial Coade Stone. I think the lion’s head spouts are made of the latter.
A number of spa rooms were opened after the discovery of the chalybeate springs but the grandest of them all was the Royal Pump Room & Baths that opened in 1814, being later extended in order to meet increasing demand. It featured both hot and cold baths.
Along the front of the building runs a colonnade. Today it seems purely decorative but I wonder whether in the institution’s heyday people would have sat out here after their encounter with the healing waters.
From the 1840s onwards, the vogue for spas began to decline, throughout Europe as well as in Britain. The Pump Room struggled on until the 1860s when it closed and the building faced demolition. It was saved by a group of local investors who tried to revive its fortunes by refurbishing it. Among the new facilities was a large swimming pool and a smaller pool for ladies only whose design was based on the concept of the Hammam (Turkish bath).
Though its pool no longer exists, the beautiful and rather exotic Hammam can still be visited.
The new enterprise could not survive, however, and the complex was sold to become a public facility in the 1890s. A large swimming pool was added but this too proved not to be a success. In the 1990s, the complex was redeveloped by the Council as a cultural centre. The Leamington Public Library has taken over the space once occupied by the swimming pool and other parts of the building house the museum and art gallery, assembly rooms, tourist information and a cafe. To judge by the number of visitors present when we were there, the new incarnation has been successful. The building is now Grade II listed.
The Pump Room is set in its own gardens which are a continuation of the Jephson Gardens. We walked through the gardens and spotted the above church. I mentioned above that what is now called the Leamington Spa Mission was a Roman Catholic church until 1864. This church is the one that superseded it, opened in 1864 though the tower was not added until 1877.
We took a look inside. The above photo shows the view looking from the back of the church towards the altar.
You expect to find representations of St Mary in a Catholic church. There are several in St Peter’s and this is a colourful example, though I do not know its date or the name of the artist. (The church is Grade II listed.)
After a coffee break, we went to take a look at the ‘new’ Town Hall, that is, the one that replaced to original building of that name that is now the Polish Centre (see above). It was completed in 1884 and, according to Historic England, is in ‘”Alderman’s Renaissance” style, incorporating Tudor and French baroque elements’. It possesses a tall clock tower placed to one side.
Though an anti-monarchist, I must admit to a certain fondness for Queen Victoria, at least so far as her representations in stone and bronze are concerned. This sculpture of Sicilian marble, at the same time very naturalistic and yet very regal, stands in front of the Town Hall. Sculpted by Albert Toft, it was, according to an inscription, ‘Erected by the People of Leamington October 11th 1902 William Davis Mayor’, while a second inscription reads ‘Victoria Queen Empress 1837-1901 She wrought her people lasting good’, the last six words of which are a line from Tennyson’s poem To the Queen. The following curious note has been added to the statue: ‘A German bomb moved this statue one inch on its plinth on the 14th November 1940′ and indeed, visible inspection of the plinth shows that the statue is not centred upon it. Both Victoria and the Town Hall have been given a Grade II listing.
Throughout our visit, the parish Church of All Saints, continually appeared in the background, so I thought I had better photograph it before leaving. We did not visit it on this occasion but perhaps we shall do so if ever we return to Leamington. In slightly unusual French Gothic style, the church was built between 1843 and 1869, though with later additions, and is Grade II* listed.
This was our first acquaintance with Royal Leamington Spa and a single visit can do no more than scratch the surface, picking out a few items of interest. Perhaps we shall return one day and continue discovering what the Royal Spa has to offer.