Leamington, just east of Warwick, was a tiny town until its local doctor started pushing the local mineral waters as a recuperative cure. It grew rapidly from the 1820s, with a new residential quarter of fine Regency architecture attracting the well-to-do and fashionable. I see it very much as the Harrogate of the Midlands.[10 photos]
Leamington's game-changer was the Royal Pump Rooms, a pillared classical structure beside the River Leam, opened in 1814 for bathing and the taking of the waters. When spa-going fell out of fashion, a swimming pool and Turkish baths were added, which kept the place going until the 1980s. The local council then took over, repurposing the interior as the town's main library, plus museum and art gallery, cafe and Tourist Information Centre. I'm told the museum is fascinating. The museum is closed on Mondays. A drinking fountain outside allows passers-by to sample the waters, although I didn't see any passers-by ducking down for a salty gulp.
A string of gardens were laid out beside the river for patients to "take the air", with the local population originally only allowed access first thing in the morning. Jephson Gardens are still immaculately maintained, with pristine shrubbery, 72 different types of tree and, currently, carpets of crocuses and snowdrops. If you fancy a drink, the aviary has been repurposed as a cafe. If you want to know the time, the clocktower still bongs out the quarter hours. The most recent intrusion is a giant glasshouse for the display of subtropical plants, paid for with lottery cash, with a big wedding-friendly reception room tucked on at the back. Not only is it free, but also warm, and also open on a Monday.
Royal Leamington Spa has by far the best shops in the area, always has, focused on a grid of streets to the north of the river. The main drag is simply called Parade, a grand thoroughfare rising from the Pump Rooms towards Christchurch Gardens, with a definite (but slightly modified) Regency vibe. Look carefully and a shopping mall is hidden behind the facade, with backstreets of independent boutiques tucked in beyond. At the foot of the hill is the Regent Hotel, where Queen Victoria once stayed as a child, for which ridiculously flimsy reason the town was allowed to add the title 'Royal' to its name. I doubt we'll see the current queen here any time soon, however, as it's now a Travelodge, with the downstairs converted into a Wagamama.
So middle class is RLS that the first modern lawn tennis club was established here, and the bowling greens in Victoria Park are used for tournaments at international level. It's no coincidence that much of Keeping Up Appearances was filmed around here, whenever a town centre scene was required (although the Bucket residence was actually located in a suburb of Coventry). Hyacinths and Richards can still be seen in the streets, but also Onslows and Daisys, and a substantial Eastern European population has moved in since. Be sure to walk beyond the 19th century centre to see the real town, as well as enjoying its bourgeois heart.