Royal ‘Lemonton’ Spa

Leamington Baths, by J Fuller, 1816

Leamington Baths, by J Fuller, 1816 - Credit: Archant

While investigating the town’s apparent fondness for lemons, Tracy Spiers discovers Royal Leamington Spa’s beauty, charm, architectural treasures… and sulphurous waters

Tracy and daughter Rosie next to one of the fountains in Jephson Gardens

Tracy and daughter Rosie next to one of the fountains in Jephson Gardens - Credit: Archant

They must like lemons there,” announces one twin. “And I think their favourite drink is lemonade,” declares her sister. This is Royal Leamington Spa, or Lemonton, according to my seven-year-olds.

“I will find out,” I inform them. As it happens, my lemonade twin comes along to makes sure I do investigate this important piece of information. This is my sub plot if you like - my overall mission is of course to uncover the life and activity which makes this Royal town what it is. Personally, I think it is a wonderful mix of Cheltenham and Bath sophistication with a Stroud-like down to earth feel about it. Often overlooked by its Warwickshire sisters Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon, Leamington provides visitors with an unexpected surprise of beauty, charm and architectural treasures.

Visit in August and you will witness a significant milestone in the town’s history. This summer marks the 200th Anniversary of the Royal Pump Rooms, and up until August 31, an informative exhibition A First Class Watering Place is being shown in the Art Gallery and Museum, which is permanently based in this historic building.

Years ago it was a hub of activity as people gathered to taste and bathe in the spa waters. Today the building is equally busy offering culture, information, musical events, art workshops for children in holiday time, a seven days a week library service and extremely yummy cakes in the cafe.

'The Lemonton Twins', by Tracy Spiers

'The Lemonton Twins', by Tracy Spiers - Credit: Archant

Rosie, my Lemonton twin spots the lemon cake and tries the Victorian lemonade, before immediately turning her nose up, protesting that it is too bitter. It is this reaction many give when tasting the spa water here. Apparently it is quite sulphurous and makes one feel nauseous so I decide not to.

“People taste it just to say they have done so but it isn’t very pleasant. When we first moved here my wife tasted it. I should have been the gentleman and tried it first, judging by her face!” admits Alan Sharif, who works at Leamington Spa Visitor Information Centre, appropriately placed inside her Pump Rooms.

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“I find that people who come here are really delighted by what they find. Some who are on a week’s holiday in Warwickshire often come here to fill up a spare day, not expecting to find much. Yet when they get here, they see the Pump Rooms, the buildings and the Jephson Gardens and they absolutely love it and are blown away by the fact it is so beautiful,” adds Alan.

Drive into the town, one can’t fail to see the signs which state Royal Leamington Spa, but locals often just call it Leamington. So why the Royal title? Alan informs that Queen Victoria stayed at the Regent Hotel when she was 11 years old.

Queen Victoria's statue, Leamington

Queen Victoria's statue, Leamington - Credit: Archant

“Apparently it was the first time she had stayed in a public place and when she became queen at 19, one of the first things she did was to bestow the Royal Charter on Leamington in 1838. We like to think it is because she had fond memories of Leamington,” he says.

Queen Victoria’s statue, portraying her in her later years, proudly stands outside the town hall. During the war, she shifted on the plinth by an inch in November 1940 courtesy of a World War II bomb. I am sure she wasn’t amused.

I leave Rosie in the café devouring her lemon drizzle with my cake-loving dad, and devour art instead in the Pump Room’s Art Gallery and Museum. I am not disappointed; I spot a John Piper oil painting and one of his abstracts, and admire the work of Terry Frost, who was born in Leamington Spa. Next year marks the centenary of his birth and a special exhibition of Frost’s work, including his striking Spiral Q, the gallery’s latest acquisition, will be on show here for the first time, along with a selection of prints.

In the museum I learn about Leamington’s spa waters and how the Royal Pump Rooms was the first and only bath house to be built on the fashionable area of the town north of the River Leam. From 1814 until the 1990s, spa and medical treatments were provided and by looking at the equipment, clothing and old photographs, I gain a fascinating insight. It helps paint a picture of what life was like then.

Regent Court Shopping, Leamington Spa, by Tracy Spiers

Regent Court Shopping, Leamington Spa, by Tracy Spiers - Credit: Archant

“The exhibition has been well received, particularly by visitors. One of the most popular exhibits is a Regency period dress, which is on loan from the Birmingham Museums Trust, which depicts Regency life in 1814,” says gallery assistant Ryan Hughes.

August is a great time to visit, particularly as one of the town’s greatest assets, the stunning Jephson Gardens, containing some 140 tree species, tranquil waters and fountains, is an ideal place to retreat and unwind. Art in the Park, a free weekend of art, music, theatre, creativity and fun takes place here on Saturday, August 2 (11am-6pm) and Sunday, August 3 (11am-4pm). The first of its kind, it is the brainchild of Mo Finnesey, a member of Leamington Spa Artists and regular volunteer at Gallery 150 in Livery Street. It highlights another important fact about Leamington - it has a strong and eclectic art community.

Venture into the town centre, a place wealthy in grandiose period Victorian and Georgian buildings, and one can’t help but see this. By the way Leamington is a retail paradise for shoppers. Whilst providing all the high street stores, it has a wonderful mix of independent boutiques, cafés and shops, which add an element of uniqueness and interest.

I pop into Cook, which provides posh chef-made ready meals, and meet owner Richard Davies, who has been here 18 months.

“There are quite a lot of us independents, which makes Leamington different to the larger towns. It is a very pretty place with impressive architecture. I chose it because it is a market town which has a good catchment area.”

Rosie and I spot a lemon cheese cake in Richard’s pudding freezer.

“So Kezia is right. They do eat lemons here,” acknowledges Rosie, and asks me to take a photograph so she can show her sister.

I can’t put fruit aside completely, as I discover an artist who is an expert in capturing their vibrancy using oils. We are drawn to the Leamington Arts Trail Studio, which is a feast for they eye. Walls are brimming with life as they display a diverse range of artistic talent. Wendy Cook is one of the resident artists. Her humour and attention to detail is refreshing. Traditional still life paintings are given a modern twist as a 21st-century take-away coffee cup is placed amongst it. Rich tangerines and other fruits come to life and make her space such a cheerful place to be.

“Being an artist here is great; there are a lot of us living in the area. Recognition of the arts is getting better, we have Gallery 150 and another gallery has just opened. Art in the Park will be a great event too. There seems to be a lot of people who like collecting art, which helps us enormously,” says Wendy, who is working on three commissions.

I reluctantly leave this artistic space. But it inspires me to capture Royal Leamington Spa in my own creative way and Rosie can’t wait to tell her twin all about the lemons in Lemonton.

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This article by Tracy Spiers is from the August 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.

For more from Tracy, follow her on Twitter: @spiers_tracy