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Spring Clean
Leamington Spa

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The natural waters of Leamington Spa recall a golden age but Sarah Shuckburgh finds her aches and pains are cured by modern comforts.

We have come to Royal Leamington Spa on doctors' orders. Doctors Middleton and Jephson have prescribed promenading, healthy food, and taking the waters, and we are determined to leave healthier than we arrive.

The golden age of Leamington Spa began in 1814, when elegant baths and a pump room were built, and the town became a fashionable Regency resort. In 1830, when the spa was at its zenith, the 11-year-old Princess Victoria
took the waters, but by 1838, when, as queen, she granted the town a royal charter, the spa was already facing
financial disaster. Railways were making seaside resorts accessible, and inland spas such as Leamington were rapidly eclipsed.

Compared to Bath or Cheltenham, Leamington today must feel like a poor relation. And yet, in its day, the town could claim superiority over both its rivals for the quantity of its spring water. Cheltenham's water was "slow and scanty", but Leamington's gushed from the ground, forming salty pools that never froze, however cold the winter.

Doctors Middleton and Jephson have been dead for about 150 years, but my friend Jane and I hope that the remedies which they pioneered will still work, and in particular cure my stiff shoulders and Jane's aching back, and dispel our feelings of exhaustion and stress.

We start by reading the instructions, written in 1816 by James Bisset, an ardent promoter of the spa resort, which begin:

At early dawn prepare to rise,
And if your health you really prize,
To drink the waters quick repair,
Then take a walk to breathe fresh air,
Hie thro' the fields - or promenade
Round Pump Rooms grand, or Colonnade . . .

We decide to make some adjustments to this advice, such as having a lie-in and a large breakfast before embarking upon either waters or walks. In Bisset's day, Leamington's Regent Hotel was one of the largest and grandest hotels in Europe (it had 100 bedrooms and one bathroom), but today the listed building is being gutted and turned into shops. Jane and I are staying in Mallory Court - a wonderfully luxurious and comfortable country house hotel a couple of miles outside the town, with 18 bedrooms and 18 bathrooms.

The chef's homemade croissants are delicious, and it is hours after early dawn as we drive into Leamington to start our cure by gulping some of the magical spring water from a tap by the bridge. It is shockingly cold, yellowish, eggy-tasting, and very salty.

Next for some promenading. Jephson Gardens (named after one of our dead doctors) have just been restored at a cost of £4.3 million, and come complete with a new glasshouse with exotic plants from across the world.

Emerging from the gardens, we pick up a leaflet entitled Riverside Walk at the tourist office and stride on, through the immaculate Pump Room Gardens, following the River Leam. We "hie thro' a few fields" and then along the Grand Union canal to the River Avon.

On our way back along the canal towpath, we find ourselves in the old part of Leamington. The Domesday Book records a settlement here called Lamintone - "the farm on the River Leam" - and from medieval times, locals knew about the salty springs, and used the water for baking bread and preserving meat, as well as for medicinal purposes. The village remained small, and by 1801 still had only 301 inhabitants. But 40 years later, the population had grown over fortyfold to more than 12,500.

Today, there isn't much left of the old village, apart from two pretty cottages in Church Street. Across the river, we explore the New Town, with its avenues of magnificent villas and elegantly terraced crescents and squares, the pale stucco faades designed to imitate the fashionable stone of Bath.

The wide Parade, once one of Leamington's most prestigious Regency addresses, is now an elegant and fashionable high street, and includes the newly refurbished Royal Priors Shopping Centre, where retail therapy offers us an alternative cure.

Eventually we arrive at the Royal Pump Rooms, wondering whether we're going to plunge into scalding or freezing sulphurous baths. Alas, the medicinal baths are gone. Instead, Jane and I visit the excellent museum that chronicles Leamington's history.

In the 1950s, the fledgling National Health Service took over the failing baths, and physiotherapists and hydrotherapists treated patients with polio, arthritis and rheumatism here until 1990. It then lay empty until four years ago, when an award-winning redevelopment transformed the Regency building into an art gallery, museum, library, tourist information centre and assembly rooms.

In Regency times, wealthy visitors came to Leamington for at least a month, drinking the waters and bathing in them several times a week. But we only have one more night. At the bridge, we slurp our last cold mouthfuls of bitter spring water, and then hurry back to Mallory Court to take the warm waters in luxury. While I lie up to my ears in a fragrant bubble bath, I imagine that I am a Regency lady wallowing at the elegant Royal Pump Rooms, in salty spa water drawn from the ground and heated by hissing steam engines. In those days, Doctors Middleton and Jephson advised their patients, between treatments, to eat a diet of stale bread, sherry, black tea and no fruit or vegetables. We have other ideas. Mallory Court restaurant, under chef Simon Haigh, has a Michelin star, and our meal in the oak-panelled dining room is superb.

During its golden age, Leamington's visitors sought "health, recreation and comfort". And today, that is just what Jane and I have found. Stiff shoulders? Back ache? Exhaustion? No more. Jane and I are completely cured.

Leamington basics

Staying there
Mallory Court Hotel, Harbury Lane, Bishops Tachbrook, Leamington Spa, Warks (01926 330214; www.mallory.co.uk); doubles from £185, including breakfast.

Further information
Warwick Castle (0870 442 2000; www.warwick-castle.co.uk). Jephson Gardens and glasshouse are between Newbold Terrace and the River Leam; entry is free. The Royal Pump Rooms are in the Parade, and contain the Pump Room Museum and Tearoom (01926 742700).
South Warwickshire Tourist Office (0870 160 7930; www.shakespeare-country.co.uk. Royal Leamington Spa Tourist Office (01926 742762; www.shakespeare-country.co.uk).

What it cost for two
A two-night package £550
Drinks £90
Lunches £50
Castle entrance £22.50
Total £712.50

First published by the Telegraph

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