A history of Leamington in columns, pediments and arches
IT was a boom town where the fashion for taking the waters attracted wealth, high society and some of the finest architects and craftsmen of the time
But it was also a place where eccentric vicars dreamed of cathedrals but builders cut corners, banks went bust and aldermen’s good works sat alongside profligate spending.
All this is reflected in Leamington’s architecture and monuments, as reporter Robert Collins learned when he tagged along on a tour historian Robin Taylor gave to the Sydenham History Group.
IF you travelled back 250 years and stood where Pump Room Gardens are today, you would see a small village church and a cluster of cottages. No grand parks, no stucco vistas, not even a bridge.
You would also have wet feet. The whole park was created in 1814 and the ground was raised to stop it flooding every winter.
This is just one of many unexpected facts lifelong Leamington resident and historian Robin Taylor will tell us on an evening stroll that takes us only a few hundred yards from the Pump Room and the springs that made Leamington’s fortune.
That upward leap coincided with a rise in the nation’s fortunes, confidence and ambition that shaped town’s buildings, bringing centuries of architectural traditions together, sometimes under the same roof.
On a cool August evening, we meet Mr Taylor in Pump Room Gardens, where the most recent addition to Leamington’s architectural heritage is the reinstatement of the cast iron Linden Arches, a feature first erected in 1875.
The park was opened in 1814, at first only for the use of those taking the waters. In about 1850 it stopped making money, so the council took it over. The arches were the work of W Jenkins to a design by the borough surveyor, and today’s are an almost exact replica made by Warwick firm George Worrall. With electric, not gas lighting, they are also taller to prevent people swinging from them. This was once a popular pastime, but not the only reason the originals crumbled, according to Mr Taylor.
He said: “These are much better quality than the ones in 1875. They were rather cheap and stuck together with all sorts of rubbish.
“The story is that local government was changing. That was the year that Leamington became a borough and the people who were previously running Leamington, who were pretty much the same as the people who ran it later, thought to themselves, let’s spend it rather than pay it over to the other people.”
Leading us to the corner of Dormer Place and the Parade, Mr Taylor invites us to look around.
“There are lots of beautiful views in Leamington. If you look down the Parade, on the left you see greenery and on the right you see a very beautiful urban landscape, and in the middle, as a climax, you see something spiritual, the parish church.”
Crossing the road, we pause at the war memorial in Euston Place. It’s the work of Albert Toft, a sculptor also behind the statue of Queen Victoria and a bust of Edward VII in the town hall, and of some renown. Look closely and you’ll see the barrel of the rifle isn’t touching the ground, but resting on the soldier’s boot - exactly the way a soldier would have been trained to hold it.
Up the road, we stop outside the town hall, a late addition to the street and designed by John Cundall, who Mr Taylor believes is one of the most important architects in the town, responsible for both St Paul’s church in Leicester Street and St Alban’s church.
But the town hall is no church, and Mr Taylor says it brings to mind not the later, sober image of Victorian life but the young queen who liked pudding and dancing.
Mr Taylor said: “When I was about 20 and knew even more than I know now I wanted to demolish it. When I got to be more affectionate about it I thought about it in the way you think about an uncle who’s lived a rather disgraceful life.
“It’s a great mix of styles - he likes them all. The clock tower is the most elegant part of the building, it’s like an Italian clock tower - they are often separate from the building, but not always.
“There’s an oriel window - first used in the 14th and 15th centuries, they became very popular in the 19th century. You have obelisks on top. You don’t have to have obelisks, but he likes obelisks.”
The list goes on: it’s not symmetrical, there are five pediments on the right, six on the left, the right side is higher; Gothic, classical and medieval features jostle merrily.
High above the entrance is a reference to Leamington’s status as a spa town, a lunette with a depiction of Hygieia, the goddess of health and hygiene, whose father was Aesculapius, the god of medicine. Her symbols are a cup and a snake - a sign of regeneration because it sloughs off its skin and becomes young again.
The town hall was comparitively late, and is angled back from the Parade. When the site was chosen, the space was too short for the building in Cundall’s drawings, so he simply set it on a diagonal, in so doing opened out the street.
Across the road is an Egyptian-style obelisk commemorating Alderman Henry Bright. While the rich came to Leamington to take the waters, drinking the stuff wasn’t necessarily good for you. In 1849 and 1850 there was a cholera outbreak, and it was Alderman Bright who built the Camp Hill reservoir in Newbold Comyn.
Across the road in Euston Terrace Mr Taylor gives us a lesson in what the Greeks did for Leamington.
“The town is a modern town. In 1801 there were 311 people, it was a tiny village right by the church. Modern buildings at the time were classical buildings, and by classical buildings I mean Greek and, very rarely, Roman.”
There were five orders of columns; the Greeks had Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, with the Romans adding Tuscan and Composite. Leamington has examples of them all. In Euston place, one porch has the simple fluted column and circular capital of an Doric. At No 1 Newbold Terrace, the ground floor pillar has a base, a fluted shaft and above that a scroll, making it Ionic. On the storey above, the columns are not carved but look fluted, and the acanthus leaf design at the top makes it Corinthian.
Crossing the road into Jephson Gardens, we pass the Pump Room, which has examples of Roman-style Tuscan columns, like the Doric, but with plain shafts.
In Jephson Gardens is another obelisk commemorating Edward Willes, the wealthy landowner who contributed the land for Jephson Gardens, with a 2,000-year lease at a rate of one peppercorn per year, if required.
Anyone who knows the park knows the detour you have to take to get to Mill Bridge. This is no accident. When the gardens were created, people paid to get in. The path is the ancient footpath between Whitnash and Lillington. To stop people not paying, the right of way was sunk into a brick channel.
At the bottom is Mill Bridge, which Mr Taylor describes as probably his favourite place in the world.
He says: “It’s a very graceful bridge. It has water, it has a waterfall. In one direction you have reeds, it’s the rural part of Leamington, and when you turn round you have a very elegant townscape. You don’t get views like that in most towns.”
The weir and the bridge are at the place where people had crossed the river since the 1400s, with the weir built to prevent frequent floods. The bridge was designed by William De Normanville, the borough engineer who also built the bandstand in Pump Room Gardens. The pillars are not solid but latticework, and the suspension bridge uses rods, rather than chains. Once unpopular, it is hard to imagine it looking different.
Next we come to Christ church in Priory Terrace. It looks like a church, but was originally part of a school, buit by the Rev John Craig, the charismatic and eccentric vicar of the parish church, to educate the sons of tradespeople. The school failed, and later became a print works, and finally a church.
Not far away, on the corner of Leam Terrace and Church Street, is the house built by the organist of St Peter’s church, a Signor Aspa. He bought part of the old school, knocked it down and built a house with the town’s only other example of a double portico, also known as a colossus.
We cross into the small park behind All Saints’ church, originally a small village church. As Leamington rose in status the Rev Craig decided the church should do likewise.
If the Greeks perfected the column, the Romans were among the first to adopt the arch, which could bear more weight. Early Norman churches and cathedrals such as Durham are characterised by their round arches, but the Normans later used the even stronger, pointed, Gothic arch.
There were three types: the narrow ‘early English’ style, with very little tracery; the more elaborate ‘decorated’ style, with tracery in the points; and the perpendicular style, with many verticals. All Saints has them all, and it gets better. One rose window is copied from Rouen Cathedral, the other from the church of St Ouen in Rouen, and the three Gothic windows in the sanctuary from Cologne Cathedral.
Less impressive, particularly for today’s clergy, is the cheap sandstone, which has a tendency to crumble and is costing millions to repair.
To the front of the church, and it’s back to the neoclassical. Much of Leamington is straight lines, but it has the occasional crescent, a feature first used in Bath by John Woods the younger, one of a father and son who designed much of of that town. Leamington’s most celebrated example is Lansdowne Crescent, which together with Lansdowne Circus was designed by William Thomas. Even the Parade has a slight kink, and at the very bottom of that is another of Thomas’s creations, Victoria Terrace.
Today it is obscured by buses, stretchmarked by plate glass shopfronts and has the odd tree sprouting out of it, but the terrace once boasted one of the grandest facades in town.
Mr Taylor said: “If you’re quite well off but you can’t actually afford to live in a palace, you build a palace and divide it up.
“Victoria Terrace is a magnificent example of classical Regency architecture. It was built for people to live in, not to have shops at the bottom. Ideally you imagine it without shops, and with ladies and gentlemen drawing up in their horses and carriages.”
Precisely balanced and symmetrical, the terrace has pediments - triangular ornaments - above most of its windows and a combination of Ionic and Corinthian capitals, albeit without fluting on the columns. On the front of what is now the Five Rivers restaurant there is rustication - heavily divided slabs of stone.
There is ironwork along the veranda, which is on the first floor - the piano nobile or grand storey - where the reception rooms would be. This always has the largest windows with the most panes. At the top, with the lowest ceilings and the smallest windows, would be the servants’ rooms.
We’re south of the river and we’ve come almost full circle, and learnt a little about the buildings that most of us walk or drive past every day. In 250 years the village church has gone up in the world, once grand buildings have come down, and in the Parade, the town hall is still partying roguishly.
Mr Taylor said: “Leamington is a wonderful place, having all this in a mile or less.”
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Weather for Leamington
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 13 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: West