She died in an upstairs bedroom,Sir John Betjeman, Death in Leamington
By the light of the evening star,
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa
Well, I’m back. It feels good to be back on the road again after so long behind closed doors. I hope I will gather enough information to see me through the should there be further lockdowns. When deciding where to go for our first trip of the year, bearing mind that the country was not fully opened yet and there were several places not yet up to their full operational capacity, we decided to visit somewhere that wasn’t too far away but would still satiate my need to visit the home towns of the writers I love and, as I was reading George Eliot at the time, I decided on a tour of those Midland towns that lie to the South East of Birmingham: Leamington, Coventry, Warwick, Nuneaton and Rugby.
We started our Midland sojourn with Lunch at the Swan in Henley-in-Arden. This little town, nestling in the forest of Arden, has a remarkable range of architecture along the high street, and the White Swan is a half-timbered building, squeezed in between its neighbours. The poem “at a inn in Henley’ by William Shenstone recalls the poet’s visit to the pub in 1735. I couldn’t see any reference to the poem in the bar – I thought they may have a framed copy – but still, the food was good and the service friendly. It’s a lovely little town, too and our post-prandial walk revealed several interesting buildings.
Whoe’er has travell’d life’s dull round,William Shenstone – At an Inn in Henley
Where’er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome – at an inn.
We drove to Kenilworth then, familiar to fans of Sir Walter Scott as the name of his historical novel. Set in the 1575, it explores the events leading up to the reception of Elizabeth I at the castle. The castle itself is quite a magnificent sight if you approach the town form the North. This town itself wasn’t the nicest we visited on this tour: very modern buildings with one or two Art Deco touches. We didn’t stay long and only paused to look at the King’s Arms and Castle Hotel, where Scott stayed when researching his book. Dickens also stayed in this hotel and part of Dombey and Son is set in Kenilworth castle. The pub is now a branch of Zizzi: a popular Italian food and pizza chain. There are some nice looking bookshops in Kenilworth, shut today on a Sunday afternoon.
Jane Austen has links with this area too. Her mother was related to the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Abbey. Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother visited the Rev. Thomas Leigh here. There is a guided tour which will point out the similarities between the chapel and the one described in Mansfield Park. Of course, we had missed the tour, so we shelved it for another day and made our own way around the grounds, modelled by Humphrey Repton in 1809 – 1813. We stopped for an ice cream and ate it while gazing across the lake and watching the antics of the Geese. Or rather, the antics of people as they attempted to walk past the geese, who had taken residence on the path, beneath the shade of a tree. We wandered through the walled garden and into woodland. From here it was possible to cross the stream to the meadow beyond and look back at the house from the far side of the lake. This was by far the best view of the magnificent Baroque West wing, with the original abbey buildings cowering behind it.
Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
The Abbey later became the home of Chandos Leigh. He was a poet and in the same literary circle as Lord Byron. In fact, they had been to school together and were great friends. Leigh never achieved anything approaching Byron’s fame. Indeed, it must have been difficult to make his own poetic voice heard above that of his friend.
We drove on to Warwick. A nice little town with a good sense of its history. We enjoyed walking under the church through the West Gate, past the lovely old buildings around the Lord Leycester Hospital, and looking around the little town centre at the few open shops. West of the gate is a little Catholic Church, designed by the eldest son of August Pugin in red-brick-and-stone gothic style. In 1916, while on leave from service in the First World War, JRR Tolkien married Edith Bratt here. They were to remain married for the next 55 years, until Edith’s death in 1971. It was Sunday afternoon and there was a service just finishing, so I slipped in to take a look around.
I have visited Leamington Spa on a number of occasions and always liked the town: impressed by its quiet atmosphere, open green spaces and elegant architecture, so I was pleased to have the time for a good look around.
The town grew up during the craze for health-giving properties of natural mineral water. It was this period that also gave Bath, Harrogate and Buxton their status as high-end resorts. It expanded rapidly in the Victorian era and was even visited by Queen Victoria in 1858. She granted the town the right to use the prefix ‘Royal’ in its name It is a very elegant town: Regency terraces look on to large parks and wide streets with tree-lined central islands.
The River Leam runs through the town: a string of parks along its banks, including the Spa Gardens and the Jephson Gardens, named after Doctor Jephson, whose “Miracle Salt Water Cure” helped to secure the town’s reputation. I had a walk around the Jephson Gardens: a masterpiece of Victorian town planning, with a cafe bandstand fountains and statues.
Several people of note came to sample the health giving waters of the spa. John Ruskin took Dr. Jephson’s cure in 1857 and the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed in Leamington on three occasions. in 1857 he stayed in a house in Landsdowne circus, which is marked with a plaque. He was besotted with his little English house and wrote about it in a series of essays, entitled Our Old Home, which you can read, online and for free, here.
There is a small nest of a place in Leamington—at No. 10, Lansdowne Circus—upon which, to this day, my reminiscences are apt to settle as one of the coziest nooks in England or in the world.Nathaniel Hawthorne
We were staying at The Regent Hotel, which was part of the expansion of the town that included the pump house and baths in 1810. It continues to operate as a Travelodge. I am glad that this has extended the practical life of the hotel but much of the character of hotel has been lost. In particular the dining room, which has become a branch of Wagamama.
The large central staircase is still in use, photographs of famous Victorians who stayed here adorn the walls, I couldn’t find Charles Dickens among them, even though he stayed at the Regent in 1862. The staircase now ends abruptly at a blank wall, necessitating a sharp left turn to get to the lobby. The rooms are quite large, however. Ours was a corner room that overlooked the street below. I was able to watch the coming and goings for a while before we ventured out ourselves. Being a Travelodge, it was clean and comfortable, inexpensive and friendly. Such a shame about that dining room when one is expecting b breakfast, however. We were offered ‘breakfast boxes’ by the receptionist with a sort of apologetic shrug. On enquiring about the contents of these boxes he replied “you’re probably better off finding somewhere in town.” So we did.
There is another hotel with a Dickens connection in the town. This is south of the river Leam, where the town is not quite so grand: a little bit shabbier with vape shops and 24 hour mini markets. But there is Dickens, quill in hand, leaning out of an upstairs window. Copp’s Hotel was closed long ago, but to commemorate Dickens’s visit here in 1838, the wall has been decorated with a mural. It’s quite effective too: he appears to be lost in thought as he looks out, largely unnoticed, on the street below.
We found a charming little coffee shop for breakfast. The Muse Coffee House sold us coffee and pastries with a smile and chat from the waitress (or ‘Barista’ as they’re now called). There were a number of local crafts on display: some paintings, jewellery and embroidery. I bought a lovely little ring for Mrs. P.
I was pleased to forgo my breakfast B&E for this: an independent, local retailer that had served me with a friendly smile and a polite conversation. Little shops like this have had such a difficult couple of years. We owe them a lot and need to give them all the support we can in the face of a rapidly homogenising high street.
The Muse fits well in to the town, tucked away behind the spectacular Victorian town hall on its wide, island boulevard, where I sat to sip my macchiato while waiting for Mrs. P to finish visiting every shop in the town.