Leamington Spa (I never use the Royal prefix and I know no-one who does) has certainly changed significantly since I arrived in 1970. Then, it still bore a passing resemblance to the town portrayed by John Betjeman in his poem Death in Leamington Spa:
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive.
Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?
The stucco is still peeling and the plaster is still dropping in many of the Regency townhouses and Victorian villas, and there remains an air of chintziness if not cheeriness in certain parts. But, and this is the element to which The Sunday Times is doubtless referring, there is an increasing vibrancy in the town, and it stems not so much from the council as from the residents themselves. The music scene, the literariness, the intellectual life, the bars and restaurants – all have grown from within over the last forty or so years.
Back in 1970, when I arrived, there was a small hippie underground, the development of which which has provided the initiative for projects such as the reclaiming of the Dell, struggles such as the fight to save the Pump Rooms and the local football club, and events such as the Peace Festival, which was started way back in 1978 and is now the longest-running free festival of its kind in the UK.
This underground was hidden from the casual visitor and, indeed, from the majority of inhabitants who were at the time voting in droves for Dudley Smith just as they had voted for Anthony Eden. But down in the Old Town, south of the river, in the CV31 postcode, there were record shops and second-hand book stores; there were good pubs and folk clubs; there were even Black and Asian people.
It was in this part of town, the other side of the railway tracks, that I chose to live initially, venturing north to work, shop and, from 1976, to drink in a newly-opened, funky wine bar called Wilde’s.
The Peace Festival is still going strong. The Dell hosts an annual community party which attracts more people each year. The Pump Rooms is not a private care clinic as the council planned but a library and art gallery. The music scene is flourishing. And Wilde’s, now in its 38th year, currently hosts the grandchildren of its first customers.
But around these, much has changed and is changing. The bourgeoisification of the town is pretty much complete with the closure of the manufacturing companies AP and Ford. The chain stores and the restaurant chains have moved into town. The famous Regent Hotel, in which the young Princess Victoria stayed, is now a Travelodge and a Wagamama. Independent shops, for which the town was famous, have closed and a new Mall built in the centre, with another major development still threatened despite the Planning Committee’s refusal and the plethora of empty premises in the Parade and adjoining streets.
So is Leamington the 46th best place to live in the UK? I have no idea. But I do know that’s it’s been a great town in which to enjoy life and bring up kids.
And I know that we can only keep it so with vigilance.
Today’s listening: Heard some great sets recently, especially from the Bob Phillips Band and Clayton Denwood in the Mondays Unplugged season in Wilde’s. And it was Clayton’s rendering of Friend of the Devil that sent me back to the early ‘70s Dead shows. Not that I need a lot of prompting!