Visiting Shakespeare’s Hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon

Stratford-Upon-Avon

I had taken a day trip from London using the National Express when I was 22 years old or so to the birthplace and death place of Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon. I remember feeling quite alone that day, wandering about the town by myself amongst throngs of tourists in groups and couples and families. There was also something quite thrilling about it too though, I had been working for a few months in London by this point and this was a Sunday, a day off at a time when I tended to work six days a week.

I had graduated University in June that year, and had jumped-on a plane to England before the ceremony had even transpired. They can mail me my diploma, I thought, I’m not going to delay my escape to England by 3 weeks for a piece of paper, the work was already done and I was ready to go.

I had started my stay in London at a hostel in Bayswater, where I shared a room with a man my same age from South Africa. I can still picture him, with his cropped hair and gangly body, but I can’t remember his name. We did London’s Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour together. We both had student working visas, a reciprocal agreement between various countries whereby young people can experience life in another country for a limited period of time, under a certain age, and on a once-in-a-lifetime basis. For me, I could stay and work in the UK for up to two years and provided I was under 26 years old.

I visited an office called BUNAC (British Universities North American Chapter) where employers seeking North American workers posted job openings. I made note of a handful of positions and set-out to find a position in Central London.

“Do you like working here?” I asked a New Zealander working at an espresso bar on South Molten Street. This was my third business to visit. I wasn’t just dropping off my CV (curriculum vitae aka resume) willy-nilly, I wanted a job that I would enjoy for an employer I would want to work for. “It’s good, yeah.” “What do like most about it?”

“I have a break coming-up, do you want to wait 5 minutes and then I can chat more?” Andrea was aware of the job posting and had guessed that my chit-chat while ordering a latte was regarding the opening and was not just friendly banter. The current manager, Tanya from Vancouver, had given her notice and would be moving on soon, her time in London was coming to an end.

“At the moment there’s just the one store,” Andrea tells me, “but the owners have plans to create a whole coffee chain, like the Starbucks of the UK. I think they went to school in Harvard and that’s where the inspiration came from.” Coffee was a newish trend here in the tea-sipping country of England. Long a pub culture when it comes to meeting with friends for a drink after work, coffee shops were not yet widespread. There were a few companies poised to lead this industry, Seattle, Costa, and the Coffee Republic.

I did end-up applying for and getting this job. My interview was at a private flat in Kensington with one of the two owners. I was hired as a barista from my experience with the Second Cup during my last year of university. Andrea hung about waiting to become manager after Tanya left but got tired of waiting and took a management job elsewhere. I had a degree in Business Administration and I was a rather expert barista so it was not long before I had been offered and accepted the position.

Stratford was my first day trip out of London. It was my first time to experience the English countryside, my first time to walk down cobbled lanes and see thatched roofs and feel like I could see the past with the present. Certainly London had some of these aspects, but it was all tied-up in a busy, modern, hectic centre and I was leading a busy, modern, hectic life working 60 hours over 6 days and having an hour commute each way every day.

It’s an odd feeling to find myself 17 years later parking my rented Audi at a car park, wandering to a nearby Costa Coffee and keying this into my iPad with a view of the clock through my window at the central intersection. Here I am again. Still the solo traveler after all these years.

Since last I was here I’ve lived in Scotland, Japan, Canada, China, and Canada again. In Canada I lived in Uxbridge, Thornhill, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Toronto again. And of course I have traveled quite a bit.

Last time I was here I remember meeting a nice young couple, honeymooners from Japan. I did not know then that I would later spend 2 years in Japan. I remember how polite and kind they seemed, sitting beside me at an open-air patio of a pub. I was a young, fit kid. I often cycled the 13km maze-like journey from Walthamstow to Mayfair rather than take the tube. It gave me back part of my day to cycle, there was nothing entertaining about taking the tube, tired silent faces crowded together. Just waiting for it to be over. I do remember how unchatty I found tube-goers to be. They needed to create their personal space in the crowds by not communicating with each other.

Finished my coffee and the rain having paused, I will wander out onto the street now. It’s Friday, and there is some kind of street market on Fridays and Saturdays.

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Sitting inside Costa Coffee writing about my first visit to Stratford and working in London some years ago.

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Having had some reflections after arriving to Stratford-upon-Avon, now I am ready to head out and explore this lovely town again.

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The cold, windy, rainy weather made this not the best of days for the market vendors.

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It is COLD today! A high of 10 Celsius at the end of May. The wind is harsh and cold rain pelts on and off, it is a day for gloves and hats and scarves, but I have brought none of that with me today. I suppose I should buy some gloves, there have been quite a few days where they would have made the day more comfortable. I do have hats and a scarf, but it was sunny when I left Warwick this morning. I make my way to Tudor World where I look at some displays of life during the Tudor era before making my way to the swan fountain for a two hour walking tour.

The town of Stratford-upon-Avon received it’s original town charter in 1196, making it more than 800 years old. Being the home of William Shakespeare this small town of around 26 thousand residents welcomes an astounding 3 million visitors every year, that is 116 visitors for ever resident. Or over 8200 visitors every day, if each visitor only spent one day, but many stay longer. In short, tourism is enormous here thanks to the Bard.

Life in the Tudor era is highlighted due to the predominance of that architecture around the town, the timber frames exposed. It has become the norm to see the timber coloured darkly and the filler in-between coloured white, beige, or ochre. But during that time, fashion was to colour the entire structure lightly so that the timber blended-in with the filler. That is quite a different look than what we are used to seeing with Tudor style buildings.

Life looks like it was quite difficult during that era. Standards of living and hygiene were not all they could be and the town suffered two separate plagues. Someone with a bit of knowledge regarding the outbreak could make a decent sum acting as a medic during those times. They wore masks that had large cavities over their nose so as to ave their air filtered through a mixture of herbs they thought were protective. Of course the herbs did nothing but the process of filtration would have had some effect no matter the filtering substance used. Wearing these masks the practitioners looked like birds and the term “quack” to describe mis-directed or false medical doctor was coined.

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A cute little mascot at the entrance of Tudor World.

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In the lane leading to the entrance of Tudor World.

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Here you can see the doctor’s mask that contained herbs within the beak to filter the air through. This was one of the displays at Tudor World, it had little scenarios with waxed figures and information panels.

You can visit the website of Tudor World as part of planning your day in Stratford or to learn more about it. http://www.falstaffexperience.co.uk/

I meet a walking guide at the modern metal swan fountain by the river Avon at the bottom of Sheep Street. It is single-digit cold, raining on and off, and the wind is quite blustery. “I won’t make you take just me if no one else shows,” I offer since a two hour walking tour in this misery of weather has me feeling undedicated to the lovely idea. Two Canadian women turn up, one from Windsor, the other from Kitchener, both cities quite near to my own in Ontario. A doctor from London shows up as we are about to commence, his wife is also a doctor and he decided to join her to Stratford, just overnight, while she attends a conference and he enjoys an interesting day out.

Our guide is very enthusiastic, passionate about history. We spend nearly an hour at Holy Trinity Church, which is lovely but the focus on minute details is too much for me, not being a religious historian. This would have been closer to my preferred version, the most interesting bits, “In this church, the oldest bits from 1210, here is Shakespeare, here’s his wife, look at the pretty windows and lets go!” Okay, to be fair I may have highlighted a few more interesting tidbits, but not near to an hour’s worth, no matter the weather.

Outside we pass the 400 year-old home of Shakespeare’s daughter, she married a doctor of good repute, he was a puritan and probably didn’t kill as many people as would be the norm with bloodletting. Admittedly it was a time when receiving medical attention reduced one’s chances of survival. Time was the main healer during this era, and if any medical intervention was applied for the most part if one recovered is was despite the medical treatment rather than because of it. Blood letting only served to weaken one’s already weakened state, and it was the most common practice carried out. Barbers often doubled as surgeons to carry out this practice, hence the traditional red and white spiral barber polls, these represented blood-letting not hair-cutting. But being one-in-the-same person it came to mean both.

The doctor in our group tells us how medical doctors and medical surgeons are still distinguished by title. Even though they are both doctors, physicians go by “Doctor” whereas surgeons go by, “Mister”. A woman surgeon goes by “Miss”, married or not. It’s a very strange use of title that seems to always in reconsideration.

We end the tour at the home Shakespeare grew-up in. His father was a glove maker. Seems like a rather large home for a glove maker. He married-up.

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Some lovely homes along the River Avon.

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Home of the RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company. Also along the River Avon.

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Holy Trinity Church, Shakespeare’s burial place.

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Shakespeare was not outside with these plots, he and his wife had a very prestigious location inside.
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Hall’s Croft, where Shakespeare’s daughter lived with husband Dr. John Hall.

If you visit Stratford I would recommend taking the guided walking tour. In nice weather you would spend more time outside, but even with our cold, icy, rain we were well entertained and I would do it again for sure.

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The home Shakespeare grew-up in. His father would have sold leather gloves directly from the home, probably through large windows open onto the street.

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Some more sights wandering around lovely Stratfore-upon-Avon.

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Cheers! Darren

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Warwick, More than just a Castle Town

Warwick

The beautiful town of Warwick contains a history dating from the 6th century, having been continually habitated since then. The main tourist draw, Warwick Castle, was built in 1068 and the Earldom of Warwick was created in 1088. Originally the town was ruled by the Earls and walls were built around the town, East Gate and West Gate survive today.

I enjoyed my stay at the Lord Leycester Hotel, located on Jury Street very near to East Gate, which I could see when leaning out my guest room window. I could also see the top of a turret of Warwick Castle from my window, which stands just one street away. The hotel does not provide newly refurbished rooms, but I enjoyed the quirkiness of what had been two Georgian townhouses combined in 1927 to make a hotel.

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View from my window looking towards the East Gate at the end of Jury Street.

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The front entry of the Lord Leycester Hotel.

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The original character remains of this Georgian Townhouse now part of the Lord Leycester Hotel.

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The little pub within the hotel is open 24/7 for residents.

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I don’t wish to mislead, my room here wasn’t “nice” but I really enjoyed staying here anyway.

Through the East Gate one happens upon Smith Street. This is one of the areas of Warwick that was not destroyed by the Great Fire of 1694. I enjoyed walking this little street many times as it was one of my favourite areas near to the hotel, and I chose to have my dinners at Roebucks Pub, which claims to be the oldest in Warwick. I like to have one place at each destination where I go everyday, to feel a bit at home. Usually it is a coffee shop, but in Warwick I chose Roebucks because it was one of the very rare places to eat that was quiet.

I often walk into restaurants and walk right out again because of the volume of the music or the acoustics being terrible creating too much noise of commotion. This pub had low ceilings and made for a peaceful setting. I would happen-in for an early dinner and spend much of my time writing there. The food was not great, the fish and chips were poor, their hamburger was very disappointing, but their steak w/chorizo was good. The service was mediocre, of the sort that they didn’t really anticipate tips and would assume me to be not a potential regular since I was clearly a traveler. I noticed a marked-improvement on my 4th visit, my first 3 visits did not even have a spec of recognition as a return customer despite it being a quiet place during my early meals. On my 4th visit the young man who served me actually seemed to care if everything was all right. My impression on other days was of a pub that employs casual students who don’t actually care about the pub, they just went through the motions of vending the items that were for sale with very little effort.
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Two British icons in front of East Gate.

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Looking through East Gate towards lovely tudor Smith Street.

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Typical tudor style as it is presented today. ( I learned that the timbers were not darkened during their era, or at least that it was not fashionable to do so up here.)

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This did not look look or taste like the wonderful fish that the Brits are famous for, the chips were good though.

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A very short walk the other way down Jury street (which becomes High Street) takes one to the West Gate, at which stands the Lord Leycester Hospital. This fun, wonky, tilting collection of 14th and 15th Century buildings was acquired by an Earl of Leycester in 1571 and made into a home for retired ex-servicemen and their wives, which it continues to be today.

Nowhere in it’s history did Lord Leycester Hospital house any kind of medical establishment. Perhaps the word hospital has had a transitional meaning over the years. I look it up and find that the latin word, hospes, referred to both guests and hosts around the 10th Century. We also get the word hospitality from this, and we do not associate that word with hospitals at all, although it would be good for a hospital to be hospitable, certainly. So this hospital was presumably a place where hosts and guests lived together and the title was perhaps given before the term hospital became widely used to refer to a place where medical treatment is given (by hosts to their guests).

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The wonderfully wonky Lord Leycester Hospital leaning against the West Gate of Warwick.

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I enjoy the lovely market area, part of it pedestrianised. It is a small area, Warwick has a population just over 30 thousand. Within this area is the Warwickshire Museum, where I learn a few interesting tidbits. Warwick was the only town in Warwickshire in 1066. The county prospered during the 13th Century and as many as 40 Castles had been built by the Normans here during the Middle Ages (C5th to C15th).

As many as 100 towns were reduced or abandoned during the 15th and 16th Centuries when many landowners changed from growing vegetables to keeping livestock. What had previously been rented farmer’s plots became more profitable grazing land.

During the Medieval times, there were three main groupings of society and belief of one’s standing was very strong. According to the museum, one of 15 people in Warwickshire were clergy during this time and the Church was England’s largest landowner, owning one fifth of all property. Aristocracy sat at the top of the hierarchy and comprised the smallest group, less than one percent. They made most of their income from renting out property.

The average person who worked for a living and was not generally a land owner, could be further divided into other classes such as merchants, famers and labourers. This, of course, is just a very brief summation.

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They just don’t make Tudor buildings like they used to during the Tudor times.

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I couldn’t wait to get out of this ugly town. KIDDING! It was surreal walking around this lovely town and having it as my base for 5 days.

I set out to visit Warwick Castle one weekday morning just as it was opening, as being a rather major destination I wanted to be able to spend some time there. One of England’s most impressive castles, it is truly a wondrous place inside and out. Within minutes I was overwhelmed by the hoards of school children well-entertained by the costumed performers and displays created by Tussauds Group. (Of Madame Tussauds, the wax museum people.) Amidst the screaming and shouting and general cacophony, I lasted less than 40 minutes before I fled the beautiful scene. For twenty of those minutes I had been trapped outside the main entrance of the Castle during a dramatic explanation of the Castle’s entry. It was interesting, I just had not expected to be standing in a group of several hundred young children while an actor had them making sounds on command. “EEEEEEWWWWW!” was the taught response for whenever he spoke “murder”, “OOOOOOHHHHHHH” the expected response for something else. Of course this participation was repeated and practiced to be as loud and as fervent as possible. The gate finally raised I ran past the crowds and quickly visited some of the living chambers but by the time I had done this the entire Castle was infiltrated and I made a hasty retreat out of the castle grounds to catch my breath in a nearby tea room.

I am not fond of crowds and of noise. Two fantastic years doing the JET programme in Japan where I taught alongside Japanese teachers in a Junior High School made me think that I could handle teaching. Not so, North Americans don’t sit quietly in little rows and wait for their honourable teacher to talk. Surprise. What was I thinking? (One of my later professional incarnations was as a Canadian high school teacher, I did my BED at OISE/University of Toronto nearly ten years ago. I taught casually for a short time in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I never got a contract, so I don’t really know how it would have gone. My partner and I had started a business and I stopped subbing when we started expanding and I didn’t have time to teach anymore anyway.)

“Did you have a nice day,” the staff member kind-of asks as I return my barely used audio guide. It had opened and she herself had furnished me with this MP3 player less than an hour ago and it was still morning, I basically ran in and ran out. Her question must be from auto-speak, who would pay an entry fee of nearly £20 ($30) and stay not even long enough to have walked the periphery, let alone looked at anything. Actually, if I was in a rush I suppose I would. I take it back. But I wasn’t in a rush until I was being chased. I am sure it’s lovely, just not for me, definitely not today. Perhaps on a weekend when there are families and holiday-makers in little groups rather than groups of several hundred excited screaming darlings swarming about.

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There is no denying that Warwick Castle is quite stunning.

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This view of Warwick Castle is not from inside the castle grounds, it’s from a nearby roadway where it crosses the River Avon.

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This actor entertained the children for a good 20 minutes while adults stood by.

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At this point I was trying to keep ahead of the progressing swarm of excited kids which I only accomplished for a few rooms before it was all over for me.

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Final views within the castle grounds.

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Cream tea, the original comfort food. Traditionally prepared tea (loose), fresh scone, clotted cream, butter, and jam. Cream tea refers to this set, not just the drink. Afternoon tea is more elaborate, I wrote about it in Leicester, a future posting.

Warwick is well situated to use as a base for several days. If you enjoy walking or cycling, make sure to visit the tourist information office on Jury Street to pick-up their pamphlet guides and check-out my posting of English Countryside from Warwick to Royal Leamington Spa. Warwick is situated on the lovely river Avon and also the Grand Union Canal. From Warwick I also took a day trip to the spa town of Cheltenham (also a separate posting) and Stratford-upon-Avon (another posting). Kenilworth Castle is a very short drive or is walkably-nearby, and Coventry is perhaps only 25 minutes by car. Warwick is a lovely town and a strategic sight-seeing location.

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Just some final shots wandering around Warwick.

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The Lovely English Countryside, Warwick to Royal Leamington Spa

Royal Leamington Spa

At Warwick’s Tourist Information centre I was very happy to come across pamphlets describing suggested walks from Warwick. Some suggest that walkers walk one direction and catch public transport to return. But with a bicycle, I can easily cover much more ground with time to spare for explorations at the other end.

“Do you know if I will be able to cycle the paths that are marked for walking?” I ask at the desk behind which three cheerful ladies are having playful banter with one another and with a visitor who was there before me. “As long as you can carry your bicycle up and down a few steps, I think you can.” “Fantastic. I’ll also take these please,” handing her some postcards to purchase.

The next morning I make my way to the River Avon, which runs through Warwick directly past Warwick Castle. I’m not sure why this isn’t Warwick Upon Avon instead of just Warwick. Downriver, the town of Stratford is Stratford Upon Avon. What decides whether a town becomes partially known by the river that runs through it, I wonder. Stoke Upon Trent.

After taking some lovely photos of Warwick Castle from a bridge over the Avon, I descend to the riverside path that at this point is within the lovely St. Nicholas Park. There is a boat hire shop nearly under the bridge where one can rent various types of paddle boats. This seems to be a dog park, lots of dogs are off-leash socializing with each other while little huddles of dog owners do the same. There is a group of ducks and swans that draw much interest from the water dogs in particular. I stop to watch for a moment and take some photos. “Are you waiting to see if he goes in?” a friendly dog owner calls over. She is trying to get her dog to come away from the birds, he’s darting about the water’s edge while the swans honk warnings at him.

I continue on. The path eventually makes way to grass, it seems a bit odd to cycle on grassy fields, but it is a public space alongside the river and people do. Stopped again to take another photo I encounter a woman coming from the other direction on her bicycle. She pauses. “It is so beautiful here!” I comment. “Isn’t it wonderful! I discovered these trails two years ago and I keep telling my friends that I cycle to work through beautiful country and they keep assuming I mean along the canal. No! I tell them, along the river!” It’s so true, using this route I feel completely in the country, there are even pastures where sheep graze along the river here. But in very near proximity, the streets are lined with homes and businesses. It’s like hidden countryside.

“I found this from these pamphlets from the Tourist Office on Jury Street,” I tell her, “you should pick-them-up because there are other trails as well. There’s one all the way from Warwick Castle to Kenilworth Castle. I might try that another day.” “Do you live here?” she asks. “No, this is just my second day here, I’m visiting from Canada.” “Well welcome to Warwick! I’ve got to continue to work, but it was lovely to meet you!”

A few more photo stops and detours later and I find myself cycling through a park, now in Royal Leamington Spa. I stop and take a photo of lawn bowlers, remembering fondly how my late Grandmother used to enjoy that sport near her home in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I never saw her play, but she’d tell me about her games. I went to university in Fredericton and usually spent Sundays visiting my Grandmother, who was my Mother’s Mother. She was a very strong woman, spent the last several decades of her life as a widow after Grandad died soon after his early retirement from a heart attack. He had a weakened heart from having suffered rheumatic fever as a young man.

Grandmother was one of the very early women to graduate university in the 1930’s with a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics. My Mother followed in her footsteps taking the same degree from the same university.

I continue on and cycle about the city centre after leaving the park.

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Gorgeous views of Warwick Castle on the River Avon.

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More lovely views along the River Avon.

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Part of the riverside trail was on grassy fields.

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My folding bicycle stops to enjoy a quiet moment in nature.

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If it was any prettier I probably would have started crying.

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Lawn Bowling in Royal Leamington Spa. I suppose life could be worse.

Royal Leamington Spa was a small town called Lamintone of about 50 cottages in 1783. A salt-water spring was notes as early as 1480 and was found useful for curing meat and making bread.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, “taking the waters” became very fashionable as high society flocked to Bath and then to Leamington as well. Queen Victoria gave the town a charter, changing the name to Royal Leamington Spa.

By 1841, the town had grown from about 200 residents to over 12,000 in just over 50 years. The rapid growth and prosperity meant that much of the city is comprised of lovely Georgian style architecture which was fashionable at the time as the town did it’s best to emulate the glorious spa town of Bath.

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Queen Victoria stands in front of town hall carved in Italian marble, but it was King George who really put this town on it’s feet.

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I just thought the mail cart was cute. Non-Brits may agree?

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As one would imagine, spa towns do not tend to be ugly.

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After cycling and walking about the downtown and enjoying the lovely Jephson Gardens, I started my way back to Warrick, this time via the towpaths of the Grand Union Canal which extends all the way from Birmingham to London. Originally a series of differently-owned canals, it became the 137 mile long Grand Union in 1925.

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I went to Royal Leamington Spa mostly by the River Avon and returned by the Grand Union Canal.

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Photographing while cycling. Wow, I didn’t fall into the canal!

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