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Royal Leamington Spa in the West Midlands is the happiest place in the UK. So found a survey by Rightmove at the end of last year, quizzing 17,000 residents across 159 UK locations. Particularly delightful for local residents were “friendly neighbours, a strong sense of belonging [and] a place where locals feel they can be themselves”.
The neighbouring town of Warwick, roughly three miles to the west, was not included in the survey, but anyone wanting to buy there would no doubt be pepped up by the opinion of Nick Rudge, head of Savills’ nearby Banbury office. He reckons the same house in Warwick comes roughly 10 per cent cheaper than one in Leamington Spa. With the average prime home in Savills’ local index (which includes both towns) priced at £1.8m, that’s bound to put a smile on a few faces.
The plum county settings of both towns have long been a draw for affluent Birmingham folk searching for a second home in the country or trying their hand at commuting, says Ed Sugden of Savills’ country house department (the city is roughly 25 miles north west of Warwick). The area may lack the glamour of the Cotswolds but it is considerably cheaper, he says — a country house there might be 30 to 40 per cent more expensive.
The local housing market is benefiting from the region’s strong economic health. A 2017 report by EY estimates that growth in the West Midlands region — to which Birmingham is the main economic contributor — was more than double the national average. “There has definitely been an increase of demand from these buyers in the locale over the last two or three years, as Birmingham’s economy has picked up,” says Ed Sugden of Savills’ country house department. According to the EY report, only London and the south-east are predicted to grow more quickly than the West Midlands between now and 2020.
Samantha Holton of Knight Frank’s Stratford-upon-Avon office says that, with prime London prices on the wane, she is fielding more inquiries for homes in the two towns from those leaving the UK capital. Most favour Leamington Spa over Warwick and are drawn by how far their money goes towards the impressive Regency, Georgian or Victorian houses.
For the price of a three-bedroom flat in Clapham or Wandsworth you can buy a five-bedroom regency villa, within walking distance of Leamington town centre. “Especially if you are moving out of London, these are substantial town houses,” says Holton.
The interest has helped propel Leamington Spa’s prices. According to Land Registry data analysed by Savills, average sold prices in the town gained 25 per cent over the past three years, compared with 14 per cent in Warwick and 18 per cent in Birmingham. Over the past year the equivalent gains were 2 per cent, 3 per cent and 7 per cent.
Leamington’s tradition of taking the waters dates from the 1780s; by 1814, with the construction of the Royal Pump Rooms, it was growing into a major spa resort. Subsequent fans included Queen Victoria, to whom the town owes its “Royal” adjunct. Knight Frank is selling a six-bedroom house on Lillington Road, about a mile from the Royal Pump Rooms, with a garden for £1.5m. Don’t turn up with your swimmers, though: the Pump Rooms building now houses an art gallery and the local library, but no baths.
While exiles from London or Birmingham will find a quieter pace of life, the town is far from culturally isolated, says Holton. The Royal Spa Centre provides one of several theatre and performance spaces in the town, which has also improved the number of good restaurants, cafés and bars in recent years. “It’s like a quieter version of Bath.”
Good private schools are an important force driving the area’s prime county home market, notes Holton. Warwick is particularly well-stocked, with a list including Warwick School (which educates boys between seven and 18 at its junior and main schools), King’s High School (taking girls from 11 to 18) and Warwick Prep School (which takes both sexes from age three).
There were 156 homes for sale (or under offer) for more than £1m within 10 miles of Warwick and Leamington Spa in the middle of March on Rightmove. Beauchamp Estates is selling a roomy seven-bedroom house near Honily, a 15-minute drive from the centre of Warwick, for £10m.
For a shorter school run you might consider a Grade II-listed six-bedroom house on Mill Street in Warwick, for sale with Knight Frank for £2.35m. The restoration of 18 grade II-listed houses is being carried out by Ash Mill Developments in the centre of Warwick. A four-bedroom townhouse on Northgate Place is available through the developers for £1.15m.
The bath to enlightenment
The bath house business model had run out of steam long before the Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa was shuttered in the late 1980s.
Though the Romans had been familiar with the spa waters in the area, by the late Middle Ages bathing had became not only déclassé but associated with syphilis epidemics in Europe. The wealthy generally limited themselves to washing their clothes and faces.
The 1784 rediscovery of the springs in what was then the tiny village of Leamington Priors came at just the right time. The tide of medical opinion had turned in favour of “taking the waters” as a cure-all, and spa towns across the country played host to a rotating seasonal cast of visiting aristocrats. Leamington Priors was home to about 300 people at the turn of the 19th century. By 1828 the largesse of visitors — who would spend hours both soaking in and drinking as much of the mineral springs’ water as they could stomach — supported a population of more than 5,000.
Two visits from Queen Victoria gave the town its royal rebranding, but by the end of her reign the exotic concept of bathing had become a victim of its own success. The sanitary benefits of regular washing were too obvious to confine it to resort towns, and only the Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington’s grandest baths, survived to the 1860s.
The Pump Rooms, whose original design had featured a pioneering hot-water system installed by the inventor of gas lighting William Murdoch, clung to life for another century. A series of additions — Turkish bath and massage rooms, then a swimming pool, then physiotherapy facilities — kept the grand classical building rejuvenated. In 1989 the pool closed and the site was redeveloped over the next decade to welcome the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum. Only the bathing craze’s least attractive feature remains: visitors can taste the revolting, mildly laxative, salty water, if they please.
- Average prime house prices in the area containing Leamington Spa and Warwick gained 0.7 per cent in the year to Q4 2017, compared with a 3.5 per cent fall in prime London, according to Savills.
- Trains connect Warwick to Leamington Spa in about 6 minutes, with the journey on to London Marylebone taking roughly 1hr 30m
What you can buy for . . .
£500,000 A three-bedroom terraced townhouse on Bridge End, Warwick
£1m A four-bedroom home with garden near St Nicholas Park, Warwick
£2m An eight-bedroom townhouse with a walled garden in Leamington Spa
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com