Sunday, October 1, 2023

Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Tea in the park

Visiting Leamington Spa recently, I was particularly struck by the decorative ironwork on many of the buildings. Much of this was from the town’s Regency heyday – the iron balconies that resemble those in Cheltenham and Brighton, although in many cases with different designs. One example from a later period, however, stands out: the ironwork that makes the Aviary Café in Jephson Gardens so special.

Several of the structures in this beautiful urban park have a serious memorial purpose. This paragon of ornamental park structures is different. It was built in 1899 simply to house tea rooms – there’s an Edwardian-looking photograph online showing elegantly dressed people relaxing in front of the café amid a small copse of umbrellas that shade outdoor tables from the sun. At some point in the 20th century, the café closed and was turned into an aviary, but by the last decades of the 20th century this had closed and the building fell into disuse and disrepair. As part, I believe, of a millennium project to enhance the park, it was restored and turned back into a café, in which form it still seems to be thriving.

At the front, the roof is held up by slender iron columns, allowing it to overhang and shelter a narrow porch or veranda, which now houses several small café tables. Look up, and you see the splendour – several metres of intricate iron latticework filling the spandrels, cornices, and the space beneath the central gable. Look closely, and you see multifoil arches, patterns of circles and scrolls, and iron finials at the ends of the eaves and at the gable’s peak.

The whole thing is a showpiece of the Victorian metalworker’s art and the epitome of the ornamental public park building of the period. It’s up there with the best bandstands and other pleasure buildings, with decoration that at once enhances the view and catches the eye, beckoning us in to sample the delights within. To my mind, it’s a small architectural triumph.

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