Frederick Gibberd in Leamington Spa

887 Spa Centre

I picture the 16 year old Fred Gibberd sauntering through the streets of Royal Leamington Spa in 1925, the jeune flaneur, an insouciant whistle on his lips, hands in pockets, though only lightly resting there, respecting the workmanship of his father, tailor to the burghers of nearby Coventry, and conscious of those pockets’ onward destiny, to pass to some or all of his four younger brothers. Fred’s artistic sensibility and his sociability will have drawn him with his coterie to the town’s pleasure gardens, passing, and may we imagine, (his head already then full of Le Corbusier’s ideas) darting a critical glance at, a certain imposing mansion with generous views of the park before it.

More than forty years later the pioneering architect, landscape designer and award-winning town planner Sir Frederick Gibberd CBE RA would return to design, for the site of that demolished mansion, a modernist building to house a theatre and a cinema, the Royal Spa Centre, which opened in 1972.

The dignified lines of this building contribute to an imaginative charm that makes the material seem more subtle than the actual brutality of its concrete. Outlook, sight lines and setting were of particular concern to Gibberd: he had turned up with a spade on the building site of his first block of flats (The Lawn) in Harlow first thing one morning to help to ensure that the seven existing oak trees would not be affected by that day’s work; and the consequence of that small but purposeful investment of effort is the delightful effect of that building in its matured setting today. The Royal Spa Centre sits, buffered by its own carefully shaped tree-shaded green lawn, in happy proximity to the luxuriance of the surprisingly wide range of mature trees in Jephson Gardens.

Gibberd, architect of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (“Paddy’s wigwam”), the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, and Harlow New Town, was here designing an iconic building for a place he knew and for a community to which he belonged.


Cooking Squash

856 Squashes

Ten quid well spent for a cardboard box laden with these squashes, tenderly nurtured in a local smallholding, followed by an outlay of quite some thought given to each of the meals they have furnished.

We have baked them whole, standing in a dish of water, either stuffed or filled later (chopped black pudding cooked with red onion went down well), included them in risotto, and roasted them in wedges with rosemary and bacon, but the favourite outcome this autumn has been the pilaf, based on 250g of rice (for four people) and 600ml of stock. Risotto rice maintains its identity under these conditions. In particular, the Spanish paella rice which I have been using recently has been ideal. I start off slowly cooking a finely chopped onion or leek, and maybe some garlic. When these are soft I add all the rice and hot stock, stir in small cubes of pumpkin, and a selection of spices and herbs, bring everything to the boil, cover and simmer on a low heat for about 20 minutes.

I often treat recipes as guidelines rather than prescriptions, and have a preference for short lists of ingredients. I like to read a few recipes and then make my own way.

For one of the pilafs I put chopped chorizo in with the onion. Risotto and pilaf sometimes suffer from monochromaticity, which can be relieved by the addition of frozen peas about half way through or a liberal sprinkling of chopped spring onion, or fresh herbs from the garden, over the finished dish. One of my experimental versions leaned towards the eastern Mediterranean with cinnamon and nutmeg and thyme, and another went further south with turmeric and paprika.

Since the time it would take to peel a raw pumpkin could be passed more enjoyably reading a couple of New York Review of Books blog posts, if there is no kitchen slave available and willing to be harnessed, I steam or roast the well-scrubbed pumpkin cut into half or wedges, after which the skin comes away easily, or, in the case of a small tender squash, can be eaten with the flesh.

The box is empty but the ideas keep on coming …