In Memoriam: Robbins’ Well
On Friday 1st April I wandered casually into Robbins’ Well to ask about booking the basement gig. The guy behind the guy looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that won’t be possible”. Why? “We’re closing in the next two weeks. The building has been sold.”
The news was so upsetting that I spent the next day or so trying to convince myself that it was a particularly ill-considered April Fools joke. But no, it’s true: a true Leamington Spa landmark will soon be no more. The owner of the building is selling it on, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon see luxury flats for Jaguar Land Rover employees appearing in its place. As well as being part of a wider national trend of pub closures, the Well is the latest victim of Leamington’s small-town brand of gentrification.
This is a tragedy.
The thing about the Well is that it’s never been a great pub. It has 3.9 stars on Google reviews, 3.8 stars on Facebook, and 3.5 stars on Tripadvisor. There are, without a doubt, better pubs in Leamington – some of them local boozers, and others somewhat more expensive places offering properly decent food. But as long as I’ve lived in the town (a good decade, now!) the Well has always been there, offering something important.
It’s affordable, without being yet another ‘Spoons. It’s a place where locals, students and out-of-town visitors mix. It’s in an excellent location – right next to the river and opposite the Parish Church, with really good public transport links. It’s in a gorgeous old Regency building with a great deal of character. It has bizarre interior decorations, with what looks like large sheets of oil barrel providing, uh, “unique” light fittings.
Most importantly for me on a personal basis, it’s a decent place for live music.
Leamington’s live music scene has gone through its ups and downs over the years. Right now it feels like we’re going through one hell of a “down”, and a lot of that is because of the current lack of decent live music venues. The Jug & Jester hasn’t hosted gigs since it became a Wetherspoons. Kellys disappeared a few years ago, to be replaced by a short-lived and deeply sleazy strip joint that was destroyed by arson under suspicious circumstances. LAMP was amazing during its year-long tenure as a venue, but was closed by the Council without notice following a farcical dispute over noise levels (ironically, the problems for LAMP really started when they applied for planning permission…in order to install soundproofing). The Exchange was always a little questionable with all of those England flags, but at least it was somewhere you could occasionally see a punk band.
Remaining venues include the Zephyr Lounge – which is a wonderful space but costs way too much these days for DIY promoters to run small gigs with touring bands – and the Althorpe Gallery, which has hosted some great events but is tiny, appallingly inaccessible, and has basically no insulation – meaning that it’s freezing for most of the year.
The thing about the Well is that it was often not the first choice for a gig space, but there have still been many, many fantastic nights there over the years. Whilst other venues came and went, the Well was a stalwart. The venue’s staff were sometimes very accommodating, sometimes hostile, and (in recent years) most often seemingly baffled by the presence of promoters and bands, but it cost little-to-nothing to hire so it was great for charity events and we could always pay sound techs and/or travelling bands. The pub’s basement had terrible acoustics, but it was a perfect size and had a great feel for small events with an audience of maybe thirty to a hundred people.
I’ve been attending gigs at the Well since 2006 or so, and running gigs there (mostly as Rolling Head Promotions) since 2007. That’s a lot of memories. Most of the bands I’ve been in have played there. Not Right played a number of key gigs in the Well basement, including our second ever performance and our album launch night. I remember attending chilled-out acoustic nights, and full-on metal nights. I remember seeing Lesbian Bed Death‘s best line-up give everything to the tiny room. I remember Satan’s Buttcheeks daubing themselves in UV body paint and playing the most ridiculous music. I remember death metal band Mongolian Death Worm shooting deeply concerned glances to one another as a fight broke out right in front of them. I remember no-wave heroes Sissy Hex making so much glorious noise that when their set ended I felt like a great weight was being very slowly lifted from my body. I remember musical theatre: a really very impressive student performance of Hedwig & The Angry Inch, gearing up for a run at the Edinburgh Fringe. I remember lugging equipment down the awful steps behind the venue, every time worrying just a little that we’d break something (probably a person).
Everyone will have their own memories of the Well. It’s not “just” a pub (so few pubs are) – it’s a place where people meet and special things happen. It’s a place with a strong history. Kirsty – who, unlike myself and Snowy, actually grew up in the local area – occasionally recounts stories of the place in its glory days as a rock pub. You had to turn up early just to find somewhere to sit – unimaginable in these quieter times. As time passed the management were less friendly towards promoters, meaning that fewer events happened there and less people found themselves feeling that the Well was somewhere you regularly went to. Eventually the walls (originally a warm, if slightly unsettling shade of red) were re-painted beige. Still, it remained a good place to go, and a decent place to hold an event. Just last year, I was fortunate enough to co-host the incredible Femmington Spa Queer Fest there; a very, very special event, with a uniquely friendly atmosphere and so many fantastic performers and workshops. In February I played another album launch gig there, this time with Abandoned Life.
I don’t think there will be any campaigns to save the Well. It doesn’t have the deeply loyal custom of a truly independent pub or dedicated DIY venue. It’s possibly the quietest it’s been, these days, since first opening in 1998.
Still, it will be an enormous loss to Leamington. The town is on its way to becoming a true cultural wasteland. I’m not just talking about the closure of pubs and performance spaces, either. We’ve also seen the end of the Bath Place community centre – hit first by arson, and then by the sell-off of its new location in order to build (you guessed it) luxury flats. We’ve seen an enormous increase in upmarket bars that reflect not just the JLR crowd, but the growing wealth of the University of Warwick’s student population in the wake of fee and accommodation rises. The Pump Room Gardens are being redeveloped, but delightful additions such as flowerbeds around the bandstand will mean that it will be harder to see actual bands there, and will have the additional “benefit” of putting off the weird kids who currently have a habit of worrying adults by gathering together in a public space. Most worrying, rents have skyrocketed; I’m not sure how much longer it’ll be affordable to live in the town without being deeply posh.
So, I’m sad to see the Well go. I’m sorry for the current staff of the place, who were a decent bunch and have lost their jobs at short notice. I’m concerned about the future of Leamington’s music scene. I’m also worried about the future of Leamington itself; I think there are a lot of political battles to come if the town isn’t to become purely the preserve of the wealthy and boring.
But for now, we’ll remember.
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Excellent. Bang on the nail.
Nicely written and a fitting tribute, I’d say. Definitely sad to see this place go, and angry it has to be because of the relentless drive of property carpet baggers ghettoising the town. The price of everything and the value of nothing. Probably one of the first places I went to drink with other freaks way back in the 90’s (though admittedly, I haven’t shown my face there in the last few years). Saw my mate’s band(s) play gigs there too.
Seems like Coventry is now slowly accommodating the cultural venues that Leamington should be incubating, but I worry it’s just a matter of time the vultures start circling over there too.
It’s sad really, because whilst there are great things happening in Coventry and I totally support that, I feel like it should be possible for DIY promoters and bands to run and play gigs in Leamington. Whilst I’m sure it will still be possible, one way or another (there’s potentially places like TJs? haha), I’m not convinced it will be particularly *good*. Which just encourages me to do more in Coventry, which sucks because I *live* in Leamington and our local town deserves its own scene.
Coventry, sadly, has its own forms of insidious gentrification – see, for instance, the slow death of Hillfields as various areas are redeveloped and then rebranded as a different part of Coventry!
Yeah, It’s true that we should only look further afield as a last resort. I think it looks bleak as Robbins Well was already established at a time when Leamington’s gentrification was not totally sewn up. Opening and growing an interesting venue today seems more difficult. At this rate, I predict an outbreak of generator-powered gigs in fields. Not that that would be a bad thing mind (though I don’t recommend anywhere near Cubbington – the locals managed to stop a village fete from going ahead. Ha!).
I often wonder about Kelsey’s ability to host bands more often as -space wise- it’s pretty ideal
Yeah, it’s probably worth seeing if it’s possible to do more at Kelsey’s, particularly if they still hire the upstairs room.
Cubbington is a very special place.
I would personally welcome any nights that want to be put on at tjs my end of town I loved the well spent a lot of time there over past ten years dropped in Saturday was sorry gutted live music venues are dropping off bedford street and white horse try but even open mic at tjs you can understand tunes on a Sunday night without the random guys getting rowdy
Eloquently put. I am touched and saddened by this news. I haven’t been to the Well for years but spent so much time there growing up. I guess we all just thought it would always be there
Grim topic but really well written – nice one. Have very fond, albeit hazy, memories of gigs and dnb nights at the Well. Will be sad to see it go.
I have great memories of playing at the Well a couple of times with the band I was in at Warwickshire College. We were shit, but they were some of my most formative music experiences. Always a good crowd, and supportive of unknowns like oursevles. Sad to hear of the end of another space where people are allowed to be themselves.
Thanks to everyone who has shared their stories – it’s really good to hear them. I’ve also been hearing a lot from friends who attended the regular comedy nights and open mic events at the Well also.
I would disagree with “It has never been a great pub” – when it was run by Andy in the mid 2000’s it was a great pub often with 6 or 7 deep queues at the bar when it was pound night or if there was football on the big screens. Subsequent landlords ran it into the ground and it never really recovered from that. A sad loss to the town.
I tend to agree with the overall sentiment of this piece, it can’t be disputed that the gig scene as been dwindling locally for many a year in line with the hiking prices placed on landlord and shift of emphasis towards food etc (as is the case elsewhere).However. Cultural wasteland? The wealthy and boring? I disagree here. Leamington is thriving culturally and there’s loads going on. Let’s not forget the extremely specific demographic you’re really tapping into here (yes, that demographic). There’s a lot to be said for Leamington, a cultural wasteland certainly isn’t one of them.
Excellent and accurate writeup, if a sad read – and IMO the problem is wider than just the styles you’re talking about it – I’ve seen not just live music but decent DJing nights, open mic, comedy nights etc all dry up in Leam, it’s such a shame. Vicious circle of lack of venues, venues not taking risks, lack of a crowd, crowds that don’t care/don’t take risks/aren’t even interested in music… and so it goes on.
Tho as someone currently getting their bills paid by a JLR contract, I’m going to have to mutter than not *everyone* who works for JLR is part of what you correctly identify as that “crowd” 🙂
Some (okay, one, but he’s a lovely guy) of my best friends work for JLR 😉 :p
But yeah, thanks for taking the point as it’s intended – my complaints there are about wider economic circumstances and social trends rather than particular individuals. The fact that you give a shit is important.
Hi Ruth, enjoyed reading your In Memoriam piece (although not enjoying the demise of what should surely be a great pub in a great location). I’m a new tenant in Spencer Yard, just around the corner from the Well and one of our members of staff describes gigs there as a student as being a highlight of her time at uni. I don’t pretend to ever have been part of a thriving music scene, underground or otherwise, (although I love music), but with an 18 yr old drumming and singing daughter, it might not be a bad idea for me to have half an idea about music venues in the town. I have to confess that some of the sets you picture and describe sound like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but perhaps that’s the point 🙂 I’m also curious to know who they’ve sold the pub to – do you know it’s going to be flats or something or still a pub? I’m very much against gentrification of the south side of the river and am becoming more involved in the local politics to make that happen. If you do have any more information you’d be happy to share, then please reply here and I’ll happily share email details etc.
Honestly, I’m not 100% sure who they’re selling the venue to – probably best to ask the staff on the off chance! I did ask myself, but didn’t emerge from the conversation any the wiser, really.
The latest I’ve heard is rumours that the buyer has pulled out. If so, it’s difficult to know what the impact on the pub will be – they’ve deliberately been trying to sell all their stock, as was painfully obvious when I went in with some friends the day I posted this for a final drink and meal in the pub, to be greeted by a severely diminished menu! (and some pretty epic portions – massive respect to the staff). I have no idea what financial position that puts everyone in now. I also haven’t heard any confirmation one way or another – if I do, I’ll update this post.
Afraid whilst I’d be completely behind any campaigning around this, I don’t have time to be personally involved – I have a lot going on right now. But if you get some organising going around this I can share details. I’d also recommend hooking up with LAMP (https://www.facebook.com/leamingtonlamp/) who I believe are still on the lookout for a new venue in Leamington.
Thanks Ruth. I saw a sign at the pub yesterday saying they hadn’t been sold, but nothing else concrete to report. Know the feeling on the campaigning front, only so much time in a day. Hoping to make some progress albeit slowly with Spencer Yard etc. 🙂
We moved the regular comedy nights from The Well to LAMP, partly because of the difficulty we had working with the management at The Well – it could well be different now but while it might have worked for one-off events it never really worked for our weekly show, at least once we were moved out of the basement.
With LAMP’s closure it’s put Reckless Comedy on hold, though we want to bring it back to the town in some for or another – finding a venue is a huge challenge though.
Yeah, I’ve had significant problems working with the management of the Well too, particularly during the period you describe. I think the dismissive attitude towards event organisers at this time hardly helped with the diminishing number of people using the pub.
However, the place has been through a lot of changes in management over the last few years; whilst I realise it’s not an ideal venue for Reckless Comedy, you might want to consider talking to the current staff? It’s certainly a far better situation than it was around the time you moved.
As for LAMP’s closure, that was an awful, awful loss to the town for sure – at the time it was definitely the best venue for all kinds of events. But it always helped to have an ecology of venues, too.
It does look like they’re still actively seeking a buyer though
Rather than this being a speculative sale that fell through.
I’d guess best case is it gets bought by another brewery.
(Well best case is it gets bought by a collective of artists and awesome people who use it as centre for putting on brilliant things but I’d rather be realistic…)