I craned down to the municipal faucet and took onboard several deep draughts, like a dromedary re-fuelling for the long haul to Sidi- bel-Abbes
Royal Leamington Spa was agog with excitement. Dazzling flags from myriad nations decorated the main street. A babel of foreign tongues echoed in the town's restaurants and tea-rooms. But Mrs W and I were not there to see the World Women's Bowls Championship. Much to my partner's distress, we were heading to take the waters. "Do we really have to?" she groaned.

"Of course we do. That's why Leamington's here," I retorted, adding that according to a recent article in this paper, taking the waters has become all the rage again. An agency specialising in spa holidays says the number of British clients has increased 10-fold in the last five years.

"I remember the waters at Harrogate," grimaced Mrs W, her tongue protruding like a Notre Dame gargoyle. "I can still taste them - and that was five years ago." I conceded that she had a point there: the murky yellow exudation of the famous Yorkshire spa tastes like cream of sulphur soup.

But the waters at Bath (calcium and iron-rich) were not unpleasant, I insisted, and there was a string quartet providing a rather creaky musical entertainment while one imbibed. Warming to my theme, I pointed out that we were continuing a tradition established in the Age of Reason. At one time, you could even take the waters in London - hence Sadler's Wells. An even more popular establishment nearby, called Bagnigge Wells, had a contemporary advertising jingle written about it.

"Ye gouty old souls and rheumaticks crawl on,

Here taste these blest waters, and your tortures

are gone..."

As we approached Leamington's Royal Pump Rooms, however, there did not appear to be much sign of the hydrological renaissance said to be sweeping Britain. I wondered if the numerous signs dotted about the streets of Leamington stating "Alcohol-Free Zone. Penalty pounds 500" were an encouragement for the local populace to enjoy a health-giving gargle. If so, this policy is a little hindered in its effectiveness by the fact that the Royal Pump Rooms turned out to have been closed for some time. ("I think they're being refurbished," a tourist officer remarked dubiously. "Perhaps they may be open by the end of the year.")

Just as Mrs W was beginning to perk up, I spotted an outside tap where Leamington's famous restorative was freely available. The optimistic view of one town guide, which notes that "the supply of waters is inexhaustible", will not be too inaccurate if all visitors adopt the same approach as Mrs W. Viz: one drop on the end of a finger. "Urrghah! Salty," this veteran connoisseur pronounced. "Like drinking a bag of crisps."

Scorning such namby-pamby hesitancy, I craned down to the municipal faucet and took onboard several deep draughts, like a dromedary re-fuelling for the long haul to Sidi-bel-Abbes. The liquid was, admittedly, somewhat on the saline side - the aftermath of a primeval sea, where prehistoric Leamingtonians doubtless enjoyed a dip millions of years ago. It was only afterwards that I discovered the benefits to be gained from drinking the spa's renowned fluid. "An incidental form of treatment probably limited to relaxing the bowels," claimed one authority. "A mild laxative," said another. Without going into details, I would not cavil with these descriptions - other than the word "mild".

Perhaps surprisingly, I welcome the scarcely credible announcement that London and four other large cities are having to change their telephone numbers yet again, just 16 months after the last overhaul. The red-faced coves at Oftel say they are open to ideas from the public for a new set- up. My suggestion is that we bring back a system that worked perfectly well from the late 19th century until the idiotic Sixties.

Since many new phones now have letters as well as numbers on their dials, we could restore the characterful practise of incorporating telephone exchange names in telephone numbers. It would, for example, mean that the number for New Scotland Yard was restored to its full glory as WHItehall 1212.

From bohemian MUSeum (Bloomsbury) to starchy GROsvenor (Mayfair), our numbers would once more be redolent with rich and evocative associations. There are numbers both literary - BYRon (South Harrow), KIPling (Mottingham), MACaulay (Stockwell), DRYden (Kingsbury) - and painterly - HOGarth (Shepherds Bush), VANdyke (Wandsworth). Fulham would regain its RENown, Wimbledon its LIBerty. How much more charming Deptford sounds as TIDeway and Hammersmith as RIVerside.

On the other hand, the deafened residents around Heathrow might be annoyed at becoming SKYport and the nobby types of Kensal Green would scarcely adore LADbroke. It's hard to imagine Croydon being overjoyed at returning to MUNicipal or Kings Cross happily accepting TERminus. However, Clissold Park's SPArtan has an austere purity, while Wandsworth's TROjan and Northolt's VIKing would bring an exotic sanguinary ring to the suburbs. But the most distinctively London name would be held by the cheery docklanders of Walworth: RODney.

Entering the city from the arrow-straight Roman road leading to the Humber, I mused that Lincoln is a deceptive sort of place. This thought was induced by a huge, temporary exposition filling the city's showground. Entitled "Poacher '96", I expected it to be packed with displays of coats with extra-deep pockets, trousers equipped with salmon compartments and the latest in man-trap detectors. Inexplicably, it turned out to be a boy-scout jamboree.

This feeling that all was not quite as it appeared was enhanced by the cathedral close. Judging by the incessant feuding between senior members of Lincoln's episcopacy, you might expect the lanes around the cathedral to resemble the main street of Dodge City or Tombstone. Not a bit of it. The air is perfumed with lavender. Hens cluck in the courtyard of the cathedral school boarding house. Neither the gorgeous brickwork of the Deanery, nor the stucco of the Bishop's House is sullied by a single graffito.

I scoured the wonderful medieval cathedral for traces of the ongoing clerical argy-bargy but was sadly disappointed. Some unkind visitors may, however, attach an undue significance to the "domestic brawl" (a pair of gowned figures going at it hammer and tongs) carved on one of the misericords.

But Lincoln reserved its biggest surprise until last. The final particle of the city's southern suburbs is a new Wates' estate. Instead of the empty plains of Lincolnshire, the houses have a fine view of Britain's AWACS surveillance planes, identifiable by the spooky metal mushrooms growing from their fuselages. How ironic to think that these professional snoopers are themselves overlooked by the residents of Bracefield Heights.

What do you think that Queen Victoria had in common with the blues singer Jimmy "Mr-Five-by-Five" Rushing? The answer appears in an article on the Queen Empress in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, which notes that "her girth grew to within 10 inches of her height". The reason for this, as I discovered from Dorothy Hartley's newly published Food in Britain, was Her Majesty's excessive liking for beef marrow, which she ate on toast for tea every day. Though the royal family are sticklers for tradition, for their own sakes, I trust that the habit has been discontinued