Three hundred years after the discovery of mineral waters at Cheltenham, we celebrate the Georgian fashion for ‘taking the waters’ by taking a tour around some of the best spa towns it spawned, including Bath, Buxton and Royal Tunbridge Wells.
It’s claimed that Cheltenham became a famous spa thanks to the discovery in 1716 of a flock of pigeons pecking at salt deposits from the chalybeate spring in what is now the Montpellier area of town.
Alerted to the potential health benefits of the waters – chalybeate means iron-rich – quick wits enclosed the spring and charged for its use. Soon enough, people “of great fortune and nobility” were rushing to sip at the new spa and dance in the assembly room that had been thoughtfully added.
In 1788 when King George III suffered “a pretty smart bilious attack”, he came for five weeks, rising to drink the waters in private at 6am every day before promenading and sightseeing with his entourage. Royal approval assured Cheltenham’s reputation.
George never returned, deterred by worsening symptoms of what was likely to have been the hereditary disorder porphyria, but business in Cheltenham boomed. Rival wells and spas opened, accommodation and leisure facilities blossomed and the wonderful Regency villas, terraces, promenades and ornamental gardens that make the town so delightful took shape.
Three hundred years on from those pecking pigeons, you can still sip Cheltenham’s mineral waters in the grandly domed Pittville Pump Room, which is now an impressive concert venue.
Although it was the Romans who initially made use of Bath’s natural springs, naming it Aquae Sulis and developing it as a sanctuary of rest and relaxation, it was during the Georgian era that it really had its heyday.
Princess (later Queen) Anne visited Bath four times from 1688-1703 to take the waters and before long it was being marketed as ‘the premier resort of frivolity and fashion’.
Georgian dandy Richard ‘Beau’ Nash became Master of Ceremonies in Bath and the sublime Palladian streetscapes of both John Wood the Elder and Younger were soon created.
The city’s natural hot springs made it a spa market leader, which it continues to be to this day with the modern Thermae Bath Spa offering all sorts of pampering and superb views from its open-air rooftop pool.
Before around 1800 the town of Leamington Spa was just a tiny village but the rediscovery of its saline springs in 1784 led to the building of baths, including The Royal Pump Rooms and Baths, which claimed to cure and relieve ‘stiffness of tendons’ and ‘rigidity of the joints’ and included assembly rooms, popular with the Georgians. Today the Royal Pump Rooms are now home to a cultural centre, which houses Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum.
No less a man than scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin was convinced by Great Malvern’s springs in Worcestershire when, feeling under the weather, he visited in 1849. After four months of cold scrubbing and other treatments, the scientist concluded, “I consider the sickness as absolutely cured. The Water Cure is assuredly a grand discovery.”
No doubt regimes of fresh air and exercise in the Malvern Hills also played their part in the magic, while the local waters, filtered through the pre-Cambrian granite of the ‘Alps of England’, became famed for their low mineral content and great purity. Today they are bottled at Holywell, though many a thirsty walker is also delighted to find the waters freely available at springs and spouts dotted around the hillsides.
Llandrindod has some 30 natural springs, and although attempts were made to draw the masses here in the 18th century, it wasn’t until the Victorian era and the coming of the Central Wales Railway in 1865 that it really took off as a spa resort. Located in Powys, in the beautiful Welsh heartland, surrounded by rolling countryside, with the Brecon Beacons to the south and the Berwyn Mountains to the north, it’s location is nothing short of spectacular.
Architecture to admire here includes ornate Victorian ironwork, a marble drinking fountain for the chalybeate waters, and the Art Deco Automobile Palace, which now houses the National Cycle Collection, with some 250 bicycles dating back to 1818, and a large collection of penny farthings.
It’s been compared to both Yorkshire and Bavaria, but this Highlands town has a charm all of its own. A popular Victorian resort, Strathpeffer is now a conservation village, and if you can make it this far north (it’s about 20 miles northwest of Inverness) the Victorian love affair with Scotland will be easy to understand.
Strathpeffer’s Pump Room hosts an exhibition bringing to life the health resort that thrived here between 1870 and 1939. A variety of invigorating baths were once on offer, including the infamous peat bath.
The Grade I listed Crescent in Buxton, designed by John Carr for the 5th Duke of Devonshire, is an architectural masterpiece fit to rival the Royal Crescent in Bath. Built in 1780, it was the forerunner of today’s hotels, comprising not just rooms but also shops, restaurants, and the Assembly Rooms for dancing and catching up on the latest society gossip. But its history stretches back even further – Mary, Queen of Scots, despite being Queen Elizabeth I’s prisoner, was permitted to enjoy the waters of Buxton in Derbyshire.
Buxton, its bottled local mineral water ever popular, is now reinvigorating its spa heydays with plans that include the transformation of the sweeping Georgian Crescent into a five-star spa hotel incorporating the neighbouring natural baths,
The spring at Tunbridge Wells was discovered by accident by a young nobleman, Dudley Lord North, in 1606. Travelling back to London with a raging hangover after making merry for several days straight at the nearby Abergavenny Estate, he tasted the water and felt miraculously recovered.
By the 18th century the fame of the water had spread, and the town rivalled Brighton and Bath as the place to see and be seen (though it was only in 1909 that King Edward VII granted the town its ‘Royal’ prefix).
Today the highlight of the town is still the lovely colonnaded walkway known as The Pantiles, where once the cream of society would promenade. If you walk down to the spring you can taste the mineral water, served by a Dipper in period costume, from Easter to the end of September.
There’s also a nice selection of high street shops and boutiques here, and since the town is located just 30 miles south of London in Kent, it’s a good spot for a day out from the capital.
The town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire is not the first place you would expect to find Moorish arches, elaborately patterned glazed tiles, and a series of exotic steam rooms and plunge pools. Harrogate’s Turkish Baths are an illustration of the Victorian love of the Oriental, and are genuinely gorgeous. They are also part of an award-winning spa that you can still visit today.
The iron, sulphur and salt-rich waters in Harrogate were discovered in 1571, and in the 1700s the town became increasingly famous. A theatre and a pump room were built to provide entertainment for the well-heeled visitors, who numbered in their ranks royalty from across Europe.
In 1903 a Kursaal was built – German for cure hall – and renamed the Royal Hall in a display of patriotism during the First World War. This theatre and concert venue has recently been renovated, and is well worth a visit, both for the high-calibre performances it attracts, and the sheer quantity of gold in the stunning auditorium.
Known as Salinae by the Romans, this town in the Heart of England gained the name Droitwich when it was granted Royal Charter by King John in 1215 and the word ‘Spa’ was added in the 19th century when the town’s spa facilities were developed, thanks to the natural brine springs which emanate from subterranean beds of pure rock salt 200ft below the ground. Today the town is best known for its proximity to Shakespeare’s Country, its open-air lido and its pretty canal.
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