Subject: Forgotten Spas Of England
Journal: The Guardian/Time Out
Date: December 1996
Author: Clive Fewins
Forget the glories of Bath, Buxton, Harrogate and Cheltenham Spas – and concentrate instead on Canterbury, Bristol, Knaresborough, Great Horwood, Astrop, Butterby and Barnet.
There are other
The latter are some of the ‘lost spas’ of England. One or two of them are cities, but the majority are small villages, whose present day occupants may well know little of the long-lost pulling power of the erstwhile fashionable resort they live in.
Josiah Diston, aged 66, arrived at Astrop, Oxfordshire, at the beginning of August 1732 suffering from ‘loss of appetite, continual retching and vomiting, jaundice, asthma and dropsy’. His legs, stomach and thighs were so swollen that he coud not walk. For a fortnight he drank three quarts of the iron-rich water daily, after which he could manage to walk from the little spa to the nearby village of Kings Sutton, where he was lodging.
Two weeks later, according to contemporary reports, he was eating and drinking normally and participating at the regular balls held at the spa.
In 1665 – the year after the discovery of the Astrop spring – one Lady Elwes was one of a group that fled there to escape the plague in London.
Today there is no sign of the Astrop well house, the tea room, the gravel walk and rest rooms. All that remains is a later structure – mid 18th century stone surround in a field that is now on private land. In 1857 the owner of Astrop Park closed the path. The water still flows.
Astrop is one of 27 spas and springs visited by authors Bruce Osborne and Cora Weaver in a book* that retraces the steps of the celebrated 17th century traveller and spa enthusiast Celia Fiennes. A century before there had been only a handful of healing ‘spas’, notably the ancient healing centres of Bath, Holywell, Buxton and the newly-discovered Utkinton in Cheshire. By Celia Fiennes’ time there were more than 400 identifiabe spas – places, as Osborne and Weaver describe them: “where people travel to take the water prescriptively.”
The spa at Barnet was described in detail by Celia Fiennes. In its heyday the saline spring vied with Epsom (effectively closed by 1720) as a source of purgative water flavoured by many with stomach disorders - among them Samuel Pepys.
Today the source – it is enclosed by a conical mock-Tudor building erected in 1937 – stands in the middle of a thirties housing estate that covers what was once Barnet Common. The permanently locked building is much vandalised. Down a flight of 12 brick steps lie two shallow sumps. “We believe they are much the same as in Pepys’ day,” said Cora Weaver.
There is even less to be seen at Canterbury, where the site of the original iron-rich wells now lies beneath a car park, or Bristol, where the site of the original Hotwells spa is marked by a single colonnade on the east side of the Avon Gorge.
“There is just enough evidence at most of these lost spas to make them worth exploring,” said Cora Weaver. “The real detective work is in discovering why spas grew into large inland resorts.
“The book is arranged in the form of a tour of England, starting with Canterbury in the east and ending at Aford in the west, but you can pick up the trail anywhere along the route. Do not, however, expect to emulate Celia Fiennes and taste the water at all of them. You might end up needing rather more than a spa cure!”
* Aquae Britannia – rediscovering 17th. century spas and springs, by Bruce Osborne and Cora Weaver.