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uk uncovered n britain’s spa towns

uk uncovered n britain’s spa towns

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council/Mike Bartlett

n The Pantiles, Royal Tunbridge Wells Tunbridge Wells Borough Council/Chris Parker

n Dippers at the Chalybeate Spring

hey started with the Romans, became the height of fashion in Georgian times and enjoyed a further renaissance under the health-obsessed Victorians. Modern medicine killed off most of Britain’s spa bathing and treatment centres by the middle of the last century, but the elegant towns that grew around them remain agreeable places to visit.

T bath

Fashionable, elegant and promising to cure all manner of ailments with their mineral-rich springs, the UK’s spa towns have been attracting the well-heeled for centuries. John Law takes the waters and examines some of the best surviving examples from the golden age of spa tourism

n Thermae Bath Spa

Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

Bathing beauties

infused with frankincense, eucalyptus and other essential oils, treatment rooms and a restaurant.

royal tunbridge wells Feeling listless and in need of a tonic? The nearest spa town to London – and the only one in the South East – is Royal Tunbridge Wells, where a glass of iron-rich water from the Chalybeate Spring might liven you up. The source was discovered in 1606 and, by Georgian times, the Kent town was a favourite among royalty and nobility as a place to see and be seen. Notable imbibers of the great cure-all included Queen Anne and Queen Victoria, Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe. Today, Tunbridge Wells is a prosperous commuter town surrounded by glorious Wealden countryside. Those taking the £4 town tour are shown the original village area around the Grove, the shops in the historic colonnaded Pantiles, old lodging houses on Mount Ephraim, pretty clapboard cottages, elegant Regency villas and grand Victorian homes. They finish with a reviving glass of the Chalybeate water, often served by a “dipper” in traditional costume.

Take the plunge for a new perspective on Georgian Bath. Whether it’s a sizzling summer’s day or a freezing night in February, bobbing around in the warm outdoor pool atop the city’s Thermae Spa is a great way to relax after shopping or footslogging on the tourist trail. Gazing across rooftops to the Abbey and green hills beyond, today’s Bath bathers can thank poor King Bladud and the Romans for discovering the therapeutic benefits of the hot, mineral-rich waters. Legend has it the hot springs cured the Celtic king of his leprosy, while the Romans later built a great temple and magnificent bath-house dedicated to the goddess Minerva. harrogate The restored Roman Baths are now among the UK’s top tourist attractions. You can’t bathe there, but they Spa buildings don’t come much grander than the draw almost one million visitors a year and many pop ornately-styled Royal Baths, home of Harrogate’s Turknext door afterwards to the elegant Georgian Pump ish Baths and Health Spa. The great Islamic arches, Rooms for lunch or tea, or a glass of the reputedly vibrant glazed brickwork, arabesque painted ceilings healthy but weird-tasting water from the spa fountain. and terrazzo floors still provide exotic surroundings in Bath became a leading spa resort during its 18th which to relax. century heyday, when those famous sweeping crescents, Discovery of the springs of Harrogate elegant squares and parks were developed. Last dates back about four centuries and the year, 4.5 million visitors flocked there for the Royal Baths, which opened in 1897, grand architecture and first-rate shopping – claimed to be the world’s most and to enjoy a session at the country’s only advanced centre for hydrotherapy. In remaining thermal baths. addition to the Turkish baths, there Opened in the city-centre five years ago, were mud baths and steam rooms and the striking Thermae Bath Spa buildings medicinal waters on offer. Intrepid combine classic Georgian architecture with Victorians could sign up to a range of modern glass and steel. There are four pools n The Inner Space, Thermae Bath Spa bizarre treatments, such as the Plombiere fed by the natural hot springs, steam rooms Thermae Bath Spa

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Autumn 2011

Autumn 2011

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uk uncovered n britain’s spa towns

Visit Peak District & Derbyshire

n Buxton has some of the country’s purest spring water

“Cheltenham retains its elegant architecture and claims to be England’s most complete Regency town”

the waters there in 1788 the Cotswold town’s reputation took off as one of the country’s most fashionable spas. The Duke of Wellington, suffering from a dodgy liver, gave Cheltenham further prominence when he visited early in the 19th century. The ensuing building boom saw the development of sweeping, classical terraces and squares, elegant villas set in landscaped estates and broad, tree-lined walks. Cheltenham retains its elegant architecture and claims to be England’s most complete Regency town. A mustsee attraction is the magnificent, colonnaded and domed Pittville Pump Room, set amid the gardens and ornamental lakes of Pittville Park. Here the cream of Regency and Victorian society would attend grand balls and take the medicinal waters. It is still used as a venue for entertainment and weddings – and the water continues to be pumped up from a well 80ft below. Cheltenham spa water is claimed to be the only natural consumable alkaline variety in Britain, its chief action being antacid and mildly diuretic. It’s also laxative – an important consideration for imbibers planning a subsequent visit to the town’s stylish shops, or its renowned horse-racing, music or literature festivals.

douche, the Schnee electric hydrotherapy bath, saline sulphur and peat baths. Harrogate is unique as a spa town because of its variety of mineral waters. The saline sulphur bath was prescribed by the consulting doctors as good for gout, rheumatism and hepatic disorders, while the alkaline sulphur water was used for skin diseases. Modern medicine and technology hastened the buxton closure of the treatment centre in 1969, but a two-year £10 million redevelopment of the Royal Baths started in Buxton in Derbyshire has some of the country’s purest 2002 restored the building to its former glory. Today’s spring water, which can be sampled, free of charge, visitors can still luxuriate in the Turkish Baths and book from a well dating back to the Middle Ages. St Ann’s various pampering sessions. Well was visited in Tudor times by Mary Queen of Those interested in the history of this attractive North Scots when she was held captive at nearby Chatsworth. Yorkshire town can visit the Royal Pump Room Museum Before that, the Romans built baths here served by the to see the old sulphur well and sample the spa water. The beautiful Valley Gardens – with their own mineral springs warm springs which emerge at a constant 28ºC. The town’s attraction as a spa resort gathered – are a great place to relax, while active types can pace in the late 18th century, when the fifth go walking, climbing, fishing or wildlife-spotn Temple, Buxton Duke of Devonshire built the Crescent ting on the nearby Yorkshire Dales. alongside St Ann’s Well. Thermal baths cheltenham and more fine buildings were added and the railway’s arrival in 1863 ushered in a The first Cheltenham guide in 1781 golden age. described a visit as “a journey of health Buxton’s thermal baths closed in the and pleasure”. The natural springs had 1950s and today’s visitors are drawn by the only been discovered a few years earlier and annual arts festivals, the ornate Edwardian when King George III spent five weeks taking opera house and the Peak District countryside. Visit Peak District & Derbyshire

spa hotels None of Britain’s grand, old hotels still offer authentic mineral water baths and treatments, although several new ones are on the drawing board. Bath’s planned five-star Gainsborough Hotel will feature its own thermal baths near the city’s Thermae Bath Spa, although the project is much delayed. Also at the planning stage is major redevelopment of Buxton’s magnificent old Crescent building as a fivestar hotel offering thermal spa treatments.

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Meanwhile, visitors to Bath seeking accommodation with an on-site modern spa book properties such as the five-star, 18th century Macdonald Bath Spa. In Buxton, Old Hall is reputed to be England’s oldest hotel and entertained Mary Queen of Scots when she sampled the waters. The Barcelo Palace is an imposing Victorian hotel built when Buxton’s spa tourism was booming. The Cottage in the Wood is a historic hotel built in the hillside near Malvern’s Holy Well, while the Malvern Hotel is a modern property with an award-winning spa. Fine Georgian and Regency buildings which

once enjoyed a thriving trade from visitors taking the waters include The George in Cheltenham, The Spa in Tunbridge Wells, the recently-refurbished Crown in Harrogate, and The Angel, a former Leamington coaching inn. One of Droitwich’s more popular hotels is St Andrews Town Hotel, built as the town clerk’s house in 1820. The Metropole in Llandrindod Wells was the largest hotel in Wales when it opened in the 1890s with its own spa treatment centre. That closed in 1972 but the hotel, now a four-star property, does offer a modern spa.

Autumn 2011

uk uncovered n britain’s spa towns

signature spa treatments

n The frigidarium at Harrogate Turkish Baths

royal leamington spa Impressive claims were made for the spa treatment at Leamington’s Royal Pump Rooms and Baths when they opened in 1814. Relief from a huge number of disorders was claimed – including “stiffness of tendons”, “rigidity of the joints”, and “the effects of gout and rheumatism and various paralytic conditions”. Leamington was a small Warwickshire agricultural village until about 1800, when it started to exploit the money-spinning potential of its mineral springs. Princess (later Queen) Victoria was among those sampling the saline waters and the place grew rapidly into an elegant town of fine Regency and Victorian architecture and beautiful gardens. Visitors can no longer use the baths, but they can taste the salty spring water from outside the Pump Rooms and enjoy the rich legacy of the spa boom. The

Autumn 2011

restored Pump Rooms are home to the Assembly Rooms and Conservatory, art gallery, library and tea rooms, and the museum tells the story of the town’s spa treatments. Jephson Gardens, which gained prominence for its promenading, croquet, tennis, fountains, illuminations and military bands, has been restored with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and is now a Victorian oasis with a sub-tropical glasshouse and restaurant.

n The pumprooms at Royal Leamington Spa

Warwick District Council

Thermae Bath Spa

n The hot bath at Thermae Bath Spa

Britainonview/Martin Brent

Imagine floating dreamily in warm mineral waters that fell as rain 10,000 years ago while being gently stretched and massaged. You’d be hard pressed to find anything more relaxing, claims the Thermae Bath Spa, whose signature 50-minute Watsu treatment soothes in the restored Georgian Hot Bath. With eyes closed, it’s easy to nod off while the therapist guides your body through a series of flowing movements. It costs £60 and is ideal for easing a stiff or aching back and limbs. Signature treatments at Harrogate’s Turkish Baths start off with an appropriately-Turkish ritual in a room scented with exotic candles. The warmed candle oil with shea butter is then decanted and massaged into the body during the 75-minute Eastern Temptation option, costing £65. For an extra £20 you can book an Eastern Indulgence, which also includes a delicate exfoliating full body polish with jojoba and shea butter.

malvern Take a walk in the glorious Malvern Hills in Worcestershire and there’s no need to pack a day’s supply of water along with your sarnies. There are plenty of wells providing that famous refreshing water – if you know where to look. Tucked away in valleys are Holy Well and St Ann’s Well, where a café offers more refreshment. Elsewhere

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uk uncovered n britain’s spa towns

spa towns facts Britainonview/Pete Seaward

n The glorious Malvern Hills

Bath Thermae Bath Spa Roman Baths and Pump Room, Bath Droitwich Buxton n The Roman Cheltenham Baths, Bath Harrogate Malvern Llandrindod Wells Royal Tunbridge Wells Royal Leamington Spa

are many more springs, some restored, such as the Beauchamp Spout and the Malvhina Fountain. Two doctors brought hydrotherapy from Austria and built the first water cure house in Malvern in 1845. You can no longer take the spa treatments but many impressive buildings from that era are still in use as public offices. The Council House, for example, provided the original consulting rooms in Victorian times. George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar brought Malvern into the 20th century with their theatre and music festivals held in the Winter Gardens. The town’s cultural life continues to thrive, with the restored Edwardian theatre attracting top-class drama, ballet and opera and the Forum Theatre is a top music venue. The medieval Abbey Gateway houses Malvern’s Museum, which gives an insight into the region’s geology and spa history.


Tunbridge Wells Borough Council/Chris Parker

droitwich While other spa towns may boast of kings and queens taking a therapeutic dip, Droitwich has the distinction of hosting footballing royalty. In the 1970s, the entire Manchester United team took a brine bath – a treatment claimed to be particularly beneficial for those with rheumatic conditions. The Worcestershire town made its fortune from salt and the natural brine springs have been used for bathing since Roman times. St Richard’s House in the town centre was the frontage to the old Brine Baths which closed in 1974. Another facility opened 11 years later as part of Droitwich Spa Hospital. Sadly this has now closed but private investors currently have plans to develop new brine baths. Meanwhile, swimmers can enjoy a dip in the briny at the town’s 1930s outdoor Lido, which reopened four years ago. The natural brine is denser than the Dead Sea but at the pool it is diluted to the density of sea water.

Bath Macdonald Bath Spa:; Best Western Centurion Hotel: Malvern The Malvern:; The Cottage in the Wood: Droitwich St Andrews Town Hotel: Leamington The Angel: Buxton Old Hall:; Losehill House Hotel:; Barcelo Palace: Cheltenham The George: Harrogate The Crown: Llandrindod Wells The Metropole: Tunbridge Wells The Spa:

packages Superbreak: n The Pantiles Colonnade Expedia: at Tunbridge Wells Shearings Holidays:

Bath-based travel journalist John Law advises enjoying tea at the Pump Rooms but to go easy glugging the strange-tasting spa water.

WIN a pair of Thermae Bath Spa vouchers We have teamed up with Thermae Bath Spa to give away a pair of four-hour spa session vouchers, including hire of towels, robes and slippers, worth £88. You will have access to the open-air rooftop pool, with its views over the city of Bath, as well as the large Minerva thermal bath and the fabulous steam rooms. Go to and click on Competitions. Terms and conditions apply. Closing date November 18, 2011.

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spa towns and spa facilities

llandrindod wells The Romans were the first to enjoy the health benefits of bathing in Llandrindod’s saline-sulphur spring water and by the mid-1700s the town was described as “the Queen of Welsh Watering Places”. It then fell out of fashion until the coming of the Central Wales Railways in 1865, when Llandrindod’s spa business took off. Hotels, apartments, new treatment centres, two pavilions, a golf course, bowling and putting greens and a 14-acre boating lake were built to cater for 80,000 visitors a year. The town no longer provides spa treatments, although visitors continue to enjoy many of the 19th century attractions. Today, Llandrindod is best known for its annual Drama and Victorian festivals, but there are plans to develop the former Rock Park Spa and to provide a hydrotherapy centre.

Autumn 2011


harrogate royal tunbridge wells bath hey started with the Romans, became the height of fashion in Georgian times and enjoyed a further renai...