Britain's Spa Towns
They 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.
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.
The restored Roman Baths are now among the UK’s top tourist attractions. You can’t bathe there, but they draw almost one million visitors a year and many pop next door afterwards to the elegant Georgian Pump Rooms for lunch or tea, or a glass of the reputedly healthy but weird-tasting water from the spa fountain.
Bath became a leading spa resort during its 18th century heyday, when those famous sweeping crescents, elegant squares and parks were developed. Last year, 4.5 million visitors flocked there for the grand architecture and first-rate shopping – and to enjoy a session at the country’s only remaining thermal baths.
Opened in the city-centre five years ago, the striking Thermae Bath Spa buildings combine classic Georgian architecture with modern glass and steel. There are four pools fed by the natural hot springs, steam rooms 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.
Spa buildings don’t come much grander than the ornately-styled Royal Baths, home of Harrogate’s Turkish Baths and Health Spa. The great Islamic arches, vibrant glazed brickwork, arabesque painted ceilings and terrazzo floors still provide exotic surroundings in which to relax.
Discovery of the springs of Harrogate dates back about four centuries and the Royal Baths, which opened in 1897, claimed to be the world’s most advanced centre for hydrotherapy. In addition to the Turkish baths, there were mud baths and steam rooms and medicinal waters on offer. Intrepid Victorians could sign up to a range of bizarre treatments, such as the Plombiere 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 closure of the treatment centre in 1969, but a two-year £10 million redevelopment of the Royal Baths started in 2002 restored the building to its former glory. Today’s visitors can still luxuriate in the Turkish Baths and book various pampering sessions.
Those interested in the history of this attractive North Yorkshire town can visit the Royal Pump Room Museum to see the old sulphur well and sample the spa water. The beautiful Valley Gardens – with their own mineral springs – are a great place to relax, while active types can go walking, climbing, fishing or wildlife-spotting on the nearby Yorkshire Dales.
The first Cheltenham guide in 1781 described a visit as “a journey of health and pleasure”. The natural springs had only been discovered a few years earlier and when King George III spent five weeks taking 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Spa towns facts
Spa towns and spa facilities
Thermae Bath Spa www.thermaebathspa.com
Roman Baths and Pump Room, Bath www.romanbaths.co.uk
Llandrindod Wells www.llandrindod.co.uk
Royal Tunbridge Wells www.visittunbridgewells.com
Royal Leamington Spa www.royal-leamington-spa.co.uk
Droitwich St Andrews Town Hotel: www.st-andrewshotel.com
Leamington The Angel: www.angelhotelleamington.co.uk
Cheltenham The George: www.stayatthegeorge.co.uk
Harrogate The Crown: www.crownhotelharrogate.com
Llandrindod Wells The Metropole: www.metropole.co.uk
Tunbridge Wells The Spa: www.spahotel.co.uk
Shearings Holidays: www.shearings.com
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit britain's spa towns.