Destinations

The Water Cure

From spa towns to seaside resorts, beauty writer Andrea Hubert delves into how the rich mineral springs of England spawned our holiday industry.
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“There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them.” I hadn’t imagined thinking about Sylvia Plath as I slipped into a beautiful, steamy rooftop pool overlooking Bath. As tensions and stiffness seem to melt away from my aching muscles, her words come back to me. She really hit the nail on the head. Nothing beats a few days of the water cure to feel good again.
 

Tracing the Source

Bath is far from Britain’s only spa town, but it’s certainly the oldest. Revered since Roman times for its naturally hot, mineral-rich, curative waters, it is a delightful answer to that question: what did the Romans ever do for us? Well, if this place is anything to go by they taught us how to unwind, not to mention building the roads that brought me here. Actually, even the word spa is thought to be an acronym of the Latin phrase “salus per aqua” meaning “health from water”, although another theory suggests it comes from the Belgian village of Spa where Roman soldiers would rest after battle.

Yet the Romans didn’t invent spas. It is the Ancient Greeks we have to thank for the birth of medicinal bathing; the magical properties of mineral or heated waters have long been recognised across the world. In England and Scotland, Celtic tribes certainly worshipped hot springs, assuming them to be a manifestation of their goddess Sulis. In Egypt Cleopatra famously espoused the therapeutic powers of the Nile Delta and the Dead Sea’s salt-rich waters. Some even claim the first hot tub was made for King Phraortes of Persia in 600 BC, and that the Spartans came up with a primitive vapour bath design. But it was the Romans who really ran with the idea, transforming the concept of a private retreat into a socially vibrant place to be seen as well as clean.

We know little about how waters were viewed in the Dark Ages after the Romans left Britain in 410AD, but spas burst back into the public consciousness during the Renaissance when fifteenth-century wisdom claimed that taking the waters was good for the many as well as the few. Elizabeth I endorsed Bath again, recommending its use to all who ail close by, rich or poor. The people listened. This was, after all, the Queen who bathed once a month, whether she needed to or not. 

From Hydrotherapy to Seaside Hedonism

British medicinal waters were on the rise again and with this increasing popularity, the pleasure principle began to creep its way into the fabric of this island’s spas too. But not always in a wholesome way. In pre-Victorian times, when over-zealous modesty wasn’t mandatory, public baths were often tinged with a frisson of salaciousness amongst the wealthy who patronised them. Not that this dented their appeal. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a huge influx of fashionable society and royal patronage to spa towns, hence the words Regis or Royal appearing in many names. Around London, spa visits formed an integral part of the high society calendar and where people met, entertainment followed. Once-quiet backwaters morphed into bustling centres of activity, dancing, merrymaking, all alive with the exciting air of sociability.

 

Buxton – a favourite of rheumatism-plagued Mary, Queen of Scots – Leamington Spa and Harrogate were prized, like Bath, for their sulphur-rich water to dip into and drink. Not that it was always nice, it should be noted. Indeed, Bath visitor Celia Fiennes complained in the 1670s that water from the spring was “very hot and tastes like the water that boyles eggs”. Cheltenham was another granted the royal seal of approval. After its discovery in 1716 via pigeons pecking at salt deposits by a spring, King George III visited, ensuring the town’s infamy and an influx of money that helped build the stunning Regency terraces, gardens and villas we still see today.

 

London-based visitors searching for a closer alternative to Bath also flocked to places like Malvern, where the low mineral content produced some of the purest water in the world. By 1842, The Malvern Cure – in layman’s terms drinking water, scrubbing with water, and having water poured over your head – was famed for treating lymphatic drainage. Although it sounds a little like waterboarding, the cure was a rousing success, bolstered by Queen Victoria’s endorsement. She even demanded Malvern water on her royal tours, which led to other notables of the age - Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens - picking up the habit. 

Up north in Harrogate, the hammam experience was king. The great Islamic arches and vibrant glazed tiles of the town’s Turkish Baths provided an exotic setting and its water, uniquely rich in multiple minerals, soon brought the town enormous fame and fortune. Harrogate’s treatments became even more experimental than most. Hydrotherapy institutions devoted to the water cure sprung up selling therapies ranging from the mundane to the terrifying. The intrepid could sample a range of bizarre treatments, such as the “Plombiere douche” – a primitive colonic irrigation – or the suspiciously counter-intuitive “Schnee electric hydrotherapy” bath. And in each town there would always be the grand pump rooms, ballrooms, dance halls, bars, restaurants and more to keep busy those who came for the society as much as the soaking.

A man seated in a cubicle is being sprayed with water Welcome

Historically, travel for travel’s sake was not something in most working people’s mindset. It was largely limited to the types of religious pilgrims lampooned by Chaucer and jaunty young men of means on their Grand European Tours, who were almost always aristocracy. Things changed with the coming of the railways in the 1840s and relatively affordable access to spa towns. Once tasted, the idea of a work break for anyone who laboured hard and could afford to travel took root in the imagination of more than just the wealthy invalid or the rich pleasure-seeker. First the middle class and then the industrialised working class holiday markets bloomed as unpaid Wakes Weeks – time off from the factories, mines and mills – rose in popularity.

However the spa town’s days of dominance were numbered. The popularity of the British seaside for recreation was already established; Scarborough in North Yorkshire – a spa town on the sea – was doing booming business providing both mineral and saltwater cures. Fashions were shifting in science as well as in society and the medical world’s support for the efficacy of seawater certainly didn’t help the fortunes of the in-land mineral spa towns. The exact moment when the seaside resort became top dog may be lost, but spa towns certainly began to stagnate, tarnished with the reputation for being expensive and antiquated destinations for the ageing, ailing gentry. By the turn of the twentieth century, the new, mobile British holidaymaker was drawn to thrusting seaside resorts like Skegness, Margate and Blackpool with their new feeling of escape and unrestricted fun outside the usual confines of class and society. Britain’s holiday heyday had arrived and we all liked to be beside the seaside, whatever the weather.  
“The intrepid could sample a range of bizarre treatments, such as the “Plombiere douche” – a primitive colonic irrigation”

It was actually the notoriously stiff-upper-lipped Victorians who’d popularised many of our classic seaside staples today, including the six week summer holiday from school. This derives from when children were employed from June to August as extra hands for fruit picking and farm labour. But whether donkey rides, candyfloss, Punch and Judy, buckets, spades, sandcastles or knobbly knee competitions – the question of what the Victorians did for us is easy to answer. They gave us our seaside pleasure palaces, music hall culture, gardens and gondolas, exhibitions, fish and chips, cockles and whelks in a cone. Bathe with your ankles on display? Not likely. But eat your fish and chips and ice cream in messy defiance of everything the era stood for? Absolutely.

Despite there being no one clear reason why the seaside so powerfully overtook the spa town in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there is a very stark singular moment that marked the rapid decline of this sandy usurper. The first UK package holiday dates back to Thomas Cook’s 1841 organising of a trip from Leicester to Loughborough for 540 temperance campaigners, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the British holiday market really embraced it. Then, on the 5th of May 1962, the first fare-paying flight of new British airline Euravia took off filled with families not just going abroad but trying something new: the all-inclusive tour. Their destination? Palma de Mallorca. The die was cast for decades.

Tunbridge Wells Spa

Back to Basics

Things have come full circle. Today, spa weekends are as much a part of leisure culture as they were in Roman Britain and no top of the range destination hotel worth its salt (or if they’re lucky, sulphur) lacks one. Of course, not all hotels are able to procure naturally mineral-rich water for their guests and many new or revived spas embrace science instead, using bespoke products made with sea-based minerals to recreate the waters of the ancient spas in newer surroundings. Places like the final stop on my grand tour, Moor Hall Hotel & Spa, BW Premier Collection, in Sutton Coldfield.

This converted sixteenth-century stately home – once regularly visited by Henry VIII – is a beautiful family run hotel in a stunning setting with a core ethos that is as simple as it is welcoming: make people happy. OK, it’s not a verbatim Roman motto, but it’s close to the original idea of why a person might seek some time out in a bathhouse or spa in the first place. And it’s also the dictum of the adjoining spa here, as Mary Eames, manager for 14 years, explains. 

Moor-Hall

“We actually think and talk about how we can make our guests happy every day,” she tells me. “It’s why we use Thalgo products. They’re rich in sea-based miner-als that make you feel better from the inside out. Not just the surface.

It’s this kind of holistic approach that makes my Swedish massage so incredibly effective. Not only is the actual massage one of the best I’ve had (and massage-wise, I’ve been around), but my therapist’s in-depth understanding of the healing properties of the seaweed and sea minerals made me feel, no pun intended, in exceptionally safe hands. Followed up with a quick trip to the steam room to double down on the muscular bliss, and my insides are tingling with energy. “We try and match therapists to clients based on what they say they need and how they’re feeling.” Mary tells says afterwards. “We want you to genuinely feel better after you leave.”

With an approach like this it’s not hard to see why they won Thalgo Spa of the Year 2017. So while I may not have “taken the waters” in the full Victorian sense - choosing instead a post-spa wine - as far as being relaxed and revitalised go, I feel amazing from head to toe. I think the Romans would definitely approve.


Create your own story:

  • Best Western Plus Centurion Hotel – a smart hotel with suite and deluxe rooms in village setting nine miles from Bath with gym, sauna, steam room, pool, golf course and restaurant.
  • Moor Hall Hotel & Spa, BW Premier Collection - an historic country house hotel and award-winning spa set in parkland within easy reach of Birmingham with double AA-rosette restaurant, gym, sauna, steam room, pool and bar.
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