So I’m back from another trip to England, and I have so many things to share with you all! I go pretty much every year now to recharge and get a bit of research in, and this was my longest trip ever. Due to various circumstances, I wound up with a bit of a scrambled itinerary that had started out as visiting a lot of the Jane Austen 200 sites in Hampshire, but eventually worked around through Brighton, the Isle of Wight, and Wiltshire, ending at Bath and then London.
My itineraries are usually based on transit efficiency (namely what rail lines and buses connect towns together, because I am NOT up for driving on the other side of the road), but as this one finally came together, it began to take on more of a theme. Perhaps this was because I was reading Phyllis Hembry’s British Spas from 1815 to the Present: A Social History, but I began to see that this itinerary, albeit not in order (it began, if you will, with Jane Austen’s death, in Winchester). was all about taking the cure, whether it was drinking spa water, or bathing in mineral or seawater.
So I ran with it, finishing that book of Hembry’s and also picking up her The English Spa, 1560 – 1815: A Social History and Louise Allen’s The Georgian Seaside: The English resorts before the railway age for more background, and endeavoring to do things during the trip that would help me learn more, and attempt to “take the cure” myself.
I did actually need a bit of curing, as I had some health issues including vertigo not long before I left. Thankfully these cleared up, but a recurring problem with my hip flared up not long into my trip, and within the first few days I could feel myself coming down with a sore throat. That I admittedly cleared up with 21st century remedies including a sinus rinse, vitamin c, and spicy ramen from Wagamama.
The age-old cure for my maladies, however, would have been to drink mineral water, whether sulfurous, saline, or chalybeate (iron salts). England has natural springs with all of these types of waters, and many of the earliest began as holy wells, their healing properties being attributed to miracles. I had a chance to see two of these during my trip, St. Ann’s Well in Hove (near Brighton) and St. Mary’s Well, in Charlcombe (near Bath). St. Ann’s Well is no longer as it was, and its historic buildings are gone, but gardens are still maintained on the site. St. Mary’s Well, however, is much as it has been for centuries, bubbling away near a charming church.
I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that like many things in English history, spas got tied up in religion, too. England was far from the only place to have natural mineral springs, and there were many established spa towns on the continent, of which Spa was the most well known (and likely where the word itself came from: Spa waters were advertised as being like those in Spa). It was popular to go to the continent and take the waters there, and during England’s turbulent transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, Catholics often flocked to the continent, and it was thought that they were plotting there with Catholics from the continental countries. This began to extend to English spas, which came to be known as gathering places for Jacobites.
As early as the Elizabethan age, there was a Protestant desire to disassociate the spa waters from the idea that they had a divine, miraculous nature, and Protestants begin putting forth a more secular purpose for taking them. Physicians published treatises on the health-giving nature of the waters, bringing science (albeit medical science of the time, which often got more wrong than it did right) into the mix.
I had always had this preconceived notion of British spas as belonging to the Georgians, particularly Bath, as though the Romans had built this great spa city, everybody forgot about it, and then the Georgians came along and revived it. But as the role of religion shows in the development of the spas, that wasn’t actually the case. Elizabeth I’s courtiers often visited Bath and Buxton, and Elizabeth herself visited Bath and had hogsheads of Buxton water sent to her, while Hembry suggests that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 153 indicates he visited there:
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes
In truth there was an evolution of the major spa towns, although some, like Bath and Buxton, began earlier than others, like Tunbridge Wells and Cheltenham, and there were many more spa towns than these major ones. In Derbyshire alone the Darcys might have chosen between Bakewell, Birley, Buxton, Ilkeston, Kedleston, Matlock, Quarndon, Shuttleworth, Stony Middleton, and Whittington.
Often a spa town began as nothing more than a spring with a dipper to serve out the water. Improvements might then be made, such as building walks near the spring (so that people could exercise and discreetly hide behind a tree to relieve themselves of all the water they drank!) and a sheltered pump room so that bad weather needn’t deter drinkers. Other things like baths and a program of entertainments came along later (much more on that in a future post). Some spas thrived, some failed, and some remained simple places patronized by those who lived nearby, and nothing more.
There was also a thriving trade in both bottled water and mineral salts, which was a surprise to me. Again I’d had a preconceived notion of people right on up through the Victorian age avoiding water because it could never be guaranteed that it came from a safe source, but bottled water was shipped as far as the Caribbean. People drank bottled water both from English spas, and those from the continent, and often even in spa towns, the bottled water from other towns was sold. Presumably this allowed people to attempt to double down on their cures, although (perhaps in an attempt to push business at the towns themselves), physicians would often promote that the waters were best taken at the source. I imagine there was always a healthy tension between the bottled water industry and the spa town health tourism trade. Interestingly, some of the names of these products survive today: Spa water was popular, as was water from Seltzer, and Epsom had a thriving mineral salts trade. Twinings, better known for tea, also sold bottled water, Schweppes and Company got its start selling spa water, and Buxton’s bottled water is still sold widely.
Mineral water was often attributed to cures, but did it actually, truly do anything? Perhaps those who were deficient in certain minerals benefited in that aspect, but I think the more likely benefit was to those who shifted more water into their diets, as opposed to beer, wine, and harder spirits. If you’re suffering from gout and drink a higher proportion of water compared to wine, that’s going to do beneficial things for gout. Hembry mentioned a physician, as well, who said the waters cured his scurvy. First, that guy had to have an impressively bad diet even by historical standards to get scurvy on land (scurvy is quite simply a severe vitamin c deficiency, so the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables made it far more common at sea). But presumably a change of location and diet in going to the spa town helped, and drinking the waters couldn’t have hurt.
Hembry’s 1815 to present book details the diet involved in treatment at Buxton. The water at St. Ann’s Well was drank before breakfast, which consisted of bread and butter, treacle and water. More treatments followed, and dinner at 3 p.m. consisted of boiled mutton and fish, with supper at 8 p.m. comprised of bread and butter, milk and biscuits. So actually, maybe scurvy was still a possibility!
There are few places today where you can actually drink the mineral waters in England – I know only of Tunbridge Wells, Buxton, and Bath. But since Bath was on my itinerary, I did have my chance, and I sampled the waters both at the fountain in the Roman Baths, and in the Pump Room.
I had recalled the Pump Room waters to be pretty detestable the last time I had them, but I found them not so bad this time. And those in the fountain in the Roman Baths, which came out of the fountain slightly cooler, were actually pretty drinkable. I can’t say I felt particularly cured after drinking them, though.
I also tried mixing my own. I hadn’t really realized that Epsom salts can still be taken internally. Actually I hadn’t even realized that they aren’t salt (potassium chloride), they’re magnesium sulfate, which is still used to treat a number of ailments. So I got some, and mixed myself up a glass, and it was BITTER. It was a struggle to make it through the whole glass. I tried mixing up another glass with some honey mixed in as a stand-in for treacle, but the bitterness totally overwhelmed the honey. Even holding my nose and drinking it didn’t help, as that wretchedly bitter aftertaste still kicked in. And in the end, I didn’t really feel much benefit from it anyway.
So perhaps drinking the waters wasn’t the cure for me, but what about bathing in them? That will have to wait for my next post!