England’s fascinating spa heritage stretches back well over 2,000 years, and a number of legendary figures have perpetuated the reputation of the spa over the centuries, including Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Jane Austen.
Archaeological evidence suggests that there was human activity around the hot springs on which the city of Bath is built at least 8,000 years B.C. According to legend, Prince Bladud was cured of leprosy after bathing in the hot muddy waters there, and to express his gratitude he founded the City of Bath around the springs in 863BC.
However, it was the Romans who first brought the widespread tradition of spa bathing to England, with the development of the Aquae Sulis resort, also in the city of Bath. The spring water bathing complex housed a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess, Sulis Minerva.
When the Roman Empire collapsed in 400 AD, the Aquae Sulis bathing complex fell into disrepair, and it wasn’t until 1088 that the baths were rebuilt, thanks to John Villula, the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
In 1138, a medieval text entitled Gesta Stephani recorded that “from all over England sick people come to wash away their infirmities in the healing waters” at the Bath bathing complex.
It was during the 1300s that natural springs began to be called ‘spas’. The name is derived from the town of Spa in Belgium where, in 1326, Collin le Loup, an ironmaster from Liège, Belgium, discovered the outstanding natural Chalybeate springs – mineral spring waters containing salts of iron.
Outside of the city of Bath, ‘taking to the waters’ in the form of public bathing was viewed as sinful by medieval church officials, government and royal officials. Tudor King, Henry VIII, banned the practice altogether, possibly because he suspected Catholic dissidents communing together at the spa baths.
However, Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, helped to revive spa practises in Britain. After her visit to Bath in 1574, public spa bathing became the new fashion among high society figures. In 1590, Elizabeth I granted a Charter incorporating Bath as a city, declaring that “the thermal waters should be accessible to the public in perpetuity”.
Another Roman spa in the northern town of Buxton – Aqua Arnemetiae – was regenerated around this time, and Elizabeth I often requested Buxton waters to soothe her tired legs. Mary Queen of Scots also bathed in Buxton’s waters, believing that it would cure her severe rheumatism. Today, many trainee spa therapists attend the University of Buxton to study in the grade two listed Devonshire Spa.
Spa resorts continued to thrive throughout the period of the Stuarts, and around 48 spas were founded in England between 1660 and 1815. Queen Anne visited Bath regularly to take the waters, seeking a cure for her gout and dropsy. Spa resorts were one of the few places where social customs were relaxed, and so commoners would bathe alongside lords and ladies in the hot springs in the pursuit of better health.
Aristocratic figures would often make the 50-mile trip from London to the Tunbridge Wells Chalybeate Spring, which was known as the ‘courtiers’ spa. It was also rumoured that Queen Mary Henrietta was cured of her infertility there in 1629.
In 1833, King George III famously turned his back on the spa capital of Bath in favour of the little-known Cheltenham Spa in Gloucestershire. This royal endorsement changed the town’s fortunes and it became a “must-visit” attraction for many notable Georgian and Victorian figures – including Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and Liszt.
“One would think the English were ducks, they are forever waddling to the waters.”
Horace Walpole (1717 -1797)
The popularity of the spa peaked during the Victorian era. Many Victorian physicians believed that rich mineral spring water was a cure for any disease, and so a “spa water cure” craze swept across Britain. The introduction of the railway system at the turn of the nineteenth century meant that many people were now able to travel further afield, and England’s spa towns reaped the benefits.
In 1842 two hydropathic doctors created the Malvern Water Cure, a hydrotherapy treatment designed to stimulate lymphatic drainage. It was hailed as a huge success – Queen Victoria began demanding bottled Malvern Water during her royal tours, while Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson all waxed lyrical about the Water Cure treatment.
During the 1900s, Bath spa water was bottled and sold as Sulis Water, promising relief from rheumatism, gout, lumbago, sciatica and neuritis.
After the First World War, thousands of wounded soldiers were rehabilitated in spa towns such as Bath, with the popular belief that its waters would aid and speed up their recovery.
When the National Health Service was founded in 1948, the health authorities of Bath began providing water-cure treatments on prescription. However, the Hot Bath closed in 1976 when the Royal Mineral Water Hospital stopped using the facility, due to a new pool being built in the hospital.
Sadly, England’s spa industry stagnated during the latter half of the 20th century, as spa visitors declined significantly. With the rapid advancement of medical science, the spa’s medicinal benefits were questioned and spa therapy was excluded from the National Health Service. Some spa resorts were damaged during the second world war, or were abandoned and became derelict. By the 1950s, the once-treasured spas of Buxton, Cheltenham, Tunbridge Wells and Malvern had closed their doors to the public.
The Spa Revival
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the spa has once again become a popular indulgence in the UK. The concept of the spa has been transformed, with the modern popularity of “wellness” exercising a huge influence on the way we spa. The spa is now believed to be an essential element of holistic wellbeing, with soothing benefits for the mind, body and spirit. Consequently, the term “spa” has broadened in definition to include other therapeutic services such as hydrotherapy, massage, saunas, steam treatments, jacuzzis, mud baths, aromatherapy treatments, and manicures.
The Good Spa Guide now lists over 900 spas across the UK. Most of these are more intimate day spas, but many of the original 25 English spa towns have also reopened their public spa facilities in recent times, making it possible once again to embrace our rich spa heritage.
In 2008, the town of Malvern opened a popular hydrotherapy pool which is filled with spring water sourced from the last remaining boreholes in the town.
The Roman Baths and Pump Room has become one of the UK’s leading tourist attractions and this helped to establish demand for the 2006 reopening of the spa facilities, which is now called Thermae Bath Spa. Today, health-seekers from all over the UK and far beyond continue to make the pilgrimage to the bathing capital, both to experience the reconstructed spa facilities, as well as to admire the beautiful Roman architecture of the city itself.
In 2017, the Warwickshire town of Royal Leamington Spa was ranked the happiest place to live in Britain, in a survey which saw several spa towns make the list. A coincidence? Perhaps. Or perhaps there really is “something in the water”.