The Growth of Spa Towns

I used to live in Harrogate, where you could often smell the sulphur, which is not, I have to say, the most pleasant of scents. When my brother lived in Bristol, I regularly visited nearby Bath. (My favourite UK city) Famous for the history of its spa, playing a large part of its popularity as a tourist centre. There is something very quaint and English about spa-towns.

Britain has a rich, long history of spas. With many legendary past followers: Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, spas are as much a part of our culture as saunas are to the Scandinavians. Many towns owe their growth and prosperity to the fact they became spa- towns. (This is a resort town based on a mineral hot spring with supposed health benefits) Bath, the most famous of Britain’s spa towns, was used for health purposes as far back as Roman times. However, Elizabeth I, was instrumental in reviving spas after visiting Bath in 1574, she declared that the public must always have access to the springs. Her royal seal of approval set the trend amongst the respectable classes. The heyday of spa- towns was during the Georgian and Regency periods. Spa resorts of the 18th Century needed to meet the eccentricities and glamour of their visitors. The Georgian love of sumptuous living and bawdy houses, did make the boundaries between a health resort and a place of assignations a little blurred.

In the 18th and 19th centuries spa -towns were expanding rapidly. Thatched cottages disappeared to be replaced by elegant, classical styled, sash-windowed residences. During this time many places went from been tiny villages to the very forefront of high fashion. The chic places to be seen in the season, a place where visitors could bathe, drink the famous waters, gamble, eat, drink, dance, do business and broker marriages. Assembly Rooms were for political intrigue and hearing the latest gossip as much as dancing. Spas were part of the conspicuous leisure consumption that coincided with the rising bourgeois classes having a life of leisure because of their new-found wealth. The social mix encompassed all sorts of characters: aristocrats, merchants, bluestockings, respectable matrons, servants and chancers.

In Mansford’s specialised guide for invalids. He warns that standing around in the cold, wearing inadequately fashionable clothing, is not good for the ‘languid circulation of the semi-animate valetudinarian‘. Spas rose in perceived value the more articles that had been writing by leading Physicists.

The well- known spa towns include: Buxton, Tunbridge Wells, Cheltenham, Harrogate, Bath and Leamington Spa. Many of these still retain echoes of their past grandeur.


The Fifth Duke of Devonshire wanted to establish a fashionable Georgian spa- town in Buxton, so he enlisted John Carr, a leading architect, to build Buxton Crescent. Built in 1780, it rivalled the Royal Crescent in Bath. The forerunner of today’s hotels, comprising not just of rooms but shops, restaurants and Assembly Rooms. Buxton spring water is still bottled locally and today is as ever popular.

Malvern- Worcestershire

Many Victorian physicians strongly believed that through rich mineral spring water, Mother Nature had created a cure for any disease. The town of Malvern seized upon the trend, and in 1842 two hydropathic doctors created the Malvern Water Cure, a dedicated hydrotherapy treatment to stimulate lymphatic drainage. The cure was a huge success. Queen Victoria demanded bottled Malvern Water during her royal tours.

The scientist and naturalist Charles Darwin visited the Malvern’s springs in in 1849 when feeling under the weather. After four months of cold scrubbing and other treatments, the scientist concluded, “I consider the sickness as absolutely cured. The Water Cure is assuredly a grand discovery.”

The local waters, filtered through the pre-Cambrian granite of the ‘Alps of England’ became famed for their low mineral content and great purity. Today they are bottled at Holywell, though many a walker is delighted to find the waters flow freely in springs around the hillsides.

Leamington Spa

Before the 1800’s the town of Leamington Spa was just a rural village, but the rediscovery of its saline springs in 1784 led to the building of the Royal Pump Rooms, baths and assembly rooms. The spring waters were claimed to cure and relieve stiffness of tendons and rigidity of the joints.

(Royal) Tunbridge Wells

The spring at Tunbridge Wells was discovered by accident by a young nobleman, Dudley Lord North in 1606. After travelling back to London with a raging hangover, he tasted the water at the nearby Abergavenny Estate and felt miraculously recovered. By the 18th century the fame of the water had spread and the town rivalled Bath as the place to see and be seen. The Stuart English Court often made the 50-mile trip from London to Tunbridge Wells, fondly known as the courtier’s spa. In the pursuit of health, one could now find both a commoner and a lord bathing in the same hot springs together. Its Charlybeate Spring (derived from the Latin word for steel) contains a particularly high iron content. The town still retains much of its original charm and elegance. You can visit the well in a building called The Pantiles, a Georgian colonnade, and sample the iron-rich waters of the Charlybeate Spring for yourself.

Cheltenham- Gloucestershire

 In 1833, King George III famously shunned the spa capital of Bath in favour of the little-known Cheltenham. This royal endorsement changed the town’s fortunes forever and soon, people of great fortune and nobility were rushing to sip at the new spa. Business in Cheltenham boomed. Rival wells and spas, accommodation and leisure facilities were opened. The town’s spas often held gala fetes and firework displays and its tree-lined walks were perfect for well-to-do visitors to promenade. Assembly rooms, theatres and racecourses were also on hand to keep the respectable classes entertained. Notable celebrities continued to sample the waters well into the 19th century.

Harrogate- North Yorkshire

Harrogate’s Turkish Baths are an illustration of the Victorian love of the Oriental; Moorish arches, elaborately patterned glazed tiles and a series of exotic steam rooms and plunge pools. The iron, sulphur and salt-rich waters in Harrogate were discovered in 1571, and in the 1700s the town became increasingly famous. A theatre and a pump room were built to provide entertainment for the well-heeled visitors, who numbered in their rank’s royalty from across Europe. Although the original building is still standing, it houses a pub and restaurant as well an award-winning spa, that you can still visit today.


Although it was the Romans who initially discovered Bath’s natural springs, naming it Aquae Sulis and developing it as a sanctuary of rest and relaxation, it was during the Georgian era that it reached its prominence. Princess (later Queen) Anne visited Bath in 1688-1703 to take the waters and soon it was marketed as the premier resort of frivolity and fashion. Jane Austen featured the spa town of Bath in two of her novels. Although taking the waters for your health was popular during the Georgian period It was often an excuse for high society to mingle and show off the latest fashions and attend the theatre and parties. The famous Georgian dandy Beau Nash became Master of Ceremonies in Bath. It is pre-eminent in historical heritage as a Unesco world heritage site which is still open to the public.

In the 20th Century from being the centre of social and fashionable society, the spa industry stagnated. With competition from overseas resorts and the impact of the economic depression in the 1930s, spa visitors dramatically declined. The medicinal benefits of spas were questioned and spa therapies became excluded from the National Health Service. By the 1950s, leading spas like: Buxton, Cheltenham, Tunbridge Wells and Malvern closed their doors to the public.

Today, we can see the popularity of wellness having a huge influence on the way we now view spas. They are not just an indulgence, but an essential element of holistic wellbeing, soothing the mind, body and spirit.

I couldn’t agree more!