Did you know the word spa originates from Spa, a Belgian town? Us neither! We are based in Cheltenham, a historic spa town in Gloucestershire, situated at the edge of the Cotswolds and inspired by National Spa Week, we decided to delve into the history of spa towns.
The Belgian town Spa has been famous since the 17th century for the healing properties of its mineral waters and lends its name to all healing mineral springs. Frequented by royalty, including English monarchs who helped popularise spas in Britain, Spa has been renowned since Roman times for its medicinal waters after Pliny mentions it in his travels but it was in the 17th century that it became popular with the masses. The use of spas can be traced back to the Persians in 600BC but it was the Romans who really developed the concept of a spa, utilising thermal springs and creating bathhouses. The most famous in the UK is, of course, the Roman Baths in Bath.
Cheltenham became recognised as a spa town in the 18th century. The spa waters were discovered in 1716 by a local farmer who noticed a flock of pigeons by a spring in his meadow. The original site for this is now under Cheltenham Ladies' College. The town grew in popularity with several more spa sites opening from springs and by 1788, when King George III visited for a month, it had reached the dizzying heights of spa fame akin to nearby Bath. Indeed, the spa that he frequented was re-named the Royal Well.
The prevalence of wars on the continent made travelling abroad inadvisable and so the wealthy and the upper classes sought entertainment closer to home. Spa towns "became places to dance, gamble, flirt, drink, make an advantageous match, conduct business, attend concerts or plays, shop, stroll, make a spectacle of oneself." They became places to socialise, see and be seen. They became the backdrop to Austen's novels and the playground of the wealthy.
Sadly, during the 19th-century spas in Britain fell out of fashion as travel abroad become increasingly popular and many closed, changed usage or were demolished.
Looking to experience spa life? You can still sample the waters at Pitville Pump Room in Cheltenham free of charge (pictured above). The Pitville Pump Room was built in 1830 by the architect John Forbes in the new development envisaged by Joseph Pitt. Visit a spa town near you, take the waters and experience a taste of the past. Harrogate, Bath and Buxton all still have beautiful pump rooms that you can enjoy.
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