Civic Society column by David Winpenny
In 1869 the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti sent a drawing to his friend Jane Morris. It shows her in a bath in the German spa town of Bad Ems, where she is taking the cure.
Not only is she bathing in the therapeutic waters, but she’s also drinking it – seven glasses a day, we assume, as they’re all lined up beside the bath, and she’s already on number two. She looks miserable – but that’s probably because her husband, the designer and writer William Morris, is reading his long (and rather dull) poem ‘The Earthly Paradise’ to her.
Taking the waters – using mineral-laden water from supposedly health-giving springs – was already big business in the mid-19th century, not only in Germany but throughout Europe. We can trace its origins a long way back – at least to the ancient Greeks, who found it beneficial to bathe in the warm waters of healing springs.
The Romans took over the idea, and many of their settlements were founded around such outflows of water.
In Britain, the city of Bath – known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis – takes its name from the still-visible Roman baths there. It’s quite probable that the spring was already sacred for its supposedly magic properties, for Sulis was the name of a local deity, absorbed by the Romans into their pantheon. Another Roman settlement, Buxton (Aquae Arnemetiae) was probably also famous before the Romans arrived.
In the Middle Ages it was believed that bathing spread, rather than cured, disease, so it was discouraged. But people still wanted the efficacious waters, so they resorted to springs and wells in the countryside, there either immersing themselves in the water or drinking it.
Such wells were usually associated with saints. St Winifred’s Well in Flintshire was one of the best known; a pilgrimage site since the 7th Century and mentioned in the poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, it still attracts visitors and bathers today.
Nearer to Ripon, there was a famous well at Copgrove, known as St Mungo’s Well.
It, too, was probably known to the Romans, and in the Middle Ages it was known as place to cure rickets – afflicted patients were immersed through a circular opening into its waters.
Like many such wells, its powers were discredited at the Reformation, though local people continued to use its waters – as they used St Wilfrid’s Well in Ripon, which still drips its water into a basin at the foot of the Spa Gardens.
By the 16th Century spa water came into the armoury of the medical profession. Doctors at Karlsbad in Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic) recommended not only bathing in the waters from is multiple springs but also drinking them.
They built a pump room for visitors, and even developed special spouted cups to make it easier to drink. In Belgium, the town of Spa (the Romans knew it as Aquae Spadanae) was also famous for its waters, so when the Tewit Well spring at Harrogate was discovered in 1571 and found to have similar properties to those of the Belgian waters, it was inevitable that Harrogate became known as the ‘English Spa’ (or sometimes ‘Spaw’), and that ‘spa’ became the generic name for such establishments.
The people of Starbeck have always disputed Harrogate’s claim to priority, arguing that their well was famous before Tewit Well, but the wellhead at Starbeck dates only to the 1820s, when physicians often recommended its waters ‘in many cases in which the stronger sulphur water of Harrogate has decidedly disagreed’.
Taking the waters by polite society usually required buildings – pump rooms. There was one built in Bath at the beginning of the 18th century. It has been replaced several times; the current Pump Room in Abbey Church Yard dates from the 1790s.
It now houses a restaurant, but in the 20th Century it was often a concert venue, leading an unfortunate BBC announcer to introduce a performance from ‘The Bathroom at Pump’.
Cheltenham had three pump rooms; the one at Montpellier, an impressive rotunda, is now a branch of Lloyd’s Bank, but Pittville Pump Room, dating from the 1830s, is still used for public gatherings (though not for taking waters).
There were also pump rooms at Tunbridge Wells, Buxton, Matlock, Droitwich, Leamington and Malvern, among others; at Tenbury Wells there is a charming mid-19th Century pump room and brine bath of brick, metal and wood, with a pagoda-like spire clad in scalloped metal sheeting.
Harrogate’s octagonal Royal Pump Room dates from 1842. In 1898 it was recorded that during August that year 31,546 glasses of water were served in it, and in 1901 one August morning saw 1800 visitors taking the waters there in the space of just two hours.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Ripon wanted a piece of the market. It was known that the nearest good spa waters were at Aldfield – the remains of the buildings associated with taking the waters there in the mid-19th Century are still visible – so it was decided to pump the waters from there to Ripon.
And with spa waters came the need for a pump room. Ripon’s Pump Room – what is now the front range of the Spa Baths – was opened in 1904, with an official opening by HRH Princess Henry of Battenberg on 24 October 1905.
The Ripon Pump Room is still there – behind the clutter of its current use we can spot the fine tilework and the basin where the spa waters were drawn for drinking.
Even in the wings, where treatments of various sorts were carried out, it’s possible to glimpse, behind the modern, utilitarian wall-coverings, the fine Art Nouveau tiles that were the building’s pride in the Edwardian period.
Now, it seems, swimmers are to be given a new pool in Ripon. That provides the city with a great opportunity – to re-establish the Ripon Pump Room as a place of pride for the city, as it was intended to be, and to restore it to some useful public function.
Harrogate Borough Council has a duty to the city to care for and enhance this important building for Ripon.