Did you know that Cheltenham was once considered the best ‘spa’ town in the country and that it only really exists because of the discovery and enjoyment of its spa waters?
You would be forgiven for not knowing this as there are hardly any remains (and therefore reminder!) of the 26-plus wells that operated in the town during Regency times. The only place left to ‘take the waters’ is Pittville Pump Rooms.
Places like Bath and Malvern still capitalise on their spa heritage. So, why don’t we? Bath must be doing something right (I guess they also have the Romans to thank!) as millions of tourists visit the city to enjoy the famous spa along with other attractions such as the Jane Austin museum.
But did you also know that Jane Austin visited Cheltenham in 1816? Unfortunately, she didn’t write about it much, unlike Bath. Other famous visitors aiming to benefit from the ‘healing’ saline waters included Charles Dickens and King George III in 1788. This royal visit endorsed the main well and it became the ‘Royal Well’ putting Cheltenham firmly on the spa town map and a boom followed.
How did it all start? The original spring was discovered in the early 1700s as some healthy looking pigeons gathered around it. But it wasn’t until it came into the hands of Captain Henry Skillicorne that its benefits were enjoyed by the masses. He made it into a proper well, built a cover over it and landscaped with trees to make an ‘Upper Walk’ and ‘Lower Walk’ leading from St Mary’s Cheltenham Minster in the centre of town to the well. (Later becoming the Royal Well)
Spas to dispense the famous mineral waters ‘sprung up’ all over Cheltenham. The waters were so accessible that anyone with some money and land could build a well. The original ‘Royal Well’ is now sadly located underneath the Cheltenham Ladies College and others across the town have been built over. There was a spa on the site of the Queens Hotel – the Sherborne or Imperial Spa (which confusingly moved from that site to another behind the Neptune Fountain.)
There were also spa waters in the Montpellier Rotunda building – now The Ivy, Cambray Spa – now a car park, The Park Spa and Pittville Pump Room. One of oldest remaining spa buildings is Vittoria House in Vittoria Walk – now being restored to a family home. There was even a proper ‘Bath House’ which is now the Cheltenham Playhouse.
Why I am so fascinated now? I watched Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Historic Towns’ which featured Cheltenham and its Regency history. I discovered that the neglected looking St Mary’s Minster in the centre of town is one of our oldest buildings and from here led the ‘Well Walk’ to the Royal Well.
It got me thinking…why didn’t I know any of this before? Why aren’t we celebrating this tourist-worthy past? Why haven’t we even got a present day ‘spa’ in the town, or any tourist attraction in fact, to capitalise on this rich history? Why is there nothing left of the Well Walk or at least a plaque to commemorate it or on hardly any other former ‘spa’ buildings. I think we’re missing a trick Cheltenham!
If you google ‘History Walks Cheltenham’ you won’t really find any (do the same for Bath and you get a very long list!) Last night, my husband and I decided to go on a history walk of our own along with our copy of ‘Cheltenham’s Lost Heritage by Oliver C. Bradbury. (Anyone interested in starting up a history walk of Cheltenham…? I think there’s a gap in the market!)
First, we went to find the ‘Imperial Fountain’ – an Italian marble fountain which used to adorn a ‘grotto-like’ pavilion at the end of the Broad Walk. It’s now sitting behind a fence for all to see in the end building of the recently built Broad walk on the south side on Imperial Square. I had no idea it was there before!
We next went looking for any trace of the ‘Well Walk’, supposedly in the vicinity of Montpellier Walk. But we found the suspiciously straight ‘well walk looking’ Royal Parade Mews. It’s a back alley which you enter under an impressive arch (again, hadn’t noticed it before!) Next to a curry house called The Ballroom. Was this the Well Walk? Maybe nearby? Apparently, there is even an underground tunnel near here…It’s fascinating!
Looking in our history book, we were keen to find the site of the old Bayshill House where George III stayed when he came to visit. The original house was pulled down and now Sidney Lodge, owned by Cheltenham Ladies College, is on the site. It has a small plaque put there by Cheltenham Civic Society. Hardly noticeable and probably private property!
Another fascinating remnant of our regency history is the former service entrance: ‘Lads Lane’ – now Landsdown Terrace Lane. This is topped and tailed by two impressive arches and stretches all the way up behind Parabola Road.
It’s all left me wanting to know more and with a little bit of research, I’ve realised that there are lots of questions left unanswered. In fact, I probably know more now than the average Cheltonian, so if anyone wants a tour guide….?