The spa town of Buxton, considered the ‘cultural capital’ of the Peak District, might well seem familiar to Bathonians, says Imogen Windsor, as she tells the story of this northern spa town and a restoration project that promises to bring about its renaissance.
Located in the heart of beautiful Derbyshire countryside, Buxton boasts Georgian architecture, thermal springs and festivals aplenty. Over the centuries it has dipped in and out of fashion in the same way as Bath, but 2020 is set to be the year Buxton really blooms.
Like Bath, Buxton’s popularity stems originally from the value of its thermal waters. The Romans built only two sacred settlements in Britain around natural thermal springs believed to have healing properties. One of these was Buxton’s Aquae Arnemetiae, or ‘waters of the goddess of the grove’; the other was Bath’s Aquae Sulis, dedicated to the goddess Sulis.
Buxton’s geothermal springs rise from the ground at a constant temperature of 28°C all year round. Bath’s springs arrive at the surface through different processes, resulting in its water rising at around 46°C – making Bath springs technically the only hot springs in the UK. Temperature aside, people throughout history have visited Bath, Buxton and other spa towns to ‘take the waters’ for their health.
Buxton’s abundant spring waters are piped to St Ann’s Well, located in the centre of town, which was once known as a ‘place of many miracles’. Free for all to drink, people queue at the well to fill their empty bottles with this fresh spring water – the same palatable mineral water bottled by Nestlé and sold throughout the UK.
Whereas in Bath, one sip of the warm, mineral-rich water obtained by the glass from the Pump Room is usually enough… as long as you hold your nose.
Buxton is on the cusp of a renaissance, having undergone major restoration work for almost a generation. The town’s focal point is its magnificent Grade I-listed Buxton Crescent, modelled on Bath’s Royal Crescent in the 1780s by William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire. The Duke’s wife, Lady Georgiana Spencer, was a frequent visitor to Bath, which was already a fashionable Georgian destination. Hoping to emulate that, the Duke set about transforming Buxton into an elite northern spa resort to rival Bath.
His architect, John Carr of York, designed Buxton’s opulent Crescent, comprising six private lodging houses and a hotel at either end, which were among the country’s first purpose-built hotels. The Great Hotel incorporated a lavish ballroom and card room, known as the Assembly Rooms, which in high season would host up to two balls every week.
By the mid-19th century, the two popular hotels had expanded to fill the whole crescent. In the 1850s the Natural Mineral Baths were added, along with the Grade II-listed Pump Room opposite, and towards the end of the 19th century Buxton was at its peak.
When the town’s popularity began to wane in the early 20th century, The Crescent Hotel closed and its building became an annex of the Devonshire Royal Hospital. Bought by Derbyshire County Council in the 1970s, this section of the crescent was used as offices and a library. But the buildings fell into disrepair, and in 1989 St Ann’s Hotel at the west side also closed, leaving this historic crescent completely empty from 1992.
Now, together with the adjoining Natural Baths and the Pump Room, Buxton Crescent has undergone a major transformation. Devising a viable commercial use for these important historic buildings presented challenges initially, but in 2003 the Buxton Crescent and Spa Project was born. Funded through both public and private investment, the project is due to complete this spring, and the crescent will finally re-open as a five-star luxury spa hotel and heritage centre.
The Trevor Osborne Group took on the development of the historic site, which involved considerable conservation work as well as commercial enterprise, resulting in significant delays. Undertaking major works close to the main thermal spring was difficult enough, but an unexpected 23 springs were found that also needed to be protected. Plus much of the grand old crescent was plagued with rotten timbers that required steel reinforcement. The final cost of the project doubled to over £50 million – £23.8 million of which came from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
This scenario will seem familiar in Bath, where the Thermae Bath Spa project was notoriously subject to delays and increased costs. The spa finally opened to the public in 2006, four years later than planned, with costs rising from an estimated £13 million to an eye-watering £45 million.
Yet a survey conducted in 2014 estimated that Bath’s modern-day spa attracts an additional 260,000 visitors to the city each year. This generates an extra £15 million towards the city’s economy, which speaks volumes about the appeal of this kind of wellness tourism.
Buxton is a small town with big aspirations. Its historic buildings have been sympathetically restored and given a new lease of life, but the new spa complex also needs to maximise its assets in order to be commercially sustainable. Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust is a charitable organisation responsible for the protection of Buxton’s buildings. Its patron, the current Duke of Devonshire is, like his ancestors, enthusiastic about Buxton and its future tourism potential.
Buxton’s supportive local residents patiently endured their noble crescent covered in plastic sheeting for years, but the town and its wider community stand to gain from this renaissance as well. The gloriously restored Pump Room is now a free-to-enter public space, and the crescent’s new Visitor Experience offers a chance to learn about the town’s history and regeneration. The stunning Assembly Rooms will operate as a commercial wedding venue, but will also open for 60 days every year for community, cultural and historic events.
“It’s not just a hotel, as in Bath’s Royal Crescent Hotel”, says Liz Mackenzie, the trust’s development and events manager. “It’s very much a space for the community, visitors and tourists to experience – you don’t just have to be a five-star hotel guest.”
“We’re very interested in our relationship with other spa towns – artistically, culturally, and in terms of tourism. We always considered ourselves the northern ‘poor relation’…because of the crescent being unrestored, but I think now there’s a new confidence in Buxton, and people are increasingly looking to Bath as our ‘sister’ spa town.”
After all these years, Buxton will finally be able to offer a slice of luxury, with a sprinkling of its former Georgian glamour. For this reinvigorated health capital of the north, 2020 is looking like a good year.