Could St Ives have been the Cheltenham Spa of the east? Sounds far fetched? Not at all; read on to see why!

Head out of St Ives along the B1040 towards Somersham. After about three miles you’ll find yourself going up a rise called Bathe Hill. This is the location of St Ives’ own local health spring, in use before 1700.


At that time Cheltenham Spa and St Ives were similar, both little more than a village. The former’s spring was discovered in 1716. It was the King's visit in 1788 that generated a massive expansion of Cheltenham as a spa resort.

What might St Ives have become if the King had paid a visit? Not as unlikely as you may think; the King’s surgeons were patrons. Many gentry lodged in St Ives to take the waters. Might a demand for elegant accommodation have resulted in our elegant early Georgian buildings? No less an authority than Herbert Norris considered this a possibility.

Like Cheltenham, St Ives’ is a chalybeate spring, iron rich with a telltale rust colour. There are less than thirty known in England.

At first the spring was known only locally. Interest heightened in the early 1700s. Leading gentry and clergy of the district and beyond subscribed to develop the facilities. A bowling green and accommodation followed construction of a pump room in 1720.

Bottled Somersham Water, as it became known, was drunk medicinally, and for pleasure mixed with wine. Unfortunately consumers with a tendency to ‘stone or gravel’ (i.e. kidney stones) died. Experts suggested Somersham Water as the cause of death rather than a contributing factor. The spring went out of favour; the buildings fell into decay.

There was a later description of the effects of taking the water. These included giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black. Even so, physicians in Cambridge continued to prescribe it to some patients.


The spring was ‘rediscovered’ by Dr Daniel Peter Layard, physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales, in 1750. It became popular again. From 1751 to 1767 tests conducted tried to discover why spring water affected some consumers.

Renewed interest resulted in another building phase. A respectable list of subscribers contributed, including various physicians to the King and Queen. A bath house, accommodation and a bowling green were erected.

A management committee was set up in 1758, a set of rules documented. The committee, consisting of thirteen subscribers, met in St Ives. The spa opened from 5.00 a.m. to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else.

Anyone in receipt of a certificate confirming they were ‘a proper object of charity’ had free access. Subscribers paid five shillings per season, non-subscribers seven shillings and six pence per season. That’s over £2,000 in today’s money. Wine, spirits and beverages were sold, and entertaining allowed within reason.

It’s uncertain how long the second phase of the spa continued. There was little news of it by 1840.

In 1767 Dr Layard published an account, including a list of patrons, rules and guidance on use and experiments. Additionally he wrote a letter giving more details of experiments performed. To access these, click any of the images below.



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