Somersham Water

Somersham Water
Could St Ives have been the Cheltenham Spa of the east?  Sounds unlikely? Head out of town along the B1040 towards Somersham. After 3 miles you'll find yourself going up a rise called Bathe Hill. This is the location of our own local health spring, in use before 1700. Read on to learn more.

Somersham Water, Bathe Hill, St Ives

Missed opportunity
At that time Cheltenham and St Ives were similar, both little more than villages. The former's spring was discovered in 1716. It was the visit of King George III 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 of our local spa. Many gentry lodged in St Ives to take the waters. Might a demand for 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.

Initial development
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.

Named Somersham Water because the surrounding land was Somersham Heath, it was bottled and 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 and 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.

Somersham Water, Bathe Hill, St Ives

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 between 5.00am 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 sixpence per season. That is 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, with a list of patrons. Included were rules and guidance on the use of Somersham Water, and results of experiments carried out. Additionally, he wrote a letter giving details of experiments performed. To access these, click any of the images below.

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