Every year on average 1.3 million people visit Buxton and most visitors want to know about the history of the town. Buxton is described as ‘England’s leading Spa town’ yet all that remains of this heritage are the façades of the old spa buildings. As we have mentioned in previous posts, Collections in the Landscape is about taking the museum’s collections back to the locations where they were made, bought or used and we really want to make sure that Buxton’s history, and the town’s relationship with water, is part of this. For our trial we are creating a Buxton Walking Tour app that will guide users through the different periods of Buxton’s rich and colourful history, here is a taster of what we are going to include.
The Romans were the first to harness the natural springs of Buxton, or as it was known then Aqua Arnemetiae. Buxton was the second most important spa town in the country, after Bath (Aquae Sulis). Sadly there is almost no surviving evidence of Roman buildings in the town but in 1978 the Buxton coin hoard was discovered on the site of the Natural Mineral Baths (used to be the Tourist Information Centre – now in the Pavilion Gardens). Most of the coins are Roman and dating from 41-400 A.D., although there are a few later coins too. The Buxton coin hoard is on permanent display in the Wonders of the Peak and a few Roman coins from our collection can also be seen at Manchester Museum.
The spa history of Buxton then advances to the 1500s, when the first developments of Buxton as we know it began. The Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, built The Hall (now The Old Hall) in 1550, which would later be used by Mary Queen of Scots when she was in custody at Chatsworth in the 1570s. This saw the beginning of the business boom in Buxton and in 1577 there were two inns and eight ale houses in the town – there were only 18 inns in the whole of Derbyshire! Shrewsbury’s Hall replaced an earlier structure on the site, suggesting that Buxton was popular for its water before then. Very little survives from Buxton in the Medieval period so early prints and written records are the best evidence for the town during this time. The 1610 map of Derbyshire (above) clearly shows The Hall with St. Anne’s well and the cold spring next to it.
The 18th century was a period of massive expansion for the town. The 5th Duke of Devonshire wanted Buxton to challenge its old rival Bath and set about creating an architectural centrepiece. The Crescent was completed in the 1780s. The Crescent contained hotels and a glamorous assembly room, and on the ground floor it housed boutiques selling souvenirs. The 6th Duke maintained the tradition and re-built the Natural Mineral Baths and the Thermal Baths. In the late 19th century the Pump Room (house) was re-built too. By this point Spa tourism was a significant income for the town and Broadwalk (by Pavilion Gardens) was lined with hotels. However the popularity was not to last and the 20th century saw the demise of spa towns. The Thermal Baths, the last of the baths offering public treatments, closed in the 1960s.
Although not currently a spa destination Buxton is still a popular place to visit because of its beautiful architecture and breath-taking scenery. The town remains in popular culture; the Opera House and the Buxton Fringe are a must on the comedy circuit, and the town is frequently mentioned as a good place to elope to/visit in the TV comedy Fresh Meat. It is hoped that the re-development of the Crescent back into a spa hotel should once more cement Buxton as a spa destination, but we shall have to wait and see. In the meantime why not follow the Collections in the Landscape blog for more information on the spa history and invites to join us in our app testing, which will take place in March.