Courtesy of The Raithwaite Estate Spa, N Yorks

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The UK spa industry needs some good cheer just now as it begins the slow journey out of lockdown. Perhaps this can come from looking to the past rather than the future and reflecting that it was this country that led the way in developing the whole modern concept of the spa. It is an achievement that should provide pride and encouragement as we prepare for the challenges ahead.

Spas have been a central feature of European culture since classical times when the ancient Greeks and Romans discovered the benefits and pleasures of bathing in thermal mineral waters. It was only in the eighteenth century, however, that Europe’s spas came into their own as elegant resorts for a clientele drawn initially by the health benefits of taking the waters but increasingly also by the diversions offered and the chance to mix with the well-to-do. Spas became the pre-eminent places in which to be seen and to socialise. They developed a distinctarchitectural landscape in which the bath house was joined by a pump room, for taking the waters and promenading, and assembly rooms, for socialising, gambling, dancing and concerts. These buildings were situated in attractive parks, adding to the atmosphere of elegance and relaxation. A complex set of rules and strict etiquette governed the social life of spas during the ‘season’, which usually extended from May to September, when ‘the Company’, as the patrons were known, forsook the noise and the stench of cities for the clean air and healing waters of these semi-rural oases. 

The English were in the van of these developments, taking to the waters more enthusiastically and in greater numbers than their Continental neighbours. Bath established itself in the first half of the eighteenth century as the most elegant and popular European spa, with Richard ‘Beau’ Nash establishing the complex etiquette which governed the social and recreational life of the Company. It became the model for Continental spas, notably Spa in Belgium, Baden bei Wien in Austria and Baden bei Zurich in Switzerland, which developed in a similar way in the latter half of the century. They followed Bath’s lead in establishing a daily regime for guests which began with the serious business of drinking and bathing in the waters, continued with morning and afternoon promenades and social gatherings to exchange gossip, and concluded with balls, gambling, concerts and theatrical performances in the evening.  

The growing popularity of spas was a direct consequence of the emergence of what we would now call health tourism. The Enlightenment brought a new emphasis across Europe on environment and on the benefits of travel for healing the body as well as cultivating the mind. The English were in the van of this movement and it was the English spas of Harrogate, Buxton, Tunbridge Wells and Cheltenham as well as Bath that picked up the benefit, becoming the first resorts to which people travelled as much for a change of scene as for other purposes. 

Underlying this spa craze was a widespread preoccupation with ill health. Illness came to be regarded as a state of mind as much as a process of nature. Hypochondria was a recognized medical condition until well on in the eighteenth century, being seen as an ailment caused by imbalances in the stomach and digestive system. It came to be widely considered as nervous in origin and closely related to gout, that classic disease of affluence and over-indulgence. Bath established itself as Britain’s premiere spa on the basis of its claim to be able to diagnose and treat these conditions and its appeal to the gout-ridden hypochondriacs familiar from the novels and poems of the period.

In my new book, Health, Hedonism and Hypochondria: The Hidden History of Spas, I probe behind the glittering facades of Europe’s spas to discover a shadow world of terrifying treatments, shameless self-indulgence and amorous affairs. While the British gave up inland watering places to take to the seaside, Continental spas developed as sybaritic sanctuaries of relaxation and resorts of royalty and aristocracy as well as refuges for those seeking escape and excitement. It is time we Brits took the lead again to pioneer a new approach for the twenty first century wellness industry.

Ian Bradley’s Health, Hedonism and Hypochondria: The Hidden History of Spas is published by Bloomsbury on 20 August at £20 



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Sunday, 25 October 2020