Polyolbion
Derbyshire



Buxton

Buxton

Michael Drayton wrote of Buxton:


        “Yet for her caves and holes. Peake onely not excells,
        But that I can again produce those wondrous wells
        Of Buckston, as I have, that most delicious fount,
        Which when the second bath of England doe account
        Which in the primer raignes, when first this well began,
        To have her vertues knowne unto the blest Saint Anne,
        Was consecrated then, which the same temper hath,
        As the most daintie spring, which at the famous bath,
        Is by the crosse enstild, whose fame I much preferre
        In that I do compare my daintiest spring to her
        Nice sickness to cure, as also to prevent,
        And supple thier cleare skinnes, which ladies oft frequent;
        Most full, most fair, most sweet and most delicious sourse.

                                    
Perhaps the time has come for a new Poly-Olbion,
at least in part,
but how to start?
Buxton is not a second Bath.
It doesn’t have the Romans for a start.
It had them and they left it with a name “Aquae Arnemetiae”
but that’s about all.
It’s small,
it does have a crescent,
a structure that is toy like compared to its wealthier Royal predecessor
in Bath,
the scale is intimate rather than monumental
and it is closed
anyway.
The Crescent has 378 windows
most of them overlooking the late Victorian pump room,
also closed.
In fact the whole area of the natural springs
which should be the bubbling heart
of the town
is curiously.... closed.


Unlike Bath’s Royal Crescent which opened onto farmland
and overlooks the valley of the river Avon,
Buxton’s Crescent fronts onto a sharply rising bank
of municipal parkland
named with great originality “The Slopes”
When, in the nineteenth century, Buxton was at its height
as a centre for natural healing 
the hopeful walked up the grassy bank, “the terrain cure”,
was part of the prescribed treatment,
a return to health being signalled by the patient
rising to ever greater heights
along the gravelled footpaths.
To be honest the “The Slopes” is.... are..... not particularly formidable
and one has to wonder
what kinds of condition left the patients so debilitated,
perhaps it was the after effects of the
D’Arsonval high frequency treatment
or an ascending Scotch Douche
following a Fango mud bath
meant to be restorative
Whatever the case the spectacle of ailing patients
in varying degrees of extremis
toiling up “The Slopes”
can hardly have been anything
other
than alarming.


“.. hither the sick, the lame,the barren come,
And hence go healthful, sound and fruitful home.
Buxton’s in beauty famous; but in this,
Much more, the pilgrim never frustrate is,
That comes to bright St. Anne....

                    Charles Corton
        “The Wonders of the Peake” 1681


Today all of this is gone.
The “Thermal Mineral Baths” hung on
until 1963 when the Devonshire Hospital, just up the hill,
rather unhelpfully installed its own hydrotherapy pool
and by the following week
business was down by 75%.
Closure was inevitable
as perhaps
was its conversion into a shopping arcade.
The interior boasts a fine collection of Minton tiles
in minty shades of pale blue and green
and rather incongruously
preserved in the centre of the mall
a plunge bath with a wooden seat attached to a small
hand winched crane.
There is something less than pleasant
about this particular piece of apparatus,
it looks like the kind of accessory a fiendish ‘Fu Manchu’ figure
might invest in
to terrorise
his victims.
Soaring high above this,
and it is just as well it is out of reach,
is an extraordinary extravagantly coloured glass roof.
Everything about it is wrong,
the decorative elements resemble nothing
so much as limp leaves of lettuce
stuck onto cheap china.


The other end of the crescent is touched
by the former natural baths,
originally patronised by Mary Queen of Scots.
Whatever treatment she took
it certainly did not cure her of a tendency to plot
and elements of the intrigue which lead to the arrest and execution of Babington and his co-conspirators
and ultimately her own downfall
were probably hatched here.
After surviving until 1972 as a council run swimming pool
the complex  was closed
and partially reopened
as the Tourist information Office
which occupies the former oak panelled ‘cooling room’.
Waters from the natural spring can be seen bubbling up
through the floor of what was once the “Gentlemen’s First Class Bath”
before being whisked away in stainless steel pipes
to a 3.8 million pound bottling plant
which rattles out around 90 million bottles a year.
On a smaller scale a steady dribble of water
at a steady 27.5 degrees Celsius
emerges from a small fountain on the other side of the road
where locals queue up rather furtively
with woollen hats pulled down
and juggling armfuls of plastic containers.
Reasons for the subterfuge are unclear,
the water is there,
free for all,
perhaps one the major supermarkets has it bundled away
and labelled as its own brand.


There is little to say about the Crescent itself,
it seems oddly absent.
English Heritage et al
have repaired the exterior
but for all that the walls are green stained
and unkempt
and the complete lack of occupants leaves the building
looking soulless.
At the very least someone could be paid to put the lights on,
even if there is no one at home.
Built by the Duke of Devonshire between 1780 and 1790
the job came in at around 38,500.
Given that the annual profit from his Grace’s copper mine
at Ecton
was 45,000
one wonders if the architect,
John Carr of York,
would have liked to select
a rather more generous patron.
perhaps a little something a touch more palatial
and further back up the hill
would have prevented them piling
up the Palace Hotel seventy years later.


The last building
which completes the ‘spa’ group
is the splendid Old Hall Hotel. 
The original lodge or New Hall
was erected in 1573 on the site of the Auld Hall.
Built as a strong tower it was the temporary prison for Mary Queen of Scots
who came to Buxton
for the summer
regularly between  1573 and 1584.
Her thoughts about leaving Buxton
for the last time were apparently engraved on a window or door,
now lost:
“Buxton a quae calidae celebrabere nomine lympae
 Forte mihi posthac non adeunda, vale.’

“Buxton whose fame thy milk warm waters tell,
whom I perhaps shall see no more, farewell.”


In fact most of what can be seen
from the outside
is the result of a campaign
of rebuilding and improvements
from the late seventeenth century onwards,
however, penetrate into the main corridor of the hotel
and 6 metres or so
back from the current front door
you are confronted by a massive thickness of wall
and beyond that two pairs of Elizabethan stone lintelled doorways,
Mary’s prison is in turn imprisoned
within the later building.


Most of our grand historic buildings
 are somehow more interesting
when viewed from the rear.
The smooth facades subject to all the controls planners can devise
contrast with the ad hoc arrangements of down pipes
and small extensions
tacked onto the building’s back.
Not so with Buxton’s crescent,
the attentions of the conservationists have scoured the convex elevation
leaving just a few scars sealed with concrete block work.
however, a collection
of smaller buildings reveals Buxton’s concerns
with good order and good health.
The Old Courthouse has been converted
predictably into shops
but could have seventeenth century origins.
A more
telling testimony to questions of public order
lies a little further up the hill
where in the 1870’s
separate facilities were built
for charity patients.
Up until then provision had been made for ‘the poor
and the incontinent’
within the same complex as the paying baths.
Such compulsory mingling
and the resulting
overcrowding
were no longer to the public taste.
In addition the management
who were making an annual profit of up to 2,000
were keen to expand in haste
the range of services for paying customers.
so tucked round the back
were the Charity Hot Baths,
separate tubs for men and women
and supplied by the overflow from The Gentlemen’s Two Shilling
and the Ladies’ Large Public Baths.
Attached in 1882 was the Devonshire Hospital Drinking Well
which bears on one side the inscription: which tells you
“St. Ann’s Well Water Pump Room,
For Devonshire Hospital Patients Only”.


The Devonshire Hospital itself dominates the skyline
with its massive 154 foot spanning dome
looking a rather like an Ottoman mosque,
slightly flattened by being dropped from a great height
into the Derbyshire countryside.
This unique, remarkable, yet little known building
 is now undergoing a 10,000,000 refit for Derby University.
Originally built by the Duke of Devonshire
as a grandiose stable block for visitors patronising the Crescent
it had accommodation
for three hundred horses
and all their accompanying grooms.
A central courtyard was left open to produce
a circular exercise track.
yet it was tracks
of a different kind which lead to a radical conversion. 
Space was less in demand for the horses of the aristocracy and gentry,
space would be needed for the poor and needy
who started to flock to the town hoping for a cure.
Work started in 1859,
the railway arrived in 1863,
the massive increase in the number of visitors from all social classes
had an immediate effect on the town.
A buffer zone
was created around the new hospital
which had its own gardens, the poor were not encouraged to mingle
with the more affluent bathers down the road.
In 1881 the central courtyard was covered
by a single 560 ton slate covered dome,
at the time claimed
to be the largest unsupported structure of its kind in the world’
It is hugely impressive but remains,
at present,
closed.


The second building
which makes its presence felt the on slopes to the north side of the town
is the Palace Hotel,
another product of the railway age.
A massive pile, symmetrical and built,
in the style of a French chateau of the Renaissance, in 1867 .
Although French in inspiration
the business based on the hotel was detirmindly egalitarian
and internationalist.
The menu for the opening dinner set langue de boeuf au Macedoine de legumes against mutton cutlets
and Sir Watkin pudding against patisserie Francaise.
In a special supplement the Buxton advertiser for Saturday June  6th. 1868
the confident enquiry was made:
“ Can anyone look upon its well formed gardens,
its stately exterior and the luxury
combined with comfort of its internal arrangements
without feeling that it will perform an important part in the future history
and fortunes
 of Buxton?”
A further reminder of the confidence
that inspired the railway builders
lies just next to the hotel entrance.
It is the stubby end wall of the former
London and North Western Railway Company station
which is pierced
by the most gigantic fanlight,
the brainchild of Joseph Paxton of Crystal Palace fame.


Today the Palace Hotel caters for big conferences
and family weddings,
few people come in search of health care
but for those in special need
Clowes the chemists, formerly J.J.E. Pugh’s (established 1875)
occupies splendid premises
across the road at the foot of the hotel’s gardens.
Gold lettering on the front window offers to dispense foreign prescriptions
while the interior retains towering racks of mahogany shelves
and drawers with crystal knobs
labelled in Latin
with names as exotic as any visitor from overseas.
It is retailing on a rather grand scale
with the wares set out in such a way
as to impress the customer with the sure knowledge
that somewhere amongst the ranks of decorative glass jars
lies a remedy.
Asking for something as simple as an aspirin seems out of place here.


Completing the circuit of small streets
around the back side of the Crescent
leads one to the Square,
another example of creative nomenclature,
especially as the structure itself is oblong in plan.
The Square built in 1802
as fashionable accommodation reveals much about changing tastes.
or is perhaps simply a realistic response to the local climate,
the Square is a rather dour building
completely surrounded by a colonnade
so that visitors could have made their calls
from door to door
without really venturing outside. 
It has something almost military in its bearing
and is far removed from the Crescent
which seems frivolous by comparison.
Today some of it is closed
or else has become the haunt of opticians and advice bureaux,
a notable exceptions are a set of tea rooms
facing out onto the park which are entirely charming.
For letter box lovers
a hexagonal example
of 1867
punctuates the corner
that lies between the Square and the leisure complex
which begins with  Buxton’s own tiny opera house.


Entertainment for the coffee drinking patrons
of the eighteenth century
had been confined to cards and balls.
The expansion of the spa’s clientele
demanded further refinements in tune with the modern age.
In 1871 a glass and iron pavilion
was built overlooking the gardens,
in 1876 a concert hall was added to one end and
in 1903 the opera house, tacked on to the other.
The whole group, also incorporating an elongated conservatory,
is a superb essay in the architecture of leisure
as enjoyed in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.
The interior is not particularly
appealing
but the view up
from the river bank below
is a memorable one,
the rhythm
of the black and white painted iron struts
and the blank faces of the glass panes
is particularly striking
especially
when a splash of winter sun
highlights it
against against the grey of heavy storm clouds.
Less happy is the modern swimming pool
which extends the complex even further to the west
and the rather hi-tech two
storey car park
which occupies the site of the former curling ring.
Aficionados can, by the way, find a surviving stone from this ancient sport preserved in the town’s museum,
just head for the former “Peak Hydropathic and Hotel”
opposite the town hall.


There is a clear division
between the spa town in the valley
and the market town which stands on a plateau above.
This separation
may go back to Roman times when, it has been suggested.
a fort crowned the ridge
overseeing the bathing and religious interests below.
While the baths faded into obscurity
in early medieval times
a village grew up on higher drier land to the south.
The town hall of 1889 effectively
faces both ways,
frowning down from the the top of “The Slopes”
onto the Crescent
but also fronting on to and dominating the market place.
The triangular market place itself
lays claim to being England’s highest
but as the charter granting market rights
only dates back to 1813 it is perhaps more accurate
to see it as a former village green,
now given over to parking.
The oldest structure still to be found
in Buxton
is the market cross,
probably fifteenth century in date
and moved from its original location
 on the other side of the valley on Cockyard Hill.
There is a real workaday, no nonsense, feel to this part of the the town
and one wonders how,
in the past the tradesmen and visiting country folk
viewed their fashionable neighbours
taking the cure in the spa below,
probably in much the same way as locals anywhere
regard visitors,
as a source of income.


Buxton is an appealing place,
the spa buildings alone
make for one of the most compact
yet remarkable groups of buildings in England
which having lost their original focus
are now struggling to cement
a new identity.
Whether they will ever come together again
in a way which is wholly satisfying
is debatable
but as a monument to the fleeting pleasures of the regency period
and the determined search for improvement
and entertainment
of the railway age
they are incomparable.
Money has been,
and is being,
freely spent on the town,
3 million recently refurbished the Pavilion Gardens
and now the town
is becoming a conference venue
and centre for touring the Peak District
but never again will one be able to say
as did Doctor Charles Leigh,
at the end of the seventeenth century,
that the district,
“liberally affords hot and mineral waters
for the relief and comfort of infirm and decrepit mortals
so that these untractable and dispeopled parts
become frequented with numerous crowds”.
Today Buxton’s waters are shipped
to the world
by lorries which rumble along the twisting roads
that lead out and away
from the town.



        And yet for all her springs and waters far below,
        Small use is made of them and very little shows
        Of their great healing power. Saint Ann’s blessed well
        A million plastic bottles now fills and will swell
        The profits of a company that has brought
        Jobs to the town and prosperity of a sort.
        Turn where you will and look, much now stands shut and closed.
        The great green and tiled baths, where customers well hosed
        Took all their care and cure, are turned to offices
        And some smart little shops, all of which still promises
        A warm wet welcome for the visitor who comes
        With pounds and pence to spend and who at last succumbs
        And buys these souvenirs of Buxton at the source.


Stephen Wass,  February 2003