The Original Chalybeate Spa

You probably recognise this building in Sandford Park

But do you know how it may be linked to this building?

As you can see on the image, this was Cheltenham’s Original Chalybeate Spa. It was located in the north west corner of what is now the east side of Sandford Park. After a long history of over 200 years, the site is now occupied by the building we all now know. 

What was a Chalybeate Spa?   (Mr Google tells us it is pronounced Kuh-lee-bee-uht)

According to the New Guide to Cheltenham dated 1820 which repeats much of what had been included in the Humphrey Ruff History of Cheltenham and its Environs dated 1803 the spring in what is now a corner of Sandford Park:

‘had been observed for many years to issue out of the side of a bank in a very sparing quantity, depending on its course, a yellow ochery matter.   The common people drank it successfully as a lotion in weaknesses and other complaints of the eyes. It was not, however, till the beginning of 1802, that it attracted particular attention, when it was found to be a small branch of a very copious spring, originating in a meadow within a few hundred paces. (of Barrett’s Mill)  Upon sinking a well in a proper situation, it was found to produce equal to any demand.   Mr Barrett, the proprietor, has built a commodious room for the company, and also laid out gravelled walks to the upper part of the town, from which it is distant but a few hundred yards.   The spirit and judgement exercised by Mr. B. in his recent alterations and improvements, have rendered his Spa a scene of liveliness and public attraction. 

This spring is one of the simple carbonated chalybeates. From an analysis it appears to contain a larger proportion of iron than is common to waters of this class; and the combination of it with the carbonic acid gas is so complete, that it will retain its properties, when closely corked in a bottle, quite full, for several months. The analysis of it has shown that it contains less foreign matter than almost any water of this nature with which we are acquainted, while the proportion of iron is much greater than the celebrated water at Tunbridge, and one fifth in quantity more than the distinguished Germanic Spa at Pouhon.   It possesses a brisk sparking appearance and pleasant quickness.                 

                  Terms for the season, a lady or gentleman                     10/6d

                  Per Week …………………………………………………                       3/6d

 

So, what do these three famous Chalybeate Spas of the day look like today?

POUHON

once frequented by Peter the Great

TUNBRIDGE WELLS

Pantiles - active from 1606

CHELTENHAM

What now marks the site after the Spa was abandoned around 200 years ago

To be fair, the existing Cheltenham building was never a Spa building. Its one claim to fame is that it is located approximately on the site of the original 1802 Spa building.   

Jill Waller, (co-author of ‘Cheltenham: a History’ and ‘Cheltenham Then and Now’) undertakes research for Cheltenham Local History Society. She has very kindly looked into and reported on the origins and history of the Chalybeate Spa site and the buildings that stood and now stand on the site.   You may see the results of her work here, the time line and the complete history.  Or a soft printed version can be supplied on request. (at a small charge!) 

After the demise of the Spa, a house called Field Lodge occupied the site. Jill Waller traces the long history of the house and its many occupants.  The final occupant was the Cheltenham Parks Superintendent a Mr J W Smith. Despite its, by then, appalling condition he and his wife lived there until 1960. At that time the house and adjacent buildings apparently succumbed to fire and were demolished.    The conclusion of Jill Waller’s research is therefore that the existing buildings in Sandford Park probably date only from the early 1960s.  The one facing onto the park may be a few years earlier. 

Apart from its crowning glory, the Pump Room in somewhat remote Pittville Park, nothing remains in the town of Cheltenham even to remind us that our town was once a very fashionable Spa town.   Its very existence in the form we see it today is owed to that fame.   Even Pittville Pump Room does not or cannot at present offer its famous water. When the water is available, access for the public has been extremely restricted. 

A second Chalybeate source was discovered in the town at Cambray but that has long disappeared. 



WHAT THEN,  IS TO BE DONE WITH THE EXISTING BUILDING ON THE SITE?

Friends of Sandford Park are anxious that the connection between the Park and its cherished though short-lived notoriety as one of the most iron-rich sources of Chalybeate water in Europe is not lost forever as has happened to the saline wells in all other parts of the town apart from Pittville. 

Although, other than occupying the same site, it has no direct connection with the Chalybeate Spa, FOSP would like to see the existing building retained and converted to be a benefit to the community. 

1.     Sandford Park lacks a focal point in the form of a café, a meeting place, a shop that may be of  particular interest to visitors to the town and notably, public lavatories to replace those more recently removed from the same site. Interestingly, Jill Waller’s research reveals that a 1947 report suggested using Field Lodge as a café.  

2.     Cheltenham lacks such a facility and astonishingly, even a Tourist Information Centre. FOSP are confident the site should be used for community, cultural and town visitor  purposes and not destroyed.

3.     The building stands on the site of the Original Chalybeate Spa, founded after the famous visit of George III that put Cheltenham well and truly on the fashionable map. Such a change of use could be made to incorporate a commemoration of the history of the location. Nowhere else in the town centre is there any similar tangible reference to Cheltenham’s illustrious past.

4.     The building is not ugly and could be suitably renovated and enhanced with outside seating facilities to be a most attractive addition and benefit to Sandford Park and to Cheltenham.

So where is this?   An earlier photograph of our building in Sandford Park?   It is almost a carbon copy minus the portico.  But no;  this is located in Park Square in London.   It demonstrates how,  with a little effort,  such a building can be made very attractive.  It was designed around 1820 by John Nash as part of the Regent's Park Development  It seems that whoever designed the building in Sandford Park had the Nash architecture in mind.    What more suitable for Cheltenham,  the pre-eminent Regency town in Britain,  than to copy even a small building designed by the pre-eminent Regency architect?