Bakewell seems to have been destined for fame for one reason or another but not, as some once hoped, as a spa. In the past there were entrepreneurs who sought to bring prosperity to the town by setting it up as a rival to Buxton or Matlock Bath, but attempts met with scant success.
It was to take many years of campaigning even to provide Bakewell with public swimming baths, though many of us were unaware that there had been a good sized pool in the middle of town for ages – over three centuries in fact, hidden away beneath Bath House on Bath Street, a property well over 300 years old.
This bath was built to take advantage of a thermal spring, referred to as early as 1291 in a charter confirming the acquisition of the ‘Warm Well’ by Richard Vernon, Knight, from Sir William Wyne, Knight. The waters may have been patronised much earlier, for according to the handwritten ‘Some Notes on the History of Bakewell’ (C.R.Allcock 1959-1975), Roman tiling and pottery had been found in the vicinity of the Bath House.
In 1637 a member of the Manners family of Haddon Hall, descendants of Sir Richard Vernon, spent £15.13s.4d in providing a well at the Bakewell bath. Constructed below ground level, this open bath was fed by natural springs reputed to give relief from glandular and nervous complaints. Yet a visitor to the town in 1662 was not at all impressed with the ‘hot spring and bath’ where ‘for want of looking after they, the townsfolk, have let the cold spring break in and mingle with the hot, so at present they are of little use’.
The pool was roofed over when Bath House was built over it in 1697 and the waters were apparently well patronised for a further 70 years or so. By this time the house was tenanted from the Duke of Rutland by Henry Watson. Henry was an accomplished worker in Ashford marble and in 1774 took in his nephew, White Watson, to teach him the skills of statuary. White Watson went on to become an eminent geologist and sculptor, living on at Bath House after the death of his uncle. He found himself acting as superintendent to a somewhat neglected subterranean pool. This is how he pictured its earlier use as an open bathing well:
‘Here erst from Illness or perchance from whims
Our Peakrill Ladies lav’d their tender limbs,
No screen to keep them from the prying eye,
Nor any covering save the ample Sky;
For here by Modesty alone arrayed,
Of shame unconscious they their frames display’d;
But when refinement deem’d it was unchaste,
In public thus to come and wash the waist,
A mansion rose, where midst their Ear piercing gabble,
Their snowy frames they unobserv’d might dabble.’
In 1817 the bath was restored in the hopes of transforming Bakewell into a fashionable spa. A new water source was discovered under the bath steps; unfortunately it was a cold spring so had to be diverted. The grounds of Bath House were laid out as botanical gardens (now Bath Gardens) of which Watson wrote: ‘From the warm spring (with Cupid watching o’er) a streamlet takes the overflow through the Botanical Gardens’. Cupid was not a figment of his romantic imagination but a statue, now long lost.
Unfortunately the hoped-for clientele never materialised and Bakewell’s dreams of becoming a spa were dashed. Nothing could make up for the fact that with spring waters at only 11.6 C. the welcome was barely warm, literally speaking. Neither could the inconsistent supply be improved.
In 1905 Firth, in Highways and Byways of Derbyshire, described the once admired old bath with its vaulted roof as ‘bare and cheerless as whitewash can make it ... A tolerably constant flow is maintained in winter, but in summer it has a trick of failing, and, when I saw it, the water was not more than two or three inches deep. Use it has none, for the water flows in and out at its own will. Moreover, taste has changed and it is no longer thought agreeable to bathe in a sort of prison vault with a reverberating echo which sends even a whisper rumbling round the arch.’
Four years later, attempts were made to improve the water supply for a proposed new public swimming pool, though the old one continued to have intermittent use. Within living memory it has been used for swimming lessons by local schoolchildren and, during the war, by Boy Scouts who also used the building as a collection point for waste paper. For a time the dank room became a mushroom farm, then in 1946 the Bakewell and District Branch of the Royal British Legion purchased Bath House from Bakewell UDC, owners since 1921.
Bath House has an interesting history in its own right. Its various uses over the past 300 years never spoilt its special atmosphere, with its convoluted layout, thick stone walls, flagged floors and endless spiral staircase. White Watson regularly welcomed learned visitors, setting up a geological museum and giving lectures. In 1807 some of the rooms were let to a Mrs. Pidcock as a ‘Day School for Young Ladies’ for instruction in reading, grammar, writing and needlework.
Watson established a reading room at Bath House in his later years, limiting it to 30 members paying an annual subscription of one guinea. After his death, Bakewell and High Peak Institute took over part of the building. From around 1888 to 1920 Bakewell Conservative Club met here for billiards, reading and ‘social and political discussions’.
Between the wars, Lady Manners School found accommodation at Bath House for its 5th and 6th forms plus staff. Established in 1896 as the country’s first co-educational school, pupils wore very stylish uniforms – tunics, black stockings and boater style hats for the girls, Norfolk jackets with knickerbockers and Eton collars for the boys. The real dandies sported jaunty straw boaters around town in the summer term. In 1938 Lady Manners School was brought together on a new site on Shutts Lane.
The story of Bath House was brought up to date by the Royal British Legion and Haig House Club. Membership hovered at around 260 (including the Dukes of Devonshire and Rutland), of which about 150 were ‘A’ members – former servicemen and women, including centenarian Miss Weston who had served in World War One. The Royal British Legion Women’s Club was formed in 1934, their own link with one of Bakewell’s most interesting buildings.
These recollections are based on a Peak Advertiser feature from November 1997.