Fingers in the cup: taking the water in Slovakia

THE ONLY MINERAL WATER you can get in London’s Hampstead today is bottled water from a shop or supermarket. In the 18th century, people came to Hampstead to imbibe the allegedly curative iron-rich chalybeate waters available from the spring in Well Walk or at the elegant spa rooms established on that street. Walking along that thoroughfare where once people flocked to take the water, which rivalled that which is still available at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, I remembered an experience in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia, before that country split into the separate Czech and Slovak republics in 1993.

With a friend, I drove to what was then Czechoslovakia in about 1992. The objects of my trip were to visit a country I had never been to before and to collect information about music in Czechoslovakia to help my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, who was writing a new edition of “The Blue Guide to Czechoslovakia”. 

Bardejov, Slovakia

The furthest east place in which we stayed was the small town of Bardejov in north-eastern Slovakia. We did venture a bit further towards the edge of the country, to the Dukla Pass where there was a Soviet Russian victory over the Germans during WW2, but only as a day excursion.  

At Bardejov, we booked into a hotel just outside the centre of the old, picturesque town. The accommodation was part of a spa complex, where people came to take the curative spring waters that issued from beneath the ground. My friend and I were keen to sample these, not because we were unwell, but out of curiosity.

The waters were dispensed in a building a few yards away from the hotel. It was late afternoon when we entered the tap room. A tubby woman in white uniform indicated that she was just about to close up for the day, but somehow, we communicated to her that we only wanted to taste one or two of the different spring waters. She was happy to oblige. She picked up a small porcelain beaker, and before filling it with some water from one of the springs, she rubbed the inside of the vessel with her (un-gloved) middle and index fingers. Seeing this, my travelling companion decided to give a miss to tasting, but I took a swig of the metallic tasting water.

I handed the beaker back to the attendant, who wiped it again with her two fingers, before filling it with water from another spring. I cannot remember that there was much difference between the tastes of the two waters I sampled. After thanking her for letting me try the waters, we returned to the hotel. At the back of my mind, I had two thoughts. One was that I hoped that I did not get ill after drinking from a glass that had been ‘wiped’ with fingers that had probably wiped many peoples’ beakers during the day. The other thought was that perhaps it was something in the lady’s fingers that gave the healing powers, rather than the spring waters themselves. I did not get ill but will probably never get to know whether my wild idea that it was the lady’s fingers that had curative properties, rather than the spring water, held even a grain (or drop) of truth.

A long time has passed since that visit to Czechoslovakia, but that brief experience at the spa near Bardejov lingers in my memory. Thinking about it makes me wonder about the  hygiene of the conditions prevailing when people came to Hampstead to take the waters in the 18th century, when not much was known about the role of microbes in the transmission of diseases.

This brings me back to the present, when in the UK cafés can only serve hot drinks in disposable cups. Often these are covered with special lids with orifices through which the drinks can be sipped without removing them. I always remove these lids for two reasons. First, I do not like sipping through a tiny hole and, second, I wonder about the cleanliness of the server’s fingers, which place the lid on the cup. I will leave you with that worrying thought.

Gushing from beneath the ground

AT SCHOOL, MY CHOSEN SPORT was cross-country running. Twice a week I spent an hour or so doing this in the grounds of Kenwood and the part of Hampstead Heath near to Highgate in North London. I have written about this before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/06/14/my-sporting-life/), but there is one aspect of it that I did not cover. Once a year, those who did cross-country running were accompanied by a teacher, Mr Bowles, who believed that getting covered in mud was an essential part of this form of exercise. I did not share his odd belief. There was one place on the Heath where filthy red coloured mud was guaranteed. This was at a point 410 yards south east of the centre of the grand south facing façade of Kenwood House and a few yards northwest of The Stock Pond, one of the series of Highgate Ponds.

The reason that this spot, favoured by Mr Bowles, was and still is, always sodden is that it surrounds a natural spring, which issues from a cylindrical stone well-head covered with stone carvings. These include depictions of a squirrel, a fish, and the head of a man with a luxuriant moustache. The water issues from a pipe emerging from the man’s mouth and then drops into a carving of a scallop shell before some of it falls into a drainage grid and the rest all over the place.  

This well head is called Goddisons Fountain. It was constructed in 1929 (https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/04/19/the-healing-springs-of-hampstead/) and named in honour of Henry Goddison, who campaigned vigorously for saving Kenwood and Hampstead Heath from being built on and for preserving it for the use of the public. It is not known whether there was a spring on this spot prior to 1929, but it is not unlikely that there was.

Goddisons Fountain is the last surviving spring issuing chalybeate (iron rich) water in the Hampstead/Highgate area. Prized for its supposed curative properties, especially during the 18th century, there were several springs issuing this kind of mineral water in Hampstead. A fine example of a now disused spring well-head can be seen at the eastern end of Well Walk in Hampstead. It was for public use and located across the road from the Hampstead spa that thrived during the 18th century (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/01/15/a-house-a-spa-and-grays-anatomy/).

If, unlike many who stroll on the Heath, you do not wish to try the chalybeate water issuing copiously from Goddisons fountain, the next nearest source of this once highly prized water is about 47 miles south east in The Pantiles at Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The water flowing from Goddisons Fountain is one of many sources of the water in the Highgate Ponds, which include (descending the slope from Kenwood) the Wood Pond; the Thousand Pound Pond with the trompe l’oeil bridge designed by Robert Adam; the Stock Pond which is directly below Goddisons Fountain; the Ladies’ Bathing Pond; the Bird Sanctuary Pond, where I spotted a heron; the Model Boating Pond, where I saw no boats; the Men’s Bathing Pond; and Highgate Number 1 Pond. The water from the topmost pond flows through the lower ones sequentially. Most of these ponds were dug before the 18th century as reservoirs for London’s water. They were kept full by damming the Hampstead Brook, a tributary of the now hidden River Fleet, in 1777. In addition, numerous streams in the grounds of Kenwood and on Hampstead Heath were diverted to keep them topped up. Now, the ponds form a valuable publicly accessible leisure amenity. Hardy souls gain great enjoyment in swimming in the gender segregated open-air ponds, whose waters are not subjected to any purification or disinfection procedures. During the present covid19 ‘lockdown’, it is only wildfowl that can enjoy their water.

As we looked at Goddisons Fountain today in late January 2021, I recalled my muddy encounters with it in the company of Mr Bowles and realised that I had not seen it since early 1970, that is just over half a century ago. And it was not until I wrote this that I learned that the fountain is the last surviving chalybeate spring in the part of the world, where I was brought up.