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”.
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.