Drama in the Peak District

WE DROVE TO BUXTON from Macclesfield, crossing part of the Peak District, which was shrouded in dense morning mist despite it being mid-September. The town, once an important spa, is delightful. Its centre is rich in Victorian buildings, as well as some 18th century edifices, such as The Crescent, now a hotel. In appearance, the Crescent, which was built for the 5th Duke of Devonshire between 1780 and 1789, rivals the fine crescents found in Bath. Another notable structure in Buxton is The Dome, now a part of the University of Derby. This huge dome was built to cover a stable block for the horses of the 5th Duke, which was constructed between 1780 and 1789 to the design of John Carr (1723-1807). The dome itself, which is 145 feet in diameter and larger than those covering Rome’s Pantheon and St Peters, was added between 1880 and 1881, by which time the building it covered was being used as a hospital. It is the second largest unsupported dome in the world.

In common with great cities such as Vienna, Milan, Paris, Manaus, London, New York, and Sydney, tiny Buxton also can boast of having an opera house. Located next to a complex of Victorian glass and iron structures including a plant conservatory and the Pavilion with its attached octagonal hall, the Opera House was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) and first opened its doors to an audience in 1903. Live theatrical performances, not confined to opera, were held there regularly until 1927, when it became a cinema. Between 1936 and 1942, the Opera House, although then primarily a cinema, hosted annual summer theatre festivals, two of which were in collaboration with Lillian Baylis (1874-1937) and London’s Old Vic Theatre company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buxton_Opera_House). In 1979, the theatre was restored, and an orchestra pit added. Since then, the Opera House puts on a programme of live performances, which include a little bit of opera.  Unfortunately, during our visit to Buxton, the auditorium was closed, but we did manage to enter the lovely foyer with its mosaic-bordered floor and its ceiling painted with a scene evoking the style of 17th and 18th century painters.

The Opera House, the Crescent and the Pump Room opposite it, and The Dome, all add to the charm of Buxton. They are all close to a lovely park, through which the River Wye (not to be confused with the river with the same name in Wales) runs through. Buxton’s Wye flows into the North Sea via the River Humber. High above the park, runs the High Street, where we stumbled across a fabulous bookshop, Scrivener’s, which boasts five floors packed with books, many of them second-hand or antiquarian. So, if it is literature (fiction and non-fiction) rather than drama that appeals to you, this shop is a place that must be visited. 

It was well worth winding our way across the hills to Buxton through the low clouds, which made visibility very poor. The town is filled with interesting things to see, some of which I have described above. However, it was the Opera House that intrigued me most. Had it been given a name other than Opera House it might not have fascinated me quite as much. That a town or city can boast an opera house, gives the place a certain ‘caché’ that places, which do not possess one, lack.

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.

A house, a spa, and Gray’s Anatomy

I ENJOY FINDING links between seemingly diverse subjects. Recently, I discovered a connection between an old house in Hampstead in north London and the famous textbook “Gray’s Anatomy”.

On crossing East Heath Road, having just visited the Vale of Health, I saw a pair of wooden doors framed by a substantial brick archway. These doors are the entrance to the grounds of Foley House, which stands on a plot at the corner of Well Walk and East Heath Road. Even though it is partially hidden by the trees that grow within the railings that surround it, the upper windows of this three-storey brick building can be seen. From its architectural style, I guessed that it was pre-Victorian, maybe 18th century. Just south of the main building, there is an outhouse with a white painted wooden weatherboard façade. The top of the façade has six small apertures each above one of two shelves. Presumably, these are parts of a dovecote.

One source (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33) states that the present Foley House was built between 1771 and 1773 by the Holborn glazier Edward Helling. Helling, whose dates I cannot find, had already died by 1781. This house (or an earlier one on the same site) was built for Mr John Duffield. who was:

“… the first Spa manager …” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1342099)

The spa was across Well Walk opposite Foley House.

In the late 17th century, Hampstead became well-known for its supposedly curative Chalybeate spring water, which is rich in iron salts. The spa was established on land that was leased in 1698 by Susannah Noel on behalf of her son Baptist, 3rd Earl of Gainsborough (1684-1714), who was lord of the manor, but a minor.  The lease:

“…granted 6 a[cres]. of Hampstead Heath, including the well of mineral water, to 14 trustees, who were admitted as copyholders at a rent of 5s. a year to use the income for the poor of Hampstead. The trustees leased all the property except the pond or springhead north-west of the mineral spring to John Duffield in 1701 for 21 years at £50 a year, on condition he spent £300 over 3 years improving it, and agreed for a second term for improvements worth £200.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp169-172).”

According to Thomas Barratt, author of the encyclopaedic “The Annals of Hampstead” (published 1912), one of these fourteen men was one Thomas Foley. The house might have been named in his memory.

Duffield was quick to develop the mineral spring into a spa. Christopher Wade, author of “For the poor of Hampstead, forever. 300 years of the Hampstead Wells Trust” published in 1998, quotes an advertisement for a concert that was to be held in the Hampstead Wells on the 18th of August 1701. By then, Duffield had built his Long Room, an edifice containing a ‘Pump Room’ and an ‘Assembly Room’. The latter measured about 72 by 30 feet and was tall and airy with large windows. It could accommodate 500 people The Long Room, which was demolished in 1882, was located where a house called Wellside (built 1892) stands in Well Walk today.

Wade wrote that Duffield:

“… had done well enough for himself to build ‘a goode brick house’ costing £1000. Some historians claim that that this became Foley House on East Heath Road, but the evidence is confused. (The house is not shown on a detailed map of 1762)”

The words “a goode brick house” are quoted from the manorial records of 1706. Barratt notes:

“Mr GW Potter is of the opinion from the description given in the record that this house was, in all or in part, that now called Foley House…”

Well, if the house that we see today was only built in 1771, it is not surprising that it was not shown on the map created in 1762. I looked at that map (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33) and Wade is right. There is no building marked where Foley House should be found. However, in “The Buildings of England. London 4: North”, the architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner with Bridget Cherry write that Foley House was:

“… built in 1698 for J Duffield, the first spa manager …, but with mid-c18 three-bay front … Early c18 stables, weatherboarded.”

Pevsner and Cherry were describing the house that we saw, but its absence from the map is puzzling. I speculate the following. Duffield did have a house built in 1698 on the plot where the present Foley House stands. Maybe, it had been demolished by 1762, when the map was drawn, and then later replaced by the house built by Edward Helling, mentioned above. Alternatively, the map was incomplete or not 100% accurate.  

Several Victorian buildings neighbouring Foley House on Well Walk (currently numbers 21-27) bear the name ‘Foley Avenue’. Designed by Henry S Legg, these were built in 1881 on land that was once part of the grounds of Foley House.

And now for the link that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. One of the people who lived in Foley House was the physiologist and surgeon Sir Benjamin Brodie (1783-1862). In an autobiographical note (“The works of Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie … with an autobiography”, published 1865), he wrote:

“In the year 1828 I engaged a house on Hampstead Heath, which at that time was a comparatively rural retreat. My family resided there during the summer and part of the autumnal season, and I generally was able to go thither to dinner, returning to my occupation in London in the morning.”

Brodie helped to acquire the building at the north end of Kinnerton Street in Belgravia, which became the medical school for St Georges Hospital (while it was located at Hyde Park Corner in what is now ‘The Lanesborough Hotel’).  One of the students who was taught by Brodie in Kinnerton Street was Henry Gray (1827-1861), author of one of the most famous medical textbooks, “Gray’s Anatomy”. Gray dedicated his masterpiece to his teacher and colleague Brodie.

Brodie used Foley House between 1828 and 1837, when his lease expired. Then, he bought a property in Surrey. As Gray was under ten years old when Brodie lived in Hampstead, he would not have been a visitor to Foley House.

Had I not written about Kinnerton Street and its association with “Gray’s Anatomy” shortly before spotting Foley House in Hampstead, there would have been hardly any chance of me being able to realise the connections between the house, Brodie, and his student, the famous anatomist.