by Melanie King
24 Sept 2021
English spas have a long and steamy history, from the thermal baths of Aquae Sulis in Bath to the stews of Southwark, the elegant pump rooms of Cheltenham and Buxton to the Victorian mania for hydrotherapy and Turkish hammams. 'The Secret History of English Spas' is an informative but light-hearted social and cultural history of our obsession with drinking and bathing in spa waters. It tells the stories of the rich, the famous, the poor and the sick, all of whom visited spas in hopes of curing everything from infertility to leprosy and gonorrhoea.
It depicts the entrepreneurs who promoted these resorts - often on the basis of the most dubious scientific evidence - and the riotous and salacious social life enjoyed in spa towns, where moral health might suffer even as bodies were cleansed and purged. And yet English spas also offered an ideal of civility and politeness, providing a place where social classes and sexes could mingle and enjoy refined entertainments such as music and dance - all part of the fashionable pastime referred to as 'taking the waters'.