Tracking down a forgotten spa of Huntingdonshire – Somersham Spa
Huntingdonshire attempted a number of spas none really established itself beyond the region and have been largely forgotten, although Hail Weston came the closest. Somersham is a small market town which boasted such a locally well know mineral water which was enabled the town to be developed into a small spa. Local tradition suggests that the water was known and exploited by the Romans and that the medieval Bishops utilised it and brewed beer but I fear there is little to no evidence of this tradition and is purely wishful thinking.
The land were the springs lay was once covered by the Royal Forests of Henry II, III or Edward I, the first official note of these springs appears to have been at the end of the 17th Century. It was rediscovered under the patronage of Dr More, Bishop of Ely (which probably explains the confusion of its medieval use). By 1720, the Duke of Manchester, Lord Hinchingbrook, Dr Wake, Bishop of Lincoln, with all the principal residents in the county, joined in a subscription for erecting a house near the spring, which was fitted up with a bowling green, and other accommodations.
Healing or harming waters?
Even though giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black were attributed to drinking the water, Cambridge Physicians continued to prescribe it to their patients. It soon attracted many people from the nearby villages and orders from across East Anglia, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The water was bottled and drank not only medicinally but as a good table water mixed with wine. However, the popularity of the spa was short and after people began suffering from stone or gravel(or kidney stones as we would call them) after drinking the water and some died. As such a rumour spread around that it caused such diseases supported by some experts in the field! This spelt the end of the spa and the house fell into ruin and its materials removed.
However, there was a revival in 1750 by a Dr Daniel Peter Layard, who was physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales. Another subscription was raised, supported by a respectable list of subscribers which include various physicians and even the King and Queen. Concerned by its side effects, between 1751 to 1767 tests were conducted tried to discover why it occasionally had a detrimental effect. By 1758, a management committee of thirteen subscribers was established who set up rules. set of rules documented. The spa opened between 5.00am to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else. A notice posted up at the time says:
“The springs are open from seven in the morning till 10 at night, the following being the charges: Admission for using and drinking the waters per month……5 0, Non-scribers……..0 6, Talking any quantity away from the wells per quart…….0 6”
Dr Layard erected a bath house and proper accommodation near the spring and rules were set out for the use of the spa. In 1767 Dr Layard wrote an account of the waters:
However, Dr. Layard left soon after and by 1820 the site was little regarded and probably closed by 1840. For many years, only foundations remained, but this were ploughed up when a local farmer planted fruit trees.
The site rediscovered
According to Burn-Murdock, curator of the Norris Museum, St. Ives, their exact location is unknown. However, there is a site marked Spring (Chalybeate) on the appropriate O/S on Bathe Hill on the road to Somersham which would likely be the location of the spa and as it stated spring I was hopeful of some remains.
Upon visiting nothing can be seen at the site, presently the garden of a house on the hill. Upon visiting the house the owner was accommodating enough to point to a flower bed where he believed was the approximate location for the spring, although he had not seen any evidence. He was told this being the location from a previous owner. However it did not match that which is indicated on the OS map which was in a small orchard. We visited this and equally saw nothing but it was possible some scrub hid it. Perhaps another exploration is needed?