Guest Blog Post: The Healing waters of Malvern’s Holy Well by Cora Weaver
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This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs. The second post is from a well-known researcher in the field of Spas and healing waters. Cora Weaver has written extensively on the subject of spas, with works on spa visitor Celia Fiennes, Florence Nightingale at the spas and in particular about her home town Malvern. This month she has given us an overview on the most famous of Malvern’s healing wells – the Holy Well – linked to her recent book which will be reviewed here.
The Holy Well at Malvern Wells is one of the earliest known English spas. As early as 1599, a travelling diarist and poet known only as ‘J. M Gent’ deviated from his tour of the country to the Holy Well in search of a cure for his colic. The well must already have had a positive and widespread reputation.
Unlike most healing waters, which rely on their mineral content to affect cures, the springs of the Malvern Hills are very low in dissolved salts and minerals. So although the water was drunk, its effectiveness was due largely to the external application in wrappings, bathing and lotion.
Lodgings were scarce at Malvern Wells, and in the late eighteenth century the nearby village of Great Malvern began to extend its accommodation for invalids. In 1810, a new hotel was built and five years later a pump room and baths were constructed at its own holy well, St Ann’s Well on the eastern hill slopes. In the 1820s a library, more accommodation, a pump room and baths were built in the village centre. There was no need for invalids to travel that bit further west to the Holy Well.
Following the ten-week visit to Great Malvern in 1830 by Princess Victoria, her mother and their retinue, the famous little village was ready by 1842 to receive hydropathic doctors James Wilson and James Manby Gully. Their invalid patients were wealthy, suffering generally from either stress-related problems or the effects of their lifestyle. Lifestyle problems were excesses – of meat and cake, alcohol and drugs, late nights and late mornings, snuff and cigars, and too little exercise. The symptoms of both complaints were similar – lethargy, nausea, constipation, boils, swimming head and skin complaints. The stressed needed to be sedated; the lascivious lifestylers needed stimulating.
The same treatments can either sedate or stimulate blood circulation, depending on the water temperature, the way it is applied to the body and the length of time of application. Short immersions stimulate; lengthier applications sedate. With drugs and surgery, it is they that ‘cure’ the body of its ills. With the water cure, it is the body that stimulates the cure, so is very tiring for the patient.
Healing with water is based on two simple principles. Firstly, when the body is warm the blood flows gently to the surface of the skin to cool the body. If the body is cold, the blood flows gently inwards to the vital organs to keep them warm. Secondly, when the body is cooled by being wrapped in a cold, damp sheet, or is immersed in cold water, the body naturally creates a cold layer between the skin the whatever is making it cold. That is why, when you get into the sea, it doesn’t feel quite so cold after a couple of minutes.
Great Malvern attracted household names. Wordsworth and Wilberforce, Mrs Charles Dickens and Mr Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson and Florence Nightingale. Miss Nightingale came to Malvern once before the Crimean War and nine times after it, when her health was so bad that her friends and family thought that her death was imminent. She had little faith in orthodox medicine and admitted that Malvern saved her life.
In a letter to her friend Edwin Chadwick, Florence Nightingale said that the term ‘water cure’ was misleading because it suggested that water alone could cure. The Water Cure was a combination of a strictly healthy diet, fresh air and exercise, early rising and early to bed, no stress, no alcohol or tobacco in any form and the internal and external application of Malvern’s spring water. To be successful, each patient underwent an intimate verbal gruelling about every aspect of their lifestyle by the doctor before any procedures could begin. Only then could the doctor ascertain the reasons for the illness and prescribe an individual course of treatment.
Malvern acquired the sobriquet The Queen of English Health Resorts but by the late 1880s the water cure had ended. The pioneer hydropathic doctors had retired or died and their replacements were not of the same calibre. Also, Malvern was expensive and it was cheaper to travel to the first class spa facilities in Germany. Today, Malvern is a heritage spa but much of its hydropathic heritage remains in its buildings and it is still possible to collect and drink the pure water from the famous hills springs.
To learn a little more about Malvern’s water cure, read these books:
Cora Weaver, The Holy Well at Malvern Wells, Cora Weaver (2015)
ISBN 978-1-873809-33-4 £2.99 plus £1.26 postage & packing
Cora Weaver, Malvern as a Spa Town, Cora Weaver (2016)
ISBN 978-1-873809-43-3 £2.50 plus £1.26 postage & packing
Cora Weaver and Bruce Osborne, The Great Malvern Water Trail, Cora Weaver (2004)
ISBN 978-1-873809-52-2 £1.95 plus £1.26 postage & packing
Bruce Osborne and Cora Weaver, Celebrated Springs of the Malvern Hills, Phillimore (2012)
ISBN 978-1-86077-679-3 £15.00 inc. postage and packing
Cora Weaver, Charles Darwin & Evelyn Waugh in Malvern, Cora Weaver (2009)
ISBN 978-1-873809-77-8 £2.50 plus £1.26 postage & packing
Posted in Herefordshire, Worcestershire
Tags: antiquarian, archeology, Author, Cora Weaver, folklore, healing wells, Holy Well, Holy well blog, Holy wells blog, Holy wells healing springs Spas folklore local history antiquarian, Holywell blog, legends, Local history, Malvern, spas, Water cure