The History of Buxton
The presence of a continuous source of fresh water on the site that is now the Peak District town of Buxton would have been as attractive for Britons prior to the Roman occupation as it was to the Romans themselves when they arrived in the first century. Archaeological finds in the area from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, including in Poole’s Cavern near the town, are evidence of habitation thousands of years before the Claudian invasion, but we cannot know for sure if those very distant ancestors thought of the waters as a holy place. From the name the Romans gave the site, however, we can conclude that their Celtic contemporaries saw it as sacred: they dubbed it Aquae Arnemetia, thought to mean Waters of the Sacred Grove, or Waters of the Goddess’s Grove.
What is believed to be a Roman temple was excavated in Buxton some time ago, and archaeologists also found a cache of coins that was possibly a votive offering. The coins included examples from later Roman Britain, showing the place was used throughout the more than 300 years of Roman rule.
Saxon burial mounds in the area are evidence of continued settlement, though as with other Roman towns Buxton would have diminished in importance in spite of its location on several important trading routes.
Before it was Buxton the place was Buckstones, possibly derived from the preponderance of deer there, a fact that for a time during the medieval period meant it may have been used as a royal hunting ground. This use, however, did not diminish the perceived holy status of the warm-water wells there, and a chapel arose to cater for Christian pilgrims seeking a cure for their ailments and injuries. In 1538 Sir William Bassett, following the orders of Henry VIII ’s chief fundraiser Thomas Cromwell , closed the well and seized the assets belonging to it, estimated two years previously to be worth 40 marks.
The reputation of the waters remained, however, and in Elizabeth ’s reign they were once again an attraction for visitors, among them Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester, though the most notable was Mary Queen of Scots . Mary was effectively under house arrest while in England, the Earl of Shrewsbury her guard and host for much of her stay. The Earl, introduced to the waters by his wife Bess of Hardwick , first brought Mary there in 1573, one of many visits she made. The previous year a Dr Jones had published a treatise detailing the virtues of Buxton’s waters. Mary’s rheumatism was the reason for her stays; contact with Catholic supporters in the area may also have drawn her. Shrewsbury built a grand house - now the Old Hall Hotel - in 1550, though the current building largely dates from 1670, and that is where the party stayed.
A new era for the spa began in the 18th century when the Dukes of Devonshire invested profits from their copper and lead mines in a building programme in Buxton. The 5th Duke had The Crescent built in 1780, clearly aping Bath , though the architecture of John Carr is every bit as elegant as John Wood’s Royal Crescent in that rival centre. Other architectural gems associated with the town’s development as a spa and a place of wider entertainment include the Devonshire Dome, once the world’s largest unsupported dome, designed by Henry Currey who was also responsible for The Pump Room and The Natural Baths; the railway station whose architect Joseph Paxton is better known for the Crystal Palace; and the wonderful Edwardian Opera House built by Frank Matcham, equally celebrated for the London Palladium .
The coming of the railways – not one but two – in 1863 boosted the tourist industry, and within 20 years the population had trebled to 6000. Buxton remained a fashionable spa until WWI changed the social scene forever, though the thermal baths did not close until the 1960s. The decline of its hydrotherapy business was balanced by a rise in Buxton’s significance as a cultural centre. In 1979 the first Buxton Festival was held, promoting older and lesser known operas; 1994 saw the first Gilbert and Sullivan Festival; and in 2004 a music festival was added.
But Buxton does retain links to its ancient past: the waters are bottled and sold worldwide now; the annual well-dressing custom harks back perhaps to the Druids ; and thanks to a clause within the Buxton Enclosure Act of 1772 there is still a publicly available free-of-charge source of the water, heated by nature to 27.5 degrees Celsius as it has been for many millennia.
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