Those Romans knew a thing or two. With their penchant for bathing it is not surprising that they soon sought out the geo-thermal waters emerging at Buxton, close to the River Wye. They named the settlement Aqua Arnemetiae after a local Celtic Goddess, she of the sacred Grove who may long have been venerated at the point where these natural springs emerged. Arriving in about 70 AD, the Romans settled down to enjoy the constant water temperature coming from the ground at 28 degrees Celsius.
Such was the importance of this feature that Buxton was the only town to include the word Aquae in its name, other than the famous Aquae Sulis at Bath.
Buxton and Dukes of Devonshire
Buxton boasts several firsts. It is the highest market town in England and is the largest major town in the neighborhood of the National Park known as the Peak District, the first to be given this designation. The high, wild and rugged landscape is rich in limestone and gritstone, ideal for building and it gives Buxton a beautiful, muted golden hue.
One of its oldest surviving buildings, the Old Hall has been through several incarnations and once played host in 1584 to Mary Queen of Scots along with her gaoler the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess of Hardwick. In a bitter sweet act of vandalism, Mary carved into one of the windows the legend: Buxton, whose warm waters have made thee more famous, perchance I shall visit thee no more. Farewell. By the 17th century the Old Hall was a hotel, reputed to be the oldest in the country.
Buxton may well have remained an unexceptional village had it not been for the enterprise of William Cavendish 5th Duke of Devonshire. With Chatsworth House in Derbyshire as the family seat and some 200,000 acres of land at his disposal, in the 1780s the 5th Duke took it upon himself to develop Buxton, seeing similarities with the popular spa at Bath. Thus, the healing waters were promoted and an elegant, beautiful crescent was erected to provide accommodation for those coming to take the waters. The Duke’s coat of arms carved in stone tops the the central apex. The stables, built to accommodate 110 horses, boasted the largest unsupported dome in the world, beating that at St Peter’s in Rome.
By 1859 part of the stable block had been converted to provide a charity hospital with 300 beds for the treatment of labourers and others from the newly industrialised cotton towns. Some 20 years later the entire building was given over to medicine, being known as the Devonshire Royal Hospital and rivalling the service provided by the wealthy in the spa towns at Bath and Harrogate. Finally, in 2001 the hospital became the campus for the University of Derby.
The town continued to grow with the addition of an elegant Pavilion and Bandstand surrounded by gardens. The art gallery boasts a display of the rare and beautiful “Blue John” a local, semi precious stone.
St Ann’s Well
The close association with the waters continued from Roman times and during the Middle Ages the spring was dedicated to St Ann and became a pilgrim site. A chapel was believed to exist in the 14th century and a statue discovered, possibly harking back to the Roman settlers. By the end of the reign of Henry VIII however both chapel and statue had gone. Over the centuries the pagan rites of decorating wells was secularised, the site of the well moved and today this ancient custom is part of a tradition that is now generally regarded as entertainment.
The Opera House
In 1903 the town was further enhanced by the erection of an Opera House designed by Frank Matcham who also designed the London Palladium and the Coliseum. In use throughout the year, in addition to opera, entertainment as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan and Shakin’ Stevens may be on offer.
All in all, Buxton is a gem, compact, elegant and to ensure good health one should not leave without tasting the water flowing freely into a basin for everyone’s benefit.