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A tale of two english spas.

AMONG small cities, the name of Bath must have the widest resonance. To some people, it means architecture--a lovely sequence of Georgian-style squares and streets extending from the Royal Crescent to the Holborne Museum and beyond. To others, it means literature, especially Jane Austen and Mr Pickwick; one thinks of the moving walk the lovers take through Bath at the end of Persuasion. To others, it means shopping--Bath has good shops. Yet others think 'Music Festival'; while others think 'Rugby Football' and a club that has had its ups and downs. But all think as well of bathing, spa water ('a very strong odour o' warm flat-irons', as Sam Weller said) and rheumatism.

The Romans found the local Celts already 'taking the waters' and paying their respects to the local goddess, Sul. They promptly took it over. By seventeen years after the conquest in AD 43, there was a Roman town, and Sul had been associated with (taken over by) Minerva. For three centuries the Waters of Sul (Aquae Sulis) was a place to relax, retire and convalesce, centred on a public bath which could stand comparison with the great baths of Rome itself. Then came the Dark Ages and the start of a millennium of not washing much, or at all. The town was kept going by a fine Abbey, whose last church still stands as one of the final triumphs of the Perpendicular style. On the outside of the east end is an often overlooked tablet recording that in the Abbey, Archbishop Saint Dunstan crowned Edgar as first King of all England in AD 972.

The custom of drinking the waters hung on somehow, and Queen Elizabeth I--of whom it was memorably said that 'she had a bath every year, whether she needed it or not'--came to visit in 1572, beginning Bath's slow revival. Another event of international importance took place in 1687. The waters were thought to improve women's chances of becoming pregnant. King Charles II had brought his wife Queen Catherine of Braganza to them with no luck, but when he was succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother King James II, James brought his handsome Italian second wife, Queen Mary of Modena, who bathed in the Cross Bath and soon announced herself pregnant. That was bad news; the unpopular Catholic James was tolerated only because his daughters were both Protestants and he himself was thought to be too old to beget new sons. The birth of Queen Mary's son threatened to create a line of Roman Catholic kings, alliance with France, imitation of Louis XIV, and goodness knows what other evils. The Cross Bath in fact provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and all, in Britain and abroad, that followed from that. In the eighteenth century, the town council hired an actor to be Master of Ceremonies; he was killed in a duel, and replaced by Beau Nash, who ruled for a long time. He banned all sorts of things, like duelling and carrying swords in the street, and gradually turned a rough, rowdy little town into a place where respectable men could bring their wives and daughters and where taking the waters was a respectable cover for the main activities of match-making and gambling. Bath prospered and grew into the beautiful and 'user-friendly' little city we know.

And then disaster struck--two disasters, in fact. The first came with the establishment of the National Health Service, which had little use for spas. Their benefits were doubtful, and there was an atmosphere of swank about spa culture which did not go with the high-minded egalitarianism of the NHS. Public money was nearly all cut off, and there was not enough private money to step in instead. I grew up in Buxton, a small resort town in the Derbyshire hills. It had a small but important spa function, and I can recall the blight which settled on the place when it was realised that the NHS would not be sending patients there. In France and Germany, by contrast, spas like Vichy--despite its wartime reputation--and Baden-Baden continued to thrive on public health service money.

The second disaster was even worse. The water of the warm springs falls as rain on the porous limestone hills of the Cotswolds and the Mendips north and south of Bath. It descends to a considerable depth, where it picks up geothermal heat and dissolves minerals. On its return to the surface, it passes through a stratum where bacteria thrive. In 1976 there was an inevitable outbreak of food poisoning, and two tourists, both young American women, died. The taking of the waters and bathing in them stopped at once. After prolonged investigation, the danger area was identified, and so was the remedy. It was to drive stainless-steel pipes down through the danger zone, and pick up the water before it got anywhere near it.

Ever since, for over twenty years, there has been a local ambition to restore the spa function--and no-one disagrees with that in principle. Repeated re-organisations of local government, the creation and then the abolition of a county council, held matters up until the latest form of local government, Bath and North-East Somerset District Council (BANES for short), settled down. So began the latest chapter of accidents. A site was identified, an architect selected and a partnership formed with a Dutch firm who have international experience in managing spas. A building, which is now virtually complete, arose. It is a strange structure. It respects the site it is on, which is bang in the historic core of Bath, in some matters, like mass and roof-line, but is otherwise uncompromisingly modern with a good deal of glass and steel and no concessions whatever to Georgian traditions of fenestration or ornament. Walking past it often, I have gradually come to respect it--but it takes some getting used to.

So far, so good; but there are certain well-understood rules for projects like this, of which every one has been broken. The first is to start with a business plan, and form a realistic, i.e., pessimistic, idea of the number of customers you can expect, what you can expect them to pay and the net income you will have. From that, you can work out what you can afford to spend. Establish that figure, and stick to it. This does not mean that every project must make a profit, but if you are going to make a loss you should know what it is likely to be, and what you are saddling future council-tax payers with. Although the National Lottery has chipped in [pounds sterling]11 million, since such projects are effectively paid for over about forty years, a capital burden will fall on the next two generations of tax-payers while the running-cost losses will go on for ever. The published figures of cost have gone on rising. Starting at about twelve million pounds, the last admitted figure was twenty-seven million. No one thinks it will cost less than thirty million, probably a good deal more: but BANES is being unusually reticent, and the wretched tax-payers simply have to guess. They also have to guess at what prices will be charged: about [pounds sterling]40 a visit, probably. That isn't exorbitant for what might be a half-day's pleasure and cossetting; tickets for some football matches cost more than that, and an opera seat at Covent Garden can cost four times as much. But it is enough to choke off a lot of local demand. People will go once, to try it; but if it is to succeed it will depend on a flow of return customers.

The second rule is to have the thing fully designed before tenders are invited. Have the site thoroughly researched, and take all the advice you can think of, piling consultants on consultants, before the job is let. This is especially true when the job is an unusual one, and it is many years since anything like the Spa was built in Britain. Contractors' prices for the initial contract are worked out 'with sharpened pencils', as they say, to get the job. It is from the variations and additions that the profit comes.

The third rule follows. Don't change anything. However brilliant your second and third thoughts may be, put them aside. There was, for example, to be an open-air roof-top swimming pool on the Spa. Given the British weather, this struck most people as a fairly whimsical idea, even with naturally warm water; but at a late stage someone thought of seagulls and their capacity to make a nuisance of themselves and so there is to be a roof. (A gloomy man observed to me that any tax-payer in BANES should be used to being soiled from a great height.) It is that sort of change that comes expensive.

The last rule is to remember that time equals money. Having agreed time-limits and hold everyone to them. The delays to the Spa have been painful. The firm who are to run it have engaged and trained over fifty people, and had them ready, on 'gardening leave', for months. It was to have been opened in August 2003, and the opening was to be marked by a concert by the 'Three Tenors'. The concert duly went ahead, and Messrs. Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti said nice things about the Spa. But it was firmly shut.

It was finished at last, and the pools were filled. All was ready; and then the paint lining the pools began to flake off. This, apart from being unpleasant for the customers, presented a threat to the building. The Council demanded that a specialist firm come in to take the paint off and re-do the job properly. The main contractors replied that they had used the paint specified and applied it correctly, and no Johnny-come-lately was going to enter their site. All parties adjourned to the High Court--to such a low ebb had relations between them sunk--where a Judge attempted to talk sense into them, and a six-figure bill for lawyers was added to the swelling pumpkin of costs.

It is a good example of a British disease, of which the symptoms are: first, sell the proposition to the public as an economical job which can be done quickly and be marvellous value for money. Second, let it run hopelessly over time. Third, quadruple the costs you first thought of, but only when the commissioning parties are too far committed to back out. The Scottish Parliament; the Channel Tunnel; Portcullis House (the office building for MPs); rebuilding railways--the list is too painful to continue. It is prevalent in the public sector, where the parties are spending 'nobody's money'. Interestingly, the biggest and most complex buildings in the country, the airport terminals, get built to time and to budget, but in the private sector.

That brings me to my second spa, and the lesson that spas do not have to be gut-wrenching exercises in spending more than you planned to, or more than you can afford. About seventy miles from Bath, in the midlands, lies the small town of Droitwich. Nowadays, it is a pleasant picturesque place, midway between Birmingham and Worcester and serving as a dormitory for both. But it was built on salt, and everywhere you go you are reminded that salt is the basis of Droitwich's existence and prosperity. In the 1880s, a local businessman, Mr Corbett, the 'Salt King', decided that brine baths would be a profitable extra outlet for the town's main, indeed only, product. He therefore built some, which were replaced by a new building in the 1980s.

Before I go on about Droitwich, I should point out that if you drive from Bath to Droitwich on the old road, not the motorway, you will pass through Cheltenham, which was also once a spa. Nowadays, Cheltenham is the only town I know which lives largely by eavesdropping. On the edge is a vast new building mis-called the Government Communications Centre, when it ought to be called the Other Governments' Communications Centre. The people in it are, after a fashion, spies. Once, they used to listen in to the armoured divisions of the Red Army. Nowadays, their most respectable activity is listening to al-Qaeda laundering money electronically. But there still is a tiny residual spa function, which is to be found on the road north, towards the racecourse. This passes an early-nineteenth-century garden suburb called Pittville; nothing to do with Pitt the Younger, but started by a Mr Joseph Pitt. The central feature of this planned, and attractive, area is a large building called the Pittville Pump Room, well worth a visit. In its main central lobby is a small fountain where you can drink, for free, the Cheltenham spa water which brought retired colonels to Cheltenham to restore their livers two hundred years ago. If you tell yourself firmly that it is doing you good, you can get a couple of glasses down--but not at present. Last month council officials halted the water supply to the pump room after discovering that leaks in the old borehole meant that visitors were mainly drinking rainwater. The spa must now have a new borehole which, officials claim, will cost the town only [pounds sterling]30,000. We shall see. (Times, 8 November 2003).

And so to Droitwich. Well sign-posted in the town centre are the Brine Baths, a simple, unpretentious modern building stuck on to the end of a small private hospital--where there is a sign announcing the Droitwich Knee Clinic--surrounded by lawns, flowerbeds and car parks. It has various facilities, such as a sauna and aromatherapy, and I glanced in a gymnasium divers instruments of torture, but its main feature is a swimming pool where swimming is discouraged and, I would think, impossible. It is full of brine at a terrific density, about two-and-a-half pounds of salt to the gallon. It is warm, almost hot, which is nice, but the main feature is the weightlessness one feels. It is difficult to keep one's feet on the floor. The water sparkles slightly as the salt removes the outer layers of one's skin. With a plastic flotation collar to keep the brine off one's face, one lies like a plank on the surface of the water, staring at the ceiling and thinking great thoughts. I tend to run out of thoughts, great or otherwise, after ten minutes, but half-an-hour is quite enough per visit. It is run by nice young ladies, who give you a fluffy towel on arrival and a cup of tea afterwards. In fact, it is a thoroughly civilised experience, at a very small cost ([pounds sterling]7.25, or [pounds sterling]5.50 for old people). On my first visit, I said to a fellow-bather that it must be rather like the Dead Sea. He replied 'I have been there, and I can assure you that this is a great deal cleaner and pleasanter'.

Droitwich cost, at a guess, one-twentieth of what Bath is spending on its Spa. It is run privately, and any losses it makes do not, I think, fall on the towns-people. It gives some health, and a lot of pleasure, to many people. It is an encouraging story to set against Bath's cautionary tale. If more people knew about it, we might--who knows?--see a revival of spas in an affordable way. There are several disused and forgotten: who has ever heard, for example, of the bromine baths which made Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire briefly prosperous? And then there are all those places in mid-Wales and the Marches with 'Wells' in their name--Llandrindrod, Builth, Llanwrtyd and Tenbury among them. Is there a spa potential there? Given the rainfall of mid-Wales, it seems unlikely that it was necessary to record a source of ordinary water.
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Author:Wedd, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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