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Bracing air and sulphur baths for the convalescents.

Byline: By Tony Henderson

The Gilsland Spa Hotel sits 700ft above sea level ( a reminder of the village's heady days as a spa resort.

From the turn of the last century, it was used as a convalescent home for Co-operative Society members in the North of England but it also welcomed paying visitors as well as the patients.

Today, the Co-op Group owns 95% of the shares in the hotel, with the rest spread among Co-op societies such as Seaton Valley and Penrith.

The hotel, along with others in the area, catered for the visitors who arrived to partake of the sulphur water and chalybeate, or iron springs. The waters were said to cure rheumatism, kidney disease, indigestion, low spirits, gout, consumption, skin complaints and "worn out constitutions". As well as drinking the water, visitors could have hot and cold sulphur baths.

In its 19th Century heyday, bathing rooms, refreshment and book stalls lined the banks of the River Irthing.

But in the 17th and much of the 18th Centuries, Gilsland had been a dangerous place to visit. Of particular note was Mumps Hall, an inn with a landlady, Meg O'Mumps, who, along with her husband and regulars, was said to have specialised in relieving travellers of their worldly goods.

The inn, now a house, features in Sir Walter Scott's novel Guy Mannering.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, people, including Walter Scott and the poet Robbie Burns, began calling to take the waters.

Shaws Hotel was one of the establishments built to cater for the trade, which increased with the arrival of a railway station as part of the 1836 Newcastle-Carlisle railway.

The building was destroyed by fire in 1859 and what is now the Gilsland Spa Hotel replaced it.

Jim Lamb, former director of the Newcastle Co-op, a director of the North Eastern Co-op board and chairman for nine years of Gilsland Spa board, has researched the history of the hotel. He found that in 1893 it was leased to the Gilsland Spa and Hydro company of South Shields.

There were three classes of guest, all with separate dining rooms.

Third-class breakfast time was 8am, second-class 8.30am while first-class could have a lie-in until 9am.

The niceties of class continued with third and second-class guests having their main meal in the middle of the day.

First-class had luncheon at midday and dinner in the early evening.

The Co-op changed its plans to build a convalescent home in Rothbury and bought the hotel instead.

The Gilsland Convalescent Hotel Souvenir of 1903 did not hold back in its description of the area.

"Gilsland is God's Country. So multifarious are its charms, one is inclined to think, not to be profane, that the Almighty in some primeval period, rested on the spot and left the impress of the Celestial upon the Terrestrial.

"There the invalid can breathe the life-giving air which will brighten the faded lustre of his eye and restore the emaciated frame."

Under the Co-op, the daily routine began with a warning bell at 8am and porridge and milk, ham and egg at 8.30am.

Dinner was at 12.30pm with roast beef, vegetables and pudding, then tea at 4.30pm of bread, butter and jam, an 8pm supper of bread and butter, and lights out 10.30pm.

When it came to baths, guests were spoilt for choice. There were hot and cold plunge baths, sulphur water baths, Russian and Turkish baths, and vapour and needle baths.

In the days before heated bedrooms, the guests queued at 9.30pm at a hatch to have hot water bottles filled.

In the 1930s the rules stipulated that patients were forbidden to use their bedrooms between 10am-7pm and, if they felt ill, they were not allowed to go to bed without permission of the matron.

A notice in the hotel dance hall also read: "Male residents are requested not to molest or interfere with the maids in the course of their duties."

The hotel was taken over at the outbreak of the Second World War by Newcastle Corporation, to be used as a maternity home removed from the threat of bombing.

More than 1,000 North-Easterners were born at the hotel and, in the last few years, a number have returned to celebrate their 60th birthdays.

In the 1950s, a working holiday scheme offered Co-op guild volunteers free room, food and travelling expenses in return for their services in the hotel.

Jim Lamb, who lives in Newcastle, reckons that the last convalescents used the hotel in the early 1980s.

He says: "While they talked about the waters, it is my view that it was the bracing, clean country air which was of benefit to the convalescents."

The building is now run as a country hotel.

Current Gilsland chairman Russell Porteous, who lives in Whickham in Gateshead and is also a member of the Co-op board said: "It is a wonderful place and it has a loyal customer base on Tyneside, while we will gain from attractions like the Hadrian's Wall trail as it becomes increasingly popular."
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 14, 2005
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