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Spas: Pleasure or Penance?

Taking the waters became a Victorian passion and spa towns flourished. In this article the first prize winner in History Today's Essay Competition Pamela Steen, a student at the Open University, describes the pleasure and the pains of this fashion.

'One would think the English were ducks, they are for ever waddling to the waters', said Horace Walpole in 1790. Waddle was not an inept word for the movement of upper class society, both awheel and afoot in the heyday of spas. On roads which were often deeply rutted in winter by the constant muddy passages of carriages, stagecoaches, horses and carts, or potholed and serrated into knife-edged concrete ruts in dry summers, the best sprung coach waddled with duck-like lack of elegance. In the middle years of Victoria's reign there were signs of decline. With the invasion of these hitherto select inland resorts by rail-borne Everyman came the first indications of a shift of intention; from health-seeking over several weeks with discreet pleasure attached towards heartier pleasuring for its own sake, in pursuit of which the lower classes also began waddling into the waters of the rapidly expanding English spas. Into this latter-day England were born the last of the new spas, small establishments more like public pleasure gardens, offering a glass of sparkling water as an excuse for pure entertainment. The spa age was a unique period in social history, fascinating for its contrasts between artificial languishings and cultivated fragility on the one hand and, on the other, those mortifications of the flesh imposed in health's name.

Wherever wealth and breeding discovered new and exclusive waters, making them into fashionable spas, the towns developing around them reflected in similar pattern the tastes and superimposed laws of etiquette of the new squares and crescents. Why go to the spas or create new ones? Why to one spa rather than another? Not necessarily for medical reasons – though medicinal use of the waters was of importance in such places as Bath.. Taking the cure was, in others, a sketchy early morning formality, preceding days of driving and idling, and evenings of pleasure.

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