Quarndon’s fascinating spa resort past

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 August 2017

Quarndon's Chalybeate Wellhouse Photo: Ashley Franklin

Quarndon's Chalybeate Wellhouse Photo: Ashley Franklin

Ashley Franklin Photography

Peter Seddon reflects on the village’s former fame as a spa resort

The plaque at Quarndon Wellhouse - only visible to keen-eyed pedestriansThe plaque at Quarndon Wellhouse - only visible to keen-eyed pedestrians

Quarndon has long been promoted in property circles as one of Derbyshire’s most desirable places to reside. In the 1920s the Derby Daily Telegraph even claimed that it prolonged life itself: ‘There are few villages better situated to conduce to longevity than Quarndon. Its altitude, subsoil and water all tend to produce a healthy, strong, long-lived people. There is little doubt that Quarndon holds the record for vigorous old age in the county, possibly even the entire country.’

The reference to Quarndon water was a tacit nod to the village’s former reputation as a spa resort, for since the 17th century visitors had come to ‘take the waters’ there in pursuit of cure and restoration.

But Quarndon’s fortuitous health industry gradually declined as other spa centres in Derbyshire – most notably Buxton and Matlock – achieved pre-eminence, more favourably served by the railway network. In contrast ‘Quarndon Spa’ was by 1900 a mere bygone curiosity – in any case the invigorating spring which fed the wellhouse had by then ceased to flow. For Quarndon at least, the age of the ‘aqueous miracle’ was well and truly dead.

It might be imagined that any trace of those far-off watering days has long-since vanished. Yet on Church Road close to the ancient Joiner’s Arms – first-recorded in 1702 – there still stands the ultimate monument to the lost mystique of ‘Quarndon Spa’, the well building itself.

Relic of a lost age - Quarndon's Chalybeate Wellhouse with the Joiner's Arms in the backgroundRelic of a lost age - Quarndon's Chalybeate Wellhouse with the Joiner's Arms in the background

Grade II listed by Historic England in 1967, the ‘Chalybeate Wellhouse’ is afforded a brief description under its designated number 1311372 – yet how much that scant entry leaves untold.

From modern Latin chalybs for steel, ‘Chalybeate’ is an archaic word for spring water containing traces of iron salts. Originating in the mid-17th century with the burgeoning mania for ‘mineral cures’, it became common currency in the lexicon of hydrotherapy. Today’s generation still enjoys spa breaks, but of a rather more indulgent kind – and ‘Chalybeate’ is obsolete in common usage.

That decline in the vogue for ‘curative waters’ was progressively sealed by major advancements in medical science – new medications and surgical techniques supplanted the old ways and superstitions. But when ‘taking the waters’ first became fashionable, medicine was so rudimentary that ‘magical cures’ were much relied upon, sometimes as a primary preventative but all too often as a last desperate hope to escape the grim suffering from ‘ye maladies of life’.

Like other spa centres Quarndon was simply fortunate that its geology combined to produce a natural spring with unusual mineral qualities – not quite the ‘black gold’ of oil but a similar blessing, and one to be roundly exploited.

Celebrated visitors Daniel Defoe, Admiral George Rodney and Dr Samuel Johnson - all 'took the waters' at both Quarndon and Kedleston in the 18th centuryCelebrated visitors Daniel Defoe, Admiral George Rodney and Dr Samuel Johnson - all 'took the waters' at both Quarndon and Kedleston in the 18th century

Although said to be unpleasantly ‘inky’ to the palate, there was no shortage of hyperbole in the impressive claims made for Quarndon Water. In 1663 it was written that ‘the Chalybeate there is good against vomiting, comforts ye stomach, cures ye ulcers of ye bladder, stops all fluxes, helps conception and stays bleeding in ye breast.’

Subsequent generations warmed to the theme. In his 1811 book on Derbyshire the antiquary Reverend D P Davies evangelised: ‘Its medicinal virtues are chiefly as a tonic, producing a genial glow, improving digestion, and giving strength and tone to the whole system. It is particularly serviceable in flatulency and in all cases of debility from free living and debauchery. Persons of a weak and relaxed habit have been much benefited by the use of Quarndon Water.’

Little wonder that Quarndon’s ‘cure all’ reputation saw it well-patronised – and with it the lodgings and hostelries experienced an upturn in trade, most notably in the peak ‘summer season’. Not that they satisfied all. After visiting in 1727 Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe – wrote: ‘We found the wells at Quarndon pretty full of company, the waters good and physical, but wretched lodging and entertainment.’

That is a further reason why spa destinations like Buxton, Harrogate, Bath and Tunbridge Wells ultimately prevailed over Quarndon – this quaint Derbyshire village was rather a backwater, and when the novelty wore off it proved neither fashionable nor racy enough for the ‘smart set’ to keep on coming.

Celebrated visitors Daniel Defoe, Admiral George Rodney and Dr Samuel Johnson - all 'took the waters' at both Quarndon and Kedleston in the 18th centuryCelebrated visitors Daniel Defoe, Admiral George Rodney and Dr Samuel Johnson - all 'took the waters' at both Quarndon and Kedleston in the 18th century

But initially they did – the high-mannered but equally-debauched Georgian era proving its heyday. In the late 1700s those from the ‘upper echelons’ were inclined to combine their Quarndon trip with a visit to Lord Curzon at nearby Kedleston Hall – for by good fortune there were springs ‘of a very different character’ on his Kedleston Park estate, infused with sulphur rather than iron, and more suited to bathing than quaffing.

His Lordship fully exploited this to afford his guests the twin-spa experience. A classical bathing house he had built over his sulphur pool still survives, a surprising landmark amid the sweeping fairways of Kedleston Park Golf Club’s course. In 1762 Curzon also raised the New Inn – now The Kedleston Country House – to accommodate his overflow guests. Perhaps that establishment could launch its own brand of ‘Quarndon Water’ – or a ‘Chalybeate Ale’.

Among those who sampled both spa treatments were dictionary-maker Doctor Samuel Johnson in 1774 and the popular naval hero Admiral Rodney in 1787. But for every celebrity outsider there were countless more locals who made the pilgrimage to Quarndon. The practice of walking from Derby became quite commonplace among the poorest, while for a period a daily coach service operated. Quarndon Water was also bottled for sale in Derby’s streets. Inevitably to sustain its reputation miraculous tales were told of ‘Quarndon Spa’ – a young girl had ‘walked every morning from Derby to bathe her troublesome eyes and obtained a permanent cure’. Many such stories circulated but the more sceptical of observers were inclined to the view that ‘any such improvement is owing to the exercise, change of routine and good air rather than the waters themselves.’

During Queen Victoria’s reign the waters at Quarndon were still taken, but by a less fashionable crowd and in diminishing numbers. Gradually the practice waned and from around the 1860s local directories began dropping any reference to ‘Quarndon Spa’, once grandly-dubbed ‘the Malvern of Derbyshire’.

By the 1890s the well-house had fallen into sad disrepair. Notwithstanding that, by 1897 the spring itself had all but dried up, reduced to an intermittent drip, said by some geologists to be the result of minor earthquake tremors in the vicinity in 1863 and 1895.

Although that causal link has been debated, what remains more certain is that by the start of the 20th century ‘Quarndon Water’ had ceased to flow completely. But blessedly the voice of conservationism resonated even then, enabling the structure itself to endure. In 1890 after the Derby Daily Telegraph lamented the ‘sorrowful condition of the old Spa House’ it was swiftly smartened up, and has retained its curious presence to this very day, now maintained by the Parish Council.

The structure presents a mysterious and romantic air almost reminiscent of a garden folly. A plaque commemorates the visit of Daniel Defoe, and the cast lion’s head from which the waters poured is still there, as is the clasp from which once hung an iron drinking cup. The Grade II listing for ‘special architectural and historic interest’ highlights its ‘open arcade, embattled parapet and canted projections’ and suggests the current stonework is ‘early 19th century’.

But its charms are not universally appreciated – one recent observer likened it to ‘a Gothic bus shelter’. Many driving past in cars may never have noticed it.

Nevertheless, among Derbyshire’s countless monuments the ‘Chalybeate Wellhouse’ is one of the more singular survivals which undoubtedly encapsulates a different age. As for the present, Quarndon and its environs still retain some excellent ‘watering holes’ of another kind – should an excuse be needed to take refreshment there, seeking out the remains of ‘Quarndon Spa’ might well serve the purpose... not to mention a perfect tonic to ‘ye maladies of life’.

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