Gentry sweltered in town's Turkish bath
FOR Victorian guests at Tunbridge Wells's biggest and most splendid hotel, a highlight of their stay was the chance to shed their inhibitions, strip off their clothes and enjoy the painful pleasures of a Turkish bath.
Progressing from the tepidarium (warm room) to the calidarium (hot room) and, for the brave, the laconicum, with searing temperatures of up to 116C, bathers sought to sweat away their aches and pains using top-of-the-range facilities provided by the Bishop's Down Grove Spa Hydropathic Sanatorium in Langton Road – today's Spa Hotel.
The passion for these baths, in which users sweltered in rooms heated by hot dry air then enjoyed a full body wash followed by a massage, was sweeping the country by the time Tunbridge Wells's own hydro-hotel opened in 1878. Distinguished guests piled on to a special train to bring them down from London, and within a few years it was attracting over 25,000 visitors a year, many from overseas.
Like similar establishments up and down the country, the hotel offered a wide range of water treatments under the direction of a resident physician. And with 170 beds and up to 100 staff to wait on guests, it was good business for a spa town long past its heyday.
Originally known as Bishop's Down Grove, the family mansion had been built for local grandee Sir George Kelley, owner of the Manor of Rusthall and all the land and property that went with it. Extended to form the new hotel, it offered sumptuous accommodation for those who could afford it, with well-kept grounds for wandering and extensive views to the town and surrounding countryside.
In an era when doctors could do little to help those who suffered from painful rheumatism or gout, the Turkish bath provided welcome, if rather uncomfortable, relief. However, the final part of the process – relaxing in the frigidarium, or cooling room, for an hour or more – was unalloyed pleasure. One satisfied customer described the pleasure of being dried by an attendant with a warm sheet and led to a couch, "our bodies shining like alabaster and as sleek as satin".
He added: "An attendant then fans us with feathers. Coffee, pipes, sherbet, sweetmeats, fruit etc are offered, and a period of entire repose follows and, in a comparatively short time, vigour returns to the frame, and sensations of unusual strength, lightness and activity pervade the system."
But it was not only humans who were thought to benefit from the treatment. It was also used to train racehorses, and removal company Pickford's, who relied on working horses, built a Turkish bath big enough to treat 20 at a time.
Many Victorian hospitals, asylums and workhouses, including the old Sussex District Lunatic Asylum in Haywards Heath, also brought in Turkish baths because of their beneficial effect on patients, and great ocean liners like the Titanic invested in them too.
Like most health crazes, the passion for Turkish baths reached a peak and then faded. By the next century, the old sanatorium-style treatment centre had evolved into the modern Spa Hotel, used as much by local families and business people as by foreign visitors.
The Spa was taken over by the Goring family, whose London hotel has long been a favourite with the royal family, in 1964. They ran it until 2007, when it was sold to Scragg Hotels, sparking a further period of expansion and refurbishment.
Although the Turkish bath is long gone, 21st-century guests can still enjoy the pleasure and pain of the modern steam room and other health facilities. However, the ritual of being wrapped in a sheet and fanned with feathers by an attentive assistant has melted away into the past.