Spas, baths & wells

Published in Caught by the River: A Nature Book Reader (2020)

Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells by S.P. Sutherland

Septimus Sutherland’s definitive guide to vanished places was published in 1915. My edition has etched plates protected by tissue paper, and gilt lettering stamped on its spine, and a book-shaped Foyle’s sticker inside the cover. It documents rumours, memories and dusty accounts of the wells, springs, spas and water features in and around London, mostly long gone. A drily scholarly book written as a past-time by a successful M.D. (Dr Sutherland lists his obstetrics appointments on the fly-leaf), it grabbed my imagination as a reincarnation with almost occult powers. The places he traces range from the Turkish baths of the City and the floating baths of the Thames to the Glauber salt springs at Acton Wells, drinking pumps and “wells of slight importance”. The chapter on holy wells is the most enticing of all, listing sites of ancient dedication hidden under the streets of Brockley, Kilburn, Tottenham or the Australian High Commission on the Aldwych. I see water as the key to unlocking London’s mystery. Springs, spas, baths and wells are a slipway through time, depositing us to wait in “a neglected pumproom” near Stoke D’Abernon in 1871, drink the “sulphur, vitriol, steel and antimony” waters at Shadwell Spa in 1745 or watch the eight-day long play staged at Clerke’s Well in 1409, to celebrate the 10th year of Henry IV’s reign, which represented the creation of the world.