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UK Spas Guide: History & Famous Spa Towns

Part of the Spa Guides

The history of spas in the UK

Spas in the UK guide by

Part of the Guides

One of the wonderful things about the world of spa is its global history, with different treatments, facilities and elements rooted in different parts of the world. Today, they all come together for us to enjoy in these dedicated hubs of wellbeing, and in the UK we are privileged to have a wide variety of experiences available to us.

Many of us think of spas in connection with Turkish baths, Roman baths and Moroccan mud rasuls, all of which are wonderful parts of the spa experience. However, the UK itself has its own wellbeing story woven into that collective history. Perhaps one of the most famous, and ancient, is the story behind Thermae Bath Spa. Naturally, some of its past has morphed into myth and legend, and its a history on which the whole city is built. Fed by natural thermal waters, it’s that magic passed on by Mother Nature that’s really special here.

The result is a world of wellbeing that continues to evolve today, incorporating the best of the past, present and future as each destination looks to incorporate new ideas and experiences that support the health and happiness of modern day spa goers.

UK spa towns

While the UK has a thriving spa industry today, with a wide variety of destinations peppered across both country and city, there are some towns who owe their entire legacy to the historic spa tradition. Across the UK, spa towns are built around the naturally occurring wellbeing properties of the surrounding area. Amongst the most famous are Malvern in Worcestershire, Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, Harrogate in North Yorkshire and Bath in Somerset.

The Malvern 16

Bronze Age bathing in Malvern

For example, Malvern has been a settlement since the Bronze Age but was formally founded in the 11th century. It was when Benedictine monks established a priory at the foot of the highest peak of Malvern Hills. Malvern became known as a spa town in the mid 19th century owing to its popularity as a hydrotherapy spa based on its spring waters.

Since then, it has understandably expanded, but it remains surrounded by verdant scenery. Close by the eponymous spa, The Malvern, continues to keep the spa tradition alive. Embracing its heritage, the contemporary spa offers a beautiful thermal suite and delectable treatments using the REN skincare line. The pool is also a total treat – like something out of an art gallery.

The Malvern Spa
The Bath Priory 3

Roman history in Bath

Perhaps the most famous of spa towns in the UK is Bath. It’s the chocolate box perfect city where no corner is anything less than beautiful. Here, the water that fell as rain 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, percolated 3km into the earth to an underground reservoir and through its own artesian pressure has come up in three springs. One of those springs feeds Thermae Bath Spa, channelled into the four baths within the thermae – naturally warm and mineral rich.

It is a World Heritage site, drenched in myth and legend. Throughout history there have been tales of the waters curing all sorts of things. King James I and his wife credited it with bringing them children, while the person who first discovered the waters was a prince who had contracted leprosy. He found this big muddy pool of water and in it both he and his pigs were cured, so he built a temple around the source of the waters.

Today, Thermae Bath Spa is amongst the city’s key attractions, although there are also other beautiful spas in the city, such as The Royal Crescent, known for its iconic facade and five star romance. Or The Bath Priory, where The Garden Spa by L’Occitane transports you to beautiful Provence, with the first and only spa by L'Occitane in the UK. Here, everything is drawn from the L’Occitane grand herbarium, a resource of hundreds of essential oils and natural ingredients making it unique and luxuriously relaxing.

Spas in Bath
Grantley Hall

Georgian wellbeing in Harrogate

Harrogate on the other hand has been consistently named the happiest place to live in Britain, which is a wonderful attribute for a historic spa town. The picturesque location in the Yorkshire Dales made its name in the Georgian era for the health-giving properties of the waters, which contain iron, sulphur and salt.

Travel around Yorkshire and you will find many destinations that draw on Harrogate’s historic spa tradition. The county makes full use of its natural beauty and intrinsic hospitality, making it a joy to visit and relax in.

Spas in Harrogate

Regency spa traditions in Cheltenham

Cheltenham is probably the best known town in Gloucestershire. The Regency spa town has been a health and holiday spa town resort since the discovery of mineral springs in 1716. Although, it’s also pretty well known for its eminent horse racing.

Two miles from the town itself, Ellenborough Park is one of the beautiful spa locations that continues the wellbeing tradition. A luxurious hotel spa in a 90-acre estate, it’s wellbeing for adults only, combining tranquillity and indulgence in glorious surroundings. While the hotel offers grand and historic style, the spa is a cocoon of its own, with a blissfully beautiful outdoor pool and indulgent thermal facilities and spa treatments - it’s perfect for romantic breaks or for sophisticated gatherings with friends.

Spas in Cheltenham

Top rated spa hotels and destination spas

Despite that history, the spa world has grown exponentially in the UK since the start of the noughties. Where there were only a reported 50 dedicated spas in the UK in 2006, by 2017 there were more than 900 wellbeing retreats and counting. That’s not including the hotel spas and leisure destinations that also bring a variety of experiences to the UK market.

Amongst them, there’s an abundance of opportunities to choose from for every occasion, from ultimate luxury to mid week escapes, destinations for celebrations with friends and the height of health and wellbeing escapes. Amongst the top rated spa hotels and destination spas, names like Champneys are recognised the world over for their collection of health retreats. Meanwhile, newer entries to the market include the likes of the reigning monarch of five star hotels - Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa, The Spa at Carden and many, many more. They all have their own unique attributes and take spa experiences to new heights with their ideas, innovation and attention to detail.

Location is also very much part of what makes UK spas so unique. The choice of country, city or coastal retreat is woven into the fabric of any spa experience. Head to Careys Manor Hotel & SenSpa in the New Forest for example, and you are enveloped into the National Park. Venture to the coast, and the likes of the Salcombe Harbour Hotel will treat you to pampering with a sea view. The Historic Sussex Hotels collection including Ockenden Manor, bring you historic buildings and contemporary spa facilities amidst chocolate box villages, and in the heart of the UK’s buzzing cities you can retreat in decadent style at the likes of The Dorchester Spa, ESPA Life at the Corinthia and K West Hotel and Spa.

In the UK today, the variety of spa destinations available is a rich tapestry of experiences, fusing history and innovation as well as the care and dedication of people who are passionate about what they do and the difference it makes to the health, wellbeing and mental health of the individuals who visit.

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