The major health-resort of the Roman Empire was Aquae Sulis, which we know simply as Bath. The second most important was Aquae Arnemetiae, high in the bleak Derbyshire hills, which is now the town of Buxton.
Whereas the spring-water of Bath steams at a temperature of 116°F, Buxton water is comparatively tepid at 81-2°F. If you’re in Buxton, you don’t have to buy the stuff in a bottle; you can simply fill your flask for free at St Ann’s Well opposite the Crescent.
The fifth Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811), taciturn husband of the effervescent Georgiana (respectively played by Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess, 2008), reputedly used a single year’s profits from his copper-mine at Ecton, Staffordshire, to set up Buxton as a rival to Bath.
He employed the architect John Carr of York from 1780 to 1790 to build a crescent of hotels and lodging-houses, resembling John Wood II’s Royal Crescent at Bath. Whereas John Wood had the advantage of an eminence overlooking the Avon valley and sufficient space for his expansive half-ellipse of thirty residences, Carr had to incorporate the thermal spring on a cramped site at the bottom of a steep hill.
Carr made the best of it, and designed a semicircular crescent with an arcade that offers protection in a town that famously catches the worst of the weather at every season. Because of its low-lying position, the building is visible from all angles, especially by arriving travellers, so the cornice continues right round the building, hiding all the roof features except the cruciform chimney-stacks.
From no viewpoint is it apparent that the two return blocks are asymmetrical: the east wing has seven bays, while the west has only five. The wedge-shaped lodging houses are arranged with three storeys facing into the Crescent and four behind, so that the arrangement of rooms and staircases is curious and complex, to maximise the flexibility of accommodation for first- and second-class guests.
John Carr also gave Buxton, for the first time in its history, an imposing formal assembly room as part of the Great Hotel in the eastern pavilion. Carr’s command of three-dimensional planning challenged his masons: he was obliged to make a full-size model of the assembly room staircase which sits within the spandrel where the curved south wall joins the rectangular east wing.
This beautiful Adamesque assembly room with plasterwork by James Henderson Jnr of York was, in the 1970s, beautifully restored as the local branch library, until it became clear that the weight of the books and bookcases was threatening the stability of the floor. The library was quickly removed, and from 1993 onwards the rest of the building gradually fell derelict.
The whole exterior of the Crescent has been restored, but schemes to renew the interior and bring the building back into use have repeatedly stalled. The latest project is detailed at http://www.highpeak.gov.uk/hp/news/historic-agreement-paves-way-for-crescent-development.
The Buxton Crescent has stood empty for too long. It’s a building that deserves to be enjoyed.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.