Sunday, 4 December 2016
There it was, a wellhead of undistinguished modern design (erected 1989) surrounded by circular paving, with a few brick steps leading up to it, the whole surrounded by Fifties bungalows, outside one of which a man was doggedly hanging up his Christmas lights. This, incredibly, was the well (long dry) around which England's first spa had grown up. To quote the inscription around the wellhead: 'The Epsom Well, the medicinal waters that in the the 17th century made Epsom the first spa town in England, a great resort and famous throughout Europe.'
As I took in the curious scene - the titivated remnant of the historic well set in its bungaloid circus - something about it rang a bell. Yes, Iain Sinclair in London Orbital describes being led reluctantly to it (by the painter Laurence 'Renchi' Bicknell) in the course of his M25 circumambulation, and being duly underwhelmed. A tad harshly, he describes the 'new' Old Well as having 'a touch of the fishing leprechaun about it'. The Old Well, he concludes, is a case of 'lost heritage' - and, to be sure, it is hard, standing on that spot, to sense any connection with the well that made Epsom famous and launched the great fashion for 'taking the waters'.
These waters were in demand because they contained a great deal of Magnesium Sulphate - 'Epsom salts' - reputedly health-giving, undoubtedly purgative in the quantities imbibed at the Epsom well. Visitors were encouraged to down as much as 15 or 16 pints of the often murky water, then walk on the Common until obliged to dart into the bushes. Men and women retired separately for this purpose, and locals could earn a few pennies acting as lookouts to preserve their privacy.
As with many subsequent spas, there was something about Epsom that seems to have encouraged gaming, philandering and over-indulgence. Thomas Shadwell (immortalised in Poets' Corner and as the butt of Dryden's satirical barbs) had a hit with Epsom Wells, a stage comedy about the goings-on at the spa. As Sinclair drily remarks, 'The combination of bodily purging with amorous adventure, gaming houses and gluttony was perfectly suited to the English love of 'Carry On' humour. Farts, gropes, excursions.'
Epsom may have been the first English spa, but its glory days were not long. Despite the digging of new wells in the town, Epsom had fallen out of fashion by the mid-18th century as the waters began to fail, Epsom salts became available (no need to drink the water) and other spa towns, with more attractive facilities, grew up around the country. But it was not the end of Epsom, which continued to thrive as a healthy and relatively civilised place quite close to London (with excellent horse-racing on the Downs) and is still a pleasant small town today. All's well that ends well, you might say.