Archaeologists are this weekend hoping to uncover the remains of the lost Georgian bathing house in the grounds of Studley Royal. And everyone is welcome to come and see them at work. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
THE secret to good health back in Georgian times was thought to be a regular dip in icy fresh springwater. The curious phenomenon of public spa baths had first been encountered by fashionable English travellers abroad.
Back home, spa towns such as Harrogate, Bath and Knaresborough became increasingly popular, and authors of essays on health began to advocate ‘cold bathing’ as a cure for everything from leprosy to asthma, rheumatism, infertility, and even deafness.
In 1724, a certain Dr Cheyne recommended immersing the body in cold water two or three times a week. He gave detailed advice about the best way to do this.
“The Natural Way is, holding by the Rope, to walk down the Steps (of the bathhouse) as fast as one can, when get to the Bottom bending their Hams to shorten their Length, so as to bring their Heads a good way under water, and then popping up again to take Breath, and thus alternately two or three Times, and out again, rubbing and currying well before they are dress’d,” he instructed.
You can imagine the Georgian fashionable elite emerging from the icy water sputtering and shaking their hair, their skin blue with cold, before rushing off to get dry.
As the fashion for cold bathing spread, many of the great country houses began developing their own spring-fed bathing houses.
John Aislabie, the Ripon MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer and owner of the Studley Royal estate, was not about to be left behind.
He had already begun creating the famous water gardens at Studley Royal. And some time in the 1730s he built a stone bathing house of his own at a spring that bubbled out of a hill overlooking the gardens.
It was a low stone structure of classical design that consisted of two rooms connected by a stone corridor. One room contained a ten foot by eight foot cold plunge bath; the second, just along the corridor, a dressing room furnished with green and white furniture.
There were good reasons for Aislabie to have built such a house, says National Trust archaeologist Mark Newman – and they weren’t just because of the dictates of fashion.
One of the disorders a cold bath was said to cure was deafness – and towards the end of his life, Aislabie was becoming deaf. “His grandson was also in poor health,” Mark said.
A painting of Studley park made in 1848 shows the bathing house still there, more than 100 years after it was built – an elegant white building in the distance, framed by nearer trees.
Sadly, it has long since been lost: demolished in the 1850s as fashions changed. Bathing naked in public was no longer the done thing. “There was a change in morality in the late 18th and 19th centuries,” Mark said.
Now, however, a team of archaeologists led by Mark are attempting to uncover the foundations of the lost Georgian bathing house.
Guided by two early maps – one from 1831 and one from 1838 – they believe they have pinpointed where the bathing house once stood, on a slope overlooking the water gardens.
They began digging a trench on Wednesday this week, in the hopes of unearthing the foundations of the old plunge room – and by yesterday had already reached a depth of more than a metre, where they encountered evidence of Victorian brick drainage pipes.
Mark admitted he was surprised by how deep they had had to dig – evidence, he said, that the Victorians had landscaped the area, building it higher, possibly to improve drainage.
But he remained confident. “I think we’re in the right place. It is just deeper than we thought.”
He and his team plan to continue digging throughout the weekend – and will also sink a second trench a little further to the south, where they believe the bathing house’s dressing room may have been.
But they say they will welcome any visitors over the weekend, both to see what progress they have made – and to ask questions about the Georgians’ odd views on bathing, health, recreation and sensuality.
“We would be delighted if people come along,” Mark said. “It’s an opportunity to see archaeology in progress – which brings sites like this to life!”
Who could pass up an offer like that? Especially when, even if they don’t find anything, you’ll still be able to explore the stunning Studley grounds and deer park. They haven’t been granted World Heritage status for nothing…
• Studley Royal Water Garden is open between 10am and 6pm. Entry to the gardens, and to the ruins of Fountains Abbey, which were incorporated into the grounds by John Aislabie’s son William, is free to National Trust members. Otherwise there is a charge of £8.60 adults; £4.50 children; £21.80 for a family ticket.