With the restoration of the historic Crescent fully completed and open to visitors, Buxton can once again bask in its early glory. Brian Spencer explores this, the highest market town in England.
Buxton retains the best of its Victorian spa-town layout, especially around the town centre, managing to ignore the massive limestone quarries on its doorstep. The town can trace its roots to the Celts who discovered thermally heated water and dedicated its flow to their goddess Santan. Later on this well provided warm water for a Roman Bath built to cleanse and relax troops garrisoning the nearby fort of Aquae Arnemetiae, thought to lie somewhere near Buxton’s present market place. Heated to a constant 28°C (82°F), rising from deep within the earth, the waters have never failed and from medieval times onwards, people came to Buxton on pilgrimage. Dedicated to St Ann, a Christianised version of the Celtic name, at one time the well was thought to have miraculous powers; pilgrims left mementos of their alleged cure, but Henry VIII thought it was going too far and ordered it to be closed. Canny folk still collect their drinking water from the constant flow of pure water that gushes from the ornamental well next to the Tourist Information office opposite the Crescent.
The development of modern Buxton began with the fashion of ‘taking the waters’ for their curative powers. The well was visited by the great and the good, including Mary Queen of Scots during her imprisonment at Chatsworth, but the major expansion of the town came about in the eighteenth century.
This was when the 5th Duke of Devonshire by using the £120,000 annual profits from his copper mines in the Manifold Valley planned to create the northern version of Bath. For the centre piece of his grand design, he appointed the architect John Carr of York to build the splendid Crescent which originally contained hotels, lodging houses, grand assembly rooms and several baths. Failing with the decline of spas, the Crescent fell into disrepair, but following restoration has now come back to life as Grade I listed building as a thermal spa and 79-bed five star Buxton Crescent Hotel. Included in the development are eight specialist shops, the refurbished pump room. Around the corner from the Crescent, arcaded shops now fill the space where bathers once eased their rheumatic limbs.
Across the way from the Crescent a short queue of devotees can usually be seen waiting their turn to collect free spa water flowing constantly from St Ann’s Well – the same water that is bottled close by and sold throughout the land. Behind the well, graded paths known as the ‘The Slopes’ that once tested the benefits of the water cure, were laid out by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1811. It was he who also designed the classical church of St John, situated behind the Crescent. Bright and spacious within, fine stained glass windows light the massive marble and alabaster pulpit and attractive font. Outside and above the imposing portico, the stately cupola oddly enough only holds one bell.
Opposite the church and overlooking roads to the north and west, the circular dome of the Devonshire Hospital was originally a riding school. Now used by the High Peak section of Derby University, when it was built in 1790, the central part was open to the skies and used for equestrian events, together with stabling and grooms’ accommodation built around the side of the circle. In 1858 the 6th Duke converted half of the building into a hospital specialising in orthopaedic treatments, and then in 1880 it was decided to cover the central space with what is still the world’s largest unsupported dome, with a span of 154ft.
Along with visitors from far and wide, it became fashionable for Manchester textile barons’ families to move in for the ‘season’, with fathers commuting at weekend. The stately Palace Hotel was built about this time to accommodate the increased numbers of visitors, and to entertain them, the Pavilion together with its attractive riverside gardens was opened in 1871. The gardens still evoke their Victorian splendour, but what was lacking in those days was a public swimming pool. Using the readily available thermal water, a modern indoor pool now fits into one corner of the park.
Of all the buildings from this bygone era, the opulently ornate Opera House, ‘The Theatre in the Hills’, the masterwork of the theatrical architect, Frank Matcham, still evokes its Edwardian elegance. Throughout the year, concerts and plays with nationally acclaimed actors and performers are staged; Gilbert and Sullivan productions as well as festivals are a regular feature, drawing groups from all over the world as well as local societies. Buxton and its Opera house now plays host to the internationally renowned Buxton Festival for Music and the Arts. Opposite the entrance and often missed there is an angular shaped Victorian pillar box, a rarity in this day and age, which has stood there almost as long as the theatre.
Buxton’s history from the dawn of time almost to the present day is explained in the award winning Museum and Art Gallery near the market place. Dioramas, complete with sound effects, graphically bring back the time of the dinosaurs. Along with the archaeological remains and fine examples of objects made from Derbyshire black and coloured marbles and Blue John stone, the study of the local philosopher, Sir William Boyd-Dawkins has been lovingly recreated as it would have looked a hundred years or so ago.
The town is old and new, Higher and Lower Buxton. Higher Buxton is the older part beyond The Slopes, and where the village green is now the market place and bus terminus. The remains of a Saxon stone preaching cross which was once a central feature has been moved for its safety to the side of the square. Set back a little in a secluded corner is Buxton’s oldest church. It was built in 1625 to replace the well-chapel closed by Henry VIII. It has a stone roof and a bell gable, and is lit by small square-headed windows. Fine stout ancient tiebeams support the roof; the font is Jacobean, along with a handsomely carved reading-desk. John Kane, a famous eighteenth-century comedian who died in Buxton is buried in the churchyard.
Spring Gardens, Buxton’s main shopping street is mostly pedestrianised, and has a pleasing mix of multiple and family run stores, and cafes. Regular Wednesday and busy Saturday markets are held in the square at the top of the hill beside the Ashbourne Road (A515), above the town centre, where there are more shops.
As befits a place where winters can be long and harsh (a county cricket match was once abandoned under 18 inches of snow – in June!), there is a purpose-built toboggan run just outside the town. Carved into a corner of Cavendish Golf Course it is now known locally as the Cresta Run and was built by bored Canadian soldiers awaiting demobilisation at the end of the First World War. Quite exciting when the snow is just right, it can be found on the left immediately beyond the last houses as you climb out of Buxton on the A5002.
Grin Low Country Park is just outside the town and to the south. Here you will find Poole’s Cavern, Solomon’s Temple, ‘Go-Ape’ high level wire adventures and for gentler exercise, walks in the nearby woods.