Built on the site of its famous mineral water spring, Buxton Crescent, the first health and leisure resort in England, has reopened, after a £70m investment and years of renovation. Stephanie Sparrow reports.
Buxton Crescent is a Georgian architectural gem. The building, a perfect semi-circle created from local gritstone and a determination to put this Derbyshire spa town on the leisure map, was testament to the audacious vision in 1789 of a wealthy aristocrat and the pulling power of Buxton water.
Bold ambitions for the Crescent and the town have surfaced again. On 1 October, more than 230 years after the fifth Duke of Devonshire, Henry Cavendish, unveiled an arc of hotels, lodging houses, assembly rooms and shops for visitors taking the warm spring water "cures", spa operator Ensana has opened the doors of the Buxton Crescent hotel.
Costing in the region of £70m, with contributions from public and private sector stakeholders (see panel), the new 81-bedroom hotel and 20,000 sq ft spa represent 17 years of restoration work of the Grade I-listed building and its Grade II-listed bath house, which had been abandoned for 30 years.
The bath house has been incorporated into a new spa complex, which comprises eight treatment rooms, a gym, exercise studios and three pools, including an indoor-outdoor rooftop hydrotherapy pool.
"This has been the good news story for our industry," says the hotel's general manager Jonathan Dawson, pointing to support from investors and the money injected into the UK supply chain.
"Coronavirus has been terrible in a number of ways and wreaked havoc for our industry, but we have been immensely fortunate in that we have achieved what we needed to."
Catching up again with Dawson at the beginning of the second lockdown, he was stoical in outlook. "The new lockdown is immensely disappointing, because we had got into our stride," he admits. "But, of course, we have to follow the regulations, and the support that the industry has had from people such as UKHospitality's Kate Nicholls has been phenomenal."
His resolute approach has stood him in good stead throughout the year. Spring's lockdown fell just before the original opening date of May. Newly appointed staff had to be furloughed and finishing touches delayed until contractors could be allowed on-site.
Covid-19 restrictions then impacted the hotel's offering following its opening in October. Access to the spa is included in the room rate – hotel guests only pay for treatments – and so to manage guest traffic in the spa, with staggered time slots and intervals for cleaning, the hotel had to run at 60% occupancy. Day spa packages were suspended and the hotel was closed to non-residents in order to create "a bubble of hotel guests".
Coronavirus aside, it is no mean feat to create a 21st-century hotel and European-style spa in a listed building featured on Historic England's Heritage At Risk Register. Since the idea to convert what had become decrepit council offices was mooted 20 years ago, costs have trebled from an early estimate of £23m.
Completing the project, while ensuring that building works did not affect the mineral spring (which also serves the Nestlé bottling plant on the outskirts of Buxton and the ancient St Anne's Well opposite the Crescent), was challenging.
"It is my philosophy to do the unusual with what seems impossible," says Trevor Osborne, chairman of the eponymous property company, who is known for projects such as converting an Oxford jail into a Malmaison hotel.
It is my philosophy to do the unusual with what seems impossible
Renovations at Buxton Crescent uncovered hundreds of rotting windows, now replaced with handmade units in the Georgian style. Decaying timber beams and slapdash work by Victorian workers (commissioned by the later seventh duke, who expanded Buxton's offerings) resulted in the need for steel supports.
"In addition, we have created a much heavier interior than Carr had thought of, because the [Georgian] rooms didn't have bathrooms or central heating," says Osborne.
Yet every setback – such as trees sprouting in the old thermal baths – was eclipsed by the stunning architectural details and curious artefacts, now incorporated into the 21st-century Crescent.
For example, an occasional table in the foyer has been made from a peat truck found in the basement, which would have been used when a hand-pushed railway delivered peat from the Derbyshire moors into the baths complex for therapeutic heat treatments (see spa panel).
Similarly, the piles of newspapers from 1879, which Victorian builders used to wedge wooden boxing onto the crumbling grand staircase, featured adverts for the Crescent, which are now framed and hang in the corridors.
Moving from the quirky to the breathtaking, a sweeping staircase leads to the Assembly Room, created by Cavendish to hold grand balls, but had more recently served as the county council library. Unfortunately, the weight of the bookcases on the parquet floor had tugged at the elaborate ceiling above, which the room's decorative pillars could not support. The space has since been restored, and is now home to a pair of magnificent 16-light chandeliers by eminent Georgian designer William Parker.
The library's colour scheme has also been recreated. "The people of Buxton still remember what it looked like and so we were keen to keep it," says Dawson referring to the red and blue patterned ceiling, offset by light cream walls.
The Assembly Room, which can host 186 guests theatre-style and 120 seated, has been licensed for civil ceremonies, like many of the Crescent's public spaces. Prior to the November lockdown the hotel had received provisional bookings for 2021 and 200 enquiries for 2021-2023.
The hotel has another six meeting or function rooms, all bathed in natural light from the restored Georgian arched windows. Of these, the Edwardian Blue Room, known for its ornate blue and white Lincrusta ceiling tiles, is Dawson's favourite.
"Lincoln Conservation used 3D printing to produce 100 new embossed ceiling tiles," he says, "which English Heritage loved because they were using modern technology to replicate what was here."
The room, which can accommodate 40 delegates theatre-style and 24 guests for a banquet, is also remarkable for its large gilt mirror, which was found boarded up.
Adapting for history
Whether recording details, such as scraps of wallpaper found in the building, or cataloguing and safely redeploying its Georgian internal doors (made when people were shorter and fire regulations did not exist) Dawson emphasises that "the building has dictated what we can do".
This is particularly true of the rear elevation, which Carr designed to accommodate visitors' servants in attic bedrooms out of view in a hidden fourth storey.
Now part of a range of seven room types, Dawson decided to celebrate their provenance by marketing them as attic rooms. The rooms each have queen-size beds and vary in size from 20 sq m to 22 sq m, while larger ‘attic superiors' feature restored exposed trusses.
Room types on the other floors are Crescent classic, Crescent superior, junior suite and the largest, the Crescent suite (50 sq m to 52 sq m, with a king-size bed). Sizes vary within the types thanks to the irregularities of the old building.
On the ground floor are four accessible rooms, developed in conjunction with a guest who uses such accommodation at Danubius Hotel Regents Park – CP Holdings' city centre brand.
Opening rates range from £125 in the attic to £350 for a suite, with Buxton residents eligible for a 10% discounted rate across accommodation, the spa and food and beverage.
White bathroom fittings from Mayflower Bathroom Supplies give a traditional feel to the en suites. Unique touches include roll-top baths placed below windowsills, which allow guests to look across Buxton, and four-poster beds in some suites.
Interiors have a soft palette of burgundy, grey, blue and pale brown, redolent of the heathery slopes of the Peak District nearby. Wallpaper in a smudged damask style by Muraspec smooths out unavoidable lumps caused by replastering old, uneven walls.
"We chose a restful colour scheme because the hotel has been built for leisure and weddings, not suits," says Dawson.
National and regional craftsmen and suppliers have been central to bringing the hotel to life, explains Dawson. Beds and ziplink mattresses are from Harrison Spinks in Leeds, while Clayton Contract Furnishings from Accrington supplied chairs, curtains, voiles and blinds.
British artists were commissioned to create prints and paintings for the bedrooms and foyer, while in the spa, a mural by Katie Bird features mermaids who, according to local folklore, lived in the lakes around Buxton. Downstairs panels of a colourful paper called Menagerie of Extinct Animals by Moooi Wallcovering nod to Charles Darwin's visit to take the Buxton waters. The Victorian gentleman's club feel is enhanced by a restored fireplace of glazed tiles and wing-back leather chairs.
The hotel has a restaurant and Spa Café, each served by their own kitchens. The Spa Café offers light meals, while the restaurant offers heartier fare, including Cumbrian venison (£26), and canon of English lamb (£28). Head chef Mark Walker, previously of the Mere in Knutsford, Cheshire, and Rookery Hall in Nantwich, Cheshire, has described the menu as "proudly British".
During October the hotel was proving popular with local and national visitors. The staycation market is expected to come back strongly, particularly as the town offers easy access to popular outdoor pursuits.
"We're like a country house hotel without the grounds, but with the Peak District on our doorstep," says Dawson. "Even before coronavirus we were working on the assumption that 95% of business would be UK-based." It is hoped that Ensana's European hotels will help grow the overseas market considerably.
Catching up in early November, Dawson remains positive, with staff furloughed and improvements to IT systems planned. "This new lockdown is just a pause, not a full stop," he explains.
This new lockdown is just a pause, not a full stop
Buxton Crescent is part of the Buxton Crescent and Thermal Spa project, a collaboration between Derbyshire County Council and High Peak Borough Council. The councils granted the 200-year lease to Buxton Crescent Ltd, a private company jointly owned by CP Holdings (of which Ensana is the spa brand) and the Trevor Osborne Property Group. The councils covered the "conservation deficit" or specific non-commercial costs of working on such an important building.
Financial contribution towards the £70m project includes a £23.8m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a £2m grant from the Local Enterprise Partnership D2N2.
The two councils have also granted a long lease to the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust, a charitable organisation which will operate its Visitor Experience. Housed in nine rooms of the Crescent building, but with a separate entrance, the museum opened to prebooked "Buxton bubbles" of guests on 20 October. Among its exhibits are curios unearthed by the hotel during renovation.
Mud treatments, underwater massages and relaxation pools are familiar to spa guests at Ensana's resorts across Eastern Europe, but Dawson says that they also fit seamlessly with the spa offering in Derbyshire.
"Many of what people might call European-style treatments were already being done in the UK years ago and fell away," he says.
He explains that by the Victorian era, the reputation of Buxton water was such that therapists and a hydrotherapy hospital moved into the town, before the introduction of the NHS in 1948 diminished the popularity of private cures.
Dawson, who spent eight months in Slovakia running an Ensana hotel and learning about European spa culture, explains the benefits of the expertise he has gained, particularly in setting up the mud kitchen, where 20kg containers of peat from Heviz lake in Hungary are sterilised and heated before being applied in mud wraps. The body is said to benefit from minerals and warmth, like Buxtonians' heated peat "baths" of yesteryear.
Buxton water is, of course, the centrepiece of the spa, and today's guests can relax in a thermal pool of untreated water just as visitors did 200 years ago. Carr's bath house was revamped by the Victorians, and then by the council in the 1920s. Its 19th-century cast-iron columns and the later addition of art deco tiles have been renovated.
The Cresent's salt cave, sprayed with sodium chloride, and Dead Sea salt floor, are said to help respiration. The tradition is based on the healthy breathing of Eastern European salt miners, "similar to Victorians promoting the benefits of sea air," adds Dawson.
The spa's therapies and beauty treatments are delivered by a team of six therapists including a physiotherapist, with the support of four receptionists and four spa attendants.
Entry to the pools, including the indoor-outdoor rooftop hydrotherapy pool, is free to hotel guests. A separate fee schedule for the treatments is in the region of £65.
Deals such as the Pure Indulgence Package (from £558, for a minimum of two nights) were being developed before the second lockdown, with plans to nurture the longer stays seen in Ensana's European resorts.
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