The eighteenth century was, for many of the new middling sorts and gentry, the era of leisure. If you were very well-heeled of course, you had nothing to do but leisure, and the historical traces of Pensnett Chase, for instance, hark back to the royal hunting grounds that once covered large swathes of the Black Country landscape. But this is the area that produced, for instance, the magnificant gardens at William Shenstone’s Leasowes in Halesowen, a neo-classical landscape that sadly no longer exists in anything like its original form.
Across the country sprang up spa towns, where it became fashionable to “take the waters” for medicinal (and social) purposes: Bath was the grandaddy, but Cheltenham, Buxton, Matlock, Malvern and many more vied for the trade. If you were part of the new industrialist set in the Black Country, your closest spa was probably Droitwich, well-known since Roman times as a source of salt, its brine now doubling as a cure for rheumatism.
But wait! What if I could find you somewhere closer, perhaps “in a romantic vale, agreeably diversified with plantations of firs… a spring of salt water, called the Lady Well, highly esteemed on account of its medicinal qualities, and in summer it is very much frequented”? What if I could tell you that its water was tested by the famous Lunar Society man, James Keir; that it was visited by real celebrities; that a hotel existed on site to cater for all your accommodation needs; that in fact people had been taking the water here for hundreds of years?
That’s right: alongside the famous Georgian crescents of Bath, or the by-royal-appointment wells of Cheltenham, we can now rank the Saltwells Spa, nestled idyllically between Cradley, Brierley Hill and Netherton.
That’s right, just yards from one of the most polluted rivers in the country, tucked behind a mineral railway leading to some of the 33 pits of the Saltwells Colliery, the enterprising owner of the Saltwells Inn decided to try and launch his local spring onto the fashionable spa market. The spring had been visited for its healthy waters since the Dr Plot wrote about it in 1636, but this does seem to be based on purely circumstantial evidence of any benefit. When the aforementioned Keir visited in 1798 his report was hardly glowing, and the decision was made instead to try extracting salt. This flopped too, but that didn’t stop Thomas Holloway. He advertised the waters (next to his Saltwells Inn) from about 1823, and even local legend William Perry, the Tipton Slasher, is reputed to have visited.
Although it’s thought that members of WBA and Aston Villa visited in the early twentieth century, it’s hard to imagine such a site thriving as a resort. With the best will in the world, the picture at the top of the post is extremely clever in making this area look quaint and rural; but Saltwells Wood is pitted with the remains of coalmining from the massive Saltwells Colliery, and the other side of Pedmore Road was the Wallows Colliery and Round Oak steelworks. This can hardly have had the gentility and tranquility of the better known spa towns.
I can tell you for certain that I never expected to find anything like this in the midst of Black Country of the nineteenth century, but you never know what you might find, really! For the full story, have a read of Cradley Links, Black Country Muse, or the Saltwells Inn website.