The Heyday of Hotwells

Hotwells in Clifton became a friendly rival to Bath as a Georgian spa.

Hotwell House

This lithograph by Samuel Jackson shows the Hotwell House before it was demolished in 1822. It held a pump room and lodgings for visitors. (Bristol Central Library).

Perched on a green hillside overlooking the dramatic Avon Gorge, the old village of Clifton was blessed with a beautiful setting. It took its name from the cliff it stood on. Below that cliff lay a natural wonder.

Water welled up from the ground ready-heated. It was warm rather than hot. Bath is the only place in Britain that can claim truly hot springs. Still Clifton's water tasted better: As warm as new milk and much of that sweetness said traveller Celia Fiennes. From this attraction the Hotwell spa grew up. It throve on ignorance. The limitations of medical science drove people to take the waters of supposedly curative springs. Yet the Hotwell had a relatively short life.

Its inaccessibility would have daunted all but the most resolute of developers. The water sprang up from the Avon riverbed and mingled with the river at high tide. There was no easy approach to the spring by land. It was cut off by the sheer face of St Vincent's Rocks. Not until the 17th century do we hear of the Hotwell water attracting invalids. A way down from Clifton was cut into the rocks, though it sounds alarming: A rocky and steep-winding and craggy way - near 200 slippery steps. No wonder some preferred to buy the water bottled. But in 1662 a carriage road was cut out of the rock along the riverside.

The Bristol Society of Merchant Venturers saw possibilities for this little spa. As owners of a large chunk of Clifton, the society leased the well in 1695 to two Bristol merchants for development. The spring was enclosed and its water pumped up into a new Hotwell House, which combined a pump room with lodgings. This then was the spa at the dawn of the Georgian age.

Enticingly it was claimed to cure a long list of diseases including tuberculosis (known then as consumption). Before antibiotics TB was deadly. The desperation of sufferers can be imagined. When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, contracted a galloping consumption, he wrote his own epitaph. It was premature. In 1754 he tried the waters of the Hotwells.

Notice the plural. By that time a second warm spring had been discovered further down river. (It now feeds a drinking fountain on Portway.) Wesley drank from both springs, but favoured the New Hotwell, where he could be free from noise and hurry. Indeed it was so isolated that it never had much success as a spa. But here it was that Wesley made a remarkable recovery. We may wonder whether the fresh air of Clifton gave more relief to his labouring lungs than the water. But such cures drew many other sufferers, who were generally not so fortunate.

By the end of the century belief in the healing properties of the waters was fading. Visitors were also deterred by higher charges after 1790. A decline set in for the Hotwells, though by this time Clifton had much more to offer than its warm water.

The Colonnade

The Colonnade curves into a cliff beside the Avon. Built as a shopping arcade for spa visitors in 1786, it is all that remains of the old Hotwell complex.

Starting with Dowry Square, elegant Georgian terraces had spread across the green slopes of Clifton. There were two assembly rooms. There were hotels, lodging houses and taverns. Down below there was a colonnade of shops beside Hotwell House, which included a circulating library. The New Vauxhall Gardens offered riverside walks. Since only the wealthy could afford to patronise spas, there was money to be made in catering to their comforts and pleasures.

In its heyday Hotwells was crowded with the nobility and gentry. There was a ball, a public breakfast and a promenade every week, and often twice a week. The Pump Room was packed and the walk to it thronged with fashionable company.

Society at the Hotwells enjoyed picnics, river trips and rides or walks on the Downs. The romantic scenery had a huge appeal in an age which admired the picturesque. The heroine of Fanny Burney's Evelina visits the Hotwell: a most delightful spot; the prospect is beautiful, the air pure, and the weather very favourable to invalids. The Hotwells, like Georgian Bath, became a playground for the elite. As the Hotwells was a summer spa and Bath was not, they coexisted happily.

War with France halted the development of Clifton in 1793, and by the time peace came, spas were giving way to seaside resorts as fashionable retreats. The Hotwell House was demolished in 1822 to make way for a road. Although a new Pump Room was built with suite of a baths, the spa never regained its former popularity. The spring was eventually sacrificed to improved river navigation. Clifton became a leafy and elegant suburb of Bristol.

Further Reading: Helen Reid, A Chronicle of Clifton and Hotwells (Bristol 1992) includes many contemporary images and sources.