Boston Spa: The story of the rise and fall of a Yorkshire spa town

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In Georgian England, the discovery of a sulphuric spring could make a town's fortune.

Find mineral waters with supposed healing properties nearby and a previously unremarkable rural village could rapidly develop into a spa town with elegant buildings, wide promenades and a fashionable clientele.

The Spa Baths are now private homes

The Spa Baths are now private homes

Some of these spa towns managed to sustain their prosperity to the present day and have identities that remain defined by their past as a health retreat, such as Harrogate and Ilkley.

Boston Spa is officially one of Yorkshire's seven best places to live

Others are the 'forgotten' spa towns, whose baths closed prematurely and whose functions were superseded.

One of these is Boston Spa, a village near Wetherby that rode the spa town boom but today offers little evidence of its heyday.

The Terrace was built as a hotel but didn't last long as a business and was converted into private dwellings

The Terrace was built as a hotel but didn't last long as a business and was converted into private dwellings

An exciting discovery

In 1744, a local man cutting willow by the River Wharfe noticed a small stream. After tasting the water, he realised he had made a discovery that could change history; it was a mineral spring. He apparently 'ran' back to the village - then known simply as Boston - to tell others of his find, and a small cottage was built to protect the spring.

Eighteenth-century health tourism did not develop straight away - Boston wasn't well-connected to what was still a primitive road network. In 1753, however, change came when a new turnpike road from Otley to Tadcaster enabled better access to the village and coach services from York, Leeds and Harrogate began to call there. A hotel also opened, allowing visitors to stay overnight - Farrer's later became the Royal Hotel and the building is now a Costcutter store.

Cricket legend Sir Geoffrey Boycott puts his Boston Spa mansion up for sale

A plaque telling the story of the Spa Baths

A plaque telling the story of the Spa Baths

Boston becomes Boston Spa

Wealthy merchants and gentry started to move to Boston, and from the 1770s several grand houses were built, all of which stand today, such as St Kitts, The Terrace, Brook House and Boston Hall. The latter is now the home of former England cricketer Sir Geoffrey Boycott and is currently for sale.

In 1784, the waters were submitted for testing and deemed by experts of the day to have therapeutic qualities, and the influx of well-heeled visitors looking to bathe in the revitalising springs could begin.

The Spa Baths were built beside the Wharfe in 1834. They had hot and cold baths, a tearoom and a pump room, and the building was part of the Gascoigne family's Parlington estate - their descendants live at Lotherton Hall, near Aberford.

St Kitts is another Georgian mansion dating from beginning of the spa period

St Kitts is another Georgian mansion dating from beginning of the spa period

It was the golden age of the spa town, and Boston Spa was a genteel retreat for those in delicate health. Around 50 bathers a day were using the spa by 1850, the year the village changed its name.

Spa fever intensified when another spring was found near the site of what is now Wharfedale Hall, and grand plans were announced for more baths, a hotel, assembly rooms and formal gardens - all hallmarks of the major spa resorts.

But the spa boom was to turn to bust soon afterwards. The new hotel never opened as the company that built it went bankrupt soon after, and it became a boys' school instead.

The disused baths were sold at auction in 1911 and the Grade II-listed building has since been converted into flats.

The Terrace, which was also built as a hotel, became a school too, and ended up as private residences.

Spy movie Official Secrets filmed in Boston Spa

Boston Hall, one of the village's grand Georgian properties and now the home of Sir Geoffrey Boycott

Boston Hall, one of the village's grand Georgian properties and now the home of Sir Geoffrey Boycott

Why did Boston Spa fail?

The lack of a rail link was one reason - the nearest station was at Thorp Arch on the Harrogate to Church Fenton rural branch line, which opened in 1847. Many large spa towns, such as Harrogate, had centrally-located stations on main lines connecting them with cities. Building a railway bridge over the Wharfe was judged to be too expensive.

The trend of taking the waters had also evolved over time, and sea bathing was becoming in vogue. Railways played a role in accelerating the pastime's popularity, as small coastal villages began to develop as seaside resorts. Much of the Yorkshire 'spa traffic' was re-directed to Scarborough, which opened its own seafront spa.

Harrogate was always the premier spa destination in the region, with its landmark bath-house, Valley Gardens and multiple springs. Ilkley was popular too, with its wide streets for promenading and the dramatic setting of the White Wells spring on the moorland above the town.

It never quite happened for Boston Spa - but the village recovered and went on to thrive. It became a popular 'dormitory' location for those commuting to Leeds, and the population steadily increased.

In 2019, it appeared in the Sunday Times Best Places to Live guide for the first time, with writers praising its 'honey-hued' properties and fresh, family-friendly atmosphere. The village has been attracting younger buyers and has a reinvigorated high street with new independent shops, bars and restaurants.

Filming for the spy thriller Official Secrets, which stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, took place in Boston Spa in 2018.

Boston House, a Georgian townhouse

Boston House, a Georgian townhouse

Wharfedale Hall, close to the site where a second mineral spring was discovered

Wharfedale Hall, close to the site where a second mineral spring was discovered

Farrer's Hotel, later the Royal Hotel, was the first accommodation built in the village

Farrer's Hotel, later the Royal Hotel, was the first accommodation built in the village