A Town of Considerable Repute

Words by:
Stephen Wade
Featured in:
December 2010

Woodhall Spa might have changed in recent years, but the charm and sense of its tranquil past are still there.
Two writers of guides to Lincolnshire in the 1920s had nothing but praise for Woodhall Spa, neatly placed just a few miles south west of Horncastle. One wrote that its waters were ‘considered efficacious in the treatment of gout and rheumatism’ and that the pump room and bathing establishments were ‘of the most approved and modern character.’ The other, the celebrated W F Rawnsley, said that ‘The air is fine, the soil dry and sandy, the heather is beautiful around the place, and the Scotch fir woods and the picturesque Town on the Moor… add a charm to the landscape.’

More recently, a note of slight apprehension has crept into the commentaries, as in this note from the community web site: ‘The pressure on services, traffic issues and questions over the former spa baths… have all added to the feeling of a village under threat.’ It is to be hoped that such a feeling will be transient, and this is a good moment to celebrate what Woodhall Spa has in its dignified and leisurely past. There may have been fires and bombs over the town, but through all that, and despite population pressures, the positive features are there to be verified and enjoyed.

The modern age for the town started with John Parkinson, who was the land agent and steward for the Revesby estate in 1821 when he requested permission to bore for coal on the Woodhall estate. Mr Hotchkin let him go ahead and he found spa water instead. From that accidental discovery the Spa was established, and the architect, Richard Came, made not only a building in line with such places at Bath and Malvern in terms of what a spa centre should be: he made a living space with something of a modernistic feel to it. Hotels burgeoned and a plan to put pedestrians and strollers first was born.

The new pump room was opened in May 1888 and a number of gentlemen were ‘invited to inspect’ the ‘bromo-iodine spa.’ This was after a syndicate had been formed to develop the place, and a professional from Bath, Major Davis, did the designs. There at a luncheon at which Mr Stanhope, Secretary of State for War, presided and after a toast to the Queen, Dr Burney Yeo said that ‘Woodhall Spa was a health resort which he had no doubt would soon claim a European or even a world-wide reputation.’ The railways were very much involved, as the Junction was the place where people would arrive, at that time having travelled for three hours from London, to relax for the weekend.

Other developments followed. In 1890 the hospital was opened (later to become the Alexandra Hospital). Behind this establishment was the considerable character, the Reverend J O Stephens, rector of Blankney, who obtained a site on which he opened a small cottage to be used in relation to ‘taking the waters.’ Hence the first name of the Cottage Hospital. In 1900 the hospital was taken into service by the War office and the press reported that ‘a score of invalided soldiers underwent treatment, in every case successfully.’ This was because the Boer War was raging in South Africa of course, and the casualty rate was very high.

In the early years of the twentieth century the town was surely one of the most stylish and desirable places in the country for a short break, offering the comfort of the Victoria Hotel and the Royal Hotel, until the former was ravaged by fire in 1920. The story of the hotel’s ruin is particularly sad, because at the time all the roads were full of snow and no fire engines could get through to the spot. Later, in the Second World War, the Royal Hospital was also to be destroyed, by a parachute bomb, and luckily the troops were out of the building at the time. However, at that time the hotels and spa were the focus fire grand living, dinners, celebrations and healthy leisure. This was in a context in which people were enjoying the music of Lehar and the Arcadians, waltzes and celebrity soprano performances. The age of elegance before the Great War mixed fun with well being when it came to the wealthy who could afford to take advantage of what Woodhall Spa had to offer.

A Lincolnshire Life reader many years ago wrote to express a fond memory of this atmosphere, saying that for the band concerts held in the woods, a special evening train was put on, running to Horncastle and back for the price of four pence.

There was more than this as well. Golf became a notable feature of the town. As early as 1914, the professionals Edward Roy and Tom Ball played an exhibition match with some county players, and such events became regular attractions. The course was developed with a real sense of vision in the years just after the Great War by Colonel Hotchkin and Mr C K Hutchinson; it became an international course after that, ranked very highly. Closer to today, the course was bought by the English Golf Union, and so its status is assured.

The pleasures of the hotel and the golf course were admirably combined. The Victoria had 160 rooms, and a tariff of the heyday shows that for a Golfers’ Special Weekend offer, a trip by rail first-class from London, with full board at the hotel from Friday night dinner to Monday breakfast and the accompanying golf, cost £2.15s. You could even have a special hip-bath in your room as well to add a touch more luxury, and of course, there was the healthy water. It all made a place that rivalled the best – Harrogate, Malvern and the top-class spas across the land.

Just a mile away from Woodhall Spa is Kirkstead Abbey and chapel, and in the early twentieth century local dignitaries campaigned to save it from total ruin. The local historian, J Conway Walter, responded to a letter to The Times by Thackray Turner lamenting that the chapel was in very poor condition and that it could not be right that England was losing such a magnificent example of early architecture. Walter pointed out that the stone vaulted ceiling could fall ‘at any time’ and that contributions to help had been promised. By 1960, when Nikolaus Pevsner inspected it, success was achieved: he could still celebrate ‘a gem of a chapel.. preserved…’ and he thought the bosses and vaulting shafts to be ‘splendid.’

Among the many other attractions to be celebrated at Woodhall Spa there is the wonderful Kinema in the Woods, which showed its first film in 1922. It began as a concert pavilion, but then Captain and Lady Weigall converted it into a cinema by constructing a corrugated iron extension. It was provided with tip-up seats and several rows of deck chairs. In 1928 a sound projector was in place and as late as 1978 the Kinema had projectors for the modern age, electronically controlled. The story of the Kinema cannot be told without reference to Major Allport, a great enthusiast for film who did much to spread the word and do some ‘PR’ for the place. As David Robinson reported in 1983, the Kinema ‘always has a comfortable place for you.’

Two writers have compared Woodhall Spa to Bournemouth. Pevsner said it was like a suburb of Bournemouth, with its tree-lined streets’ and the poet John Betjeman wrote: ‘That most unexpected Bournemouth-like settlement in the middle of Lincolnshire.’ There is something about the town that suggests the holiday feel of the seaside, and as one writer suggested, ‘It has all the atmosphere of a well-to-do church in a seaside report on the south coast – indeed as a friend once said to the author, driving down the Broadway – “You almost feel that the sea front is just ahead –beyond the pine trees.”

Of course, there has been drama in the Woodhall Spa story, and it has played its part in the major historical events of the last century. At the Petwood Hotel, which was originally the private home of the Weigalls, the RAF made an officers’ mess, and the famous 617 Squadron, the ‘Dambusters’, were there. As well as that momentous event being a connection, there is also the link with the Arnhem raids, as the paratroopers on that famous campaign left from and returned to Woodhall Spa. It has been commented that the town was heavily defined, and was in fact a garrison town, such was the high level of security, largely because armaments were stored in the pine woods area.

In complete contrast to these large-scale events, the quiet, everyday life of the people has gone on, in worship and in such wonderfully English pursuits as agriculture and gardening. The Woodhall Spa Agricultural Show is one aspect of local history to be proud of. That tradition is continued in part with the Country Show, and this year, as Show Committee chairman, John Michael told the press, the final attendance figure proved to be the best attended Woodhall Show since the event restarted five years ago. Trade stand numbers increased and the secretary Sue Stennett was very pleased with the overall response from visitors.

Church-going has included St Andrew’s, built in 1846, and St Peter’s up the Broadway. The latter was described by Pevsner as ‘brick inside and out, and also of a type familiar from wealthy suburbs’ which almost seems like an insult, but was not meant to be. St Andrew’s was designed by Lewin of Boston and it was consecrated in 1847, but it was not there when Pevsner did his survey because it was demolished in 1957, considered to be unsafe; a stone in the churchyard marks the spot where the original altar stood.

The past is always in some way tangibly present, and as the Woodhall Spa Heritage Trail shows, there are sixteen important and interesting locations on the route. One name is very relevant to that rich heritage – a forgotten worthy in some ways – that is a man called Cromwell after who the elegant buildings on Broadway are named.

I must end this survey of the town’s history and character by advising anyone who has not yet visited Woodhall Spa should go immediately and drink in some of that country air, as well as the sense of pleasure and ease we find in the town’s history. Almost a hundred years ago, one visitor wrote that ‘Quite a town has arisen on what was not long ago a desolate moor.’ That was an understatement: it is an exceptionally attractive town, a strong part of Lincolnshire heritage.

Woodhall Spa’s Christmas Market will this year be held on Friday, 10th December. Station Road and the Broadway will be closed between 5pm and 9.30pm and visitors can browse over fifty stalls offering lots of ideas for Christmas food and gifts from 6pm.

There will be street entertainment including a Piper leading the procession from the Church to Royal Square, Morris men, Mareham Silver Band, fun fair and Disney characters to entertain the whole family. This year’s Grand Raffle first prize is £250. Santa will tour the Market on his sleigh before he settles into his grotto to meet the children.

Woodhall Spa has excellent local shopping with a great variety of independent retailers who will be staying open late to welcome Market goers.

The Rotary Club of Woodhall and the Parish Council work hard to make this a very special event and Christmas lights will be twinkling as a special Carol service is held at 6.45pm in The Royal Square.

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