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A snapshot of the Llangammarch Wells Sketch

The Spa Days

Photographs taken at the turn of the 19th-20th century show scenes of fashionably-dressed men, women and chidren walking in the environs of Llangammarch Wells.  High-sprung perambulators pushed, perhaps, by nursemaids, children in long skirts and knickerbockers bowling their hoops, upright gentlemen wearing high starched collars and hard hats.  The ladies wear long skirts and, almost without exception, they are adorned by large, decorated hats;  all strolling along in the apparently never-ending sunshine.  Perhaps they were taking one of the favourite walks along the river bank towards the Barium Springs and Pump Room which were in the grounds of the Lake Hotel.  They would have been drawn here by the fame of the healing powers of the barium water, the beauty of the mountains and rivers and the area’s reputation for bracing, pure air.

This scene was a far cry from the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the barium spring in the bed of the River Irfon when, in a period of severe drought some years previously, a farmer in search of one of his pigs found the animal wallowing happily in a damp place at the very bed of the river. He too took a drink from this spot and found it to have a very different taste from the usual water. Later analysis revealed that it contained, among other minerals, a rare and precious mineral in the British Isles - barium, known from European spas to be "efficacious in the treatment of severe chronic diseases".

A leaflet published jointly by the hotels which sprang up here during the Spa's heyday quotes from that eminent medical publication, The Lancet. It commended the barium waters as a diuretic and useful in heart and kidney disease; also for strengthening arterial muscles. Further praise was given in cases of Graves' disease in slowing the heart rate. Barium was not cumulative and did not irritate the stomach and kidneys. The recommended dose of barium water was one to two pints a day. Externally, one could recline in baths of the same water. One wonders why its use went into decline if it truly possessed all these virtues!

Taking the waters either by immersion or ingestion was a relatively pleasant way by which some diseases could be combated; rheumatism, gout and other allied complaints could be relieved.

When the waters of Llandrindod, Builth, Llangammarch and Llanwrtyd were commercialised, there was a great influx of visitors and an increase in the local population to service this armada. Hotels, baths, pump rooms and guest houses all appeared, the towns grew and the surrounding hills were dotted with these establishments. The larger houses in the village were erected with this business in mind.

Compared to the rigours of stage-coach travel, the railway provided a swift and relatively comfortable means of transport with easy access to South Wales, the Midlands and London. One hotel advertised: "Two through-trains daily from Euston to Llangammarch".

The Spa towns provided the means of everyday living: Llangammarch boasted two butcher's shops, two grocers and two tailors. One of these tailors was housed in the present Post Office building. The Post Office was held in Mayo House and the doctor held his surgery in the house next door. Malvern House (now Cammarch Books) was a grocery store until recently and there was also a grocery in Cwm Bryn House. The village had a lending library, a wheelwright and a cobbler.

The Pump Room was situated immediately above the Spring, close to the river and in the grounds of the Lake Hotel. A summer house, putting green and ornamental flower beds adorned the grounds. The Pump Room is now in a sadly ruined state, every gale does more damage to the fragile structure and the cultivated ground has reverted to a wild state. The stream from the hills runs through the field to the river. Primroses grow there in the spring and by midsummer foxgloves and rosebay willow herb are abundant, all shaded by large trees of oak, ash and beech. There is a tangle of blackberries around the ruins. A few sheep and a pony find occasional grazing in this quiet pasture.

The water was bottled and sent by rail all over the country. The Llangammarch Wells Mineral Water Company did great business: crates of water were transported to the station - a dozen 5oz bottles of barium water cost the purchaser 4/6d (about 22½p) carriage paid! The water was unaltered by bottling and, like good wine, it travelled well.

Until the advent of the Spa, the Parish Registers show that the residents'occupations were chiefly allied to farming and its related trades, plus the rector, postman and policeman. Towards the end of the 19th century we see that a coachman, hotel servants, a golf professional and a mineral water establishment manager have joined the list.

The Lake Hotel was established at this time and still flourishes, while the Links Hotel and the Bungalow Hotel have vanished and the Cammarch Hotel has only recently become a private house.

The Golf House was famous throughout the area employing, as we have seen, a golf professional. Croquet, tennis, rough shooting, fishing and boating on the lake were some of the pastimes offered by the hotels. The Golf Clubhouse, now a private dwelling, is the only evidence of the existence of the club. In the woods below the Golf House is a strange concrete structure which often mystifies visitors today: it was a lift-shaft, for which there are various explanations.

Where are all these glories now? Time has taken its toll. The demise of the Spa seems to have been gradual. The First World War made its impact, even in these remote hills and the depression which followed the war affected all classes of society. Added to this, advances in modern medicine made the old remedies practised in the Spa days redundant and probably scorned. The Second World War brought about even greater changes. Hotels were commandeered to house military personnel and evacuees from large cities under threat of bombing. The War Department acquired the Epynt hills as a training range - this situation still exists today - changing life for ever in these hills.

written by Constance Davies and taken from Llangammarch Wells Past and Present - A History and Guide. March 2000