The Spa Walks or, Mr Mounsey's Romantic Theme Park
The Gilsland Spa Hotel, or Shaws, as it used to be known, has been around for a long time. Scott came here because it was already a popular place to meet prospective marriage partners in 1797 and although its popularity has waxed and waned with the advents of the railway and the Costa del Sol, it is still packing ‘em in. The original, much smaller hotel buildings burnt down spectacularly in 1859. Little is known about them, but a drawing discovered by John Lee suggests that there may have been a tower, although this is unlikely to have been a fortified structure as it was built in the 1760s. Construction of the current building began soon after the fire, but there were many years of alterations and additions before Mr Gelderd, the proprietor, was able to announce in The Scotsman in June 1876 that “Shaws Hotel is now thoroughly finished”.
It seems that the Spa Walks, the network of wide gravel paths encircling the grounds and connecting with Wardrew, the village and the Butterburn Road, also have a long history. As early as June 1815 Mr Bell, the Shaws proprietor, felt it necessary to request in The Patriot or, Carlisle and Cumberland Advertiser a shilling tax on visitors to Gilsland “owing to the increased number of Walks etc . . to keep them in a proper state of repair”. I think the walks have always been an important element of the Spa as a focus for those caught up in, or harking back to the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century. What we have on our doorstep is a miniature Romantic landscape, complete with chasms, cliffs, waterfalls, forest, groves, enchanted springs and stones and blasted heath, all packed into a square mile. The developments attending the redevelopment of the Shaws show that G.G. Mounsey, pillar of local society, builder of the classically-styled hotel and our prim little church, and his proprietor at the hotel, were well aware of the Bohemian undercurrents inspiring their visitors, and exploited them to the full.
The Romantically, or even romantically, inclined can still obtain the same inspiration from these grounds. The circular route described is about a mile, but can be extended by branching out along the connecting footpaths. The hotel is a good starting point, as the use of its large car park is encouraged by the present-day proprietor, especially if visitors choose to partake of the excellent hospitality available at Galloway’s Bar.
The first treat is a fine view south over the village of Gilsland towards Cold Fell, the last blip of the Pennine Chain, with the Irthing murmuring below, St Mary Magdalene’s church nestled among trees to the right and the real world of the A69 turnpike just visible, far away. To the east Hadrian's Wall can be traced up Glenwhelt Bank and along the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall. A little green signpost suggests right “To Spa Well and Popping Stone” or left to “Irthing Gorge Walk”. Either way will do, but if you choose left, you will have to read this guide backwards ! Descend the broad gravel path, down through the leafy canopy and past the Rhododendrons. This path was obviously “meant” – it would easily take crinolines two-abreast, plus attendant gents, or a horse & cart on its way to the shops and baths which once flourished below. The early walker will sometimes surprise roe deer grazing between the trees, or perhaps a squirrel.
The footpath which branches off to the right, halfway down, is an optional detour to the swimming pool. Yes, a full-size tiled pool, complete with deep end, but now containing only leaf-mould. It is a surreal sight among the towering beeches and oaks, struggling to raise their heads above the valley sides. Walk back upstream to rejoin the walk, or if you stuck to the main path, look at the striking layers of rock grazing your left elbow and beetling overhead. You are descending through aeons of time, recorded by the accumulation of layer upon layer of sandstone, shale and limestone. These were laid down over 300 million years ago in repeating sequences called cyclothems – a word to impress your friends. Massive blocky sandstone is easy to pick out, but look for the soft, crumbly, black shale layers between, an unstable combination leading to frequent landslides along this path. Down below the bridge, a natural weir is formed by an outcrop of hard, yellow limestone. At least it looks yellow – but try chipping a piece off one of the chunks on the river bank – it is dark grey inside, and you may catch a sulphury whiff from the broken surface. The limestone contains iron sulphide, black in colour but weathering to a rusty yellow.
To the right of the entrance to the bridge is a short detour to a fountain which is the present-day outlet for the Spa’s famous sulphurous spring water. This shrine, nestling in summer among a tangle of wild flowers including Meadowsweet, Cranesbill and the exquisite Water Avens, bears the inscription “Rebuilt 1964”, but corrosive fumes are attacking the mortar and it will soon need rebuilding again, and the flow of water has reduced to a trickle. The walk continues straight over the bridge at this point, but if you want to discover one of the Spa’s hidden secrets, strike out into the undergrowth to the left, upstream, below the cliff.
It’s quite a struggle, through the landslides and fallen trees, encrusted with vigorous Dog Lichen (Peltigera). It is difficult to envisage this as a roadway with several buildings on it but 100 years ago there were shops and a hall serving teas and beer at the bridge end, and a hundred and fifty yards away, where the road merges with the cliff was the bath-house where Dr Granville, in 1840, was disgusted to find that:
“This consideration for the inferior ranks of visitors to the Spa extends at Gilsland, with praiseworthy philanthropy, even in the use of the baths for servants, who are charged much less than their masters, although they bathe in the very same rooms, nay in the very identical tanks . A servant may have the itch (and hereabouts in the north and on “the borders” such a supposition is not preposterous); - no matter – in he goes into the sulphur-bath the moment his master has vacated it, and the water can be changed; and his master, the next morning, follows him into the same recipient ! This is primitive.”
At the far end can be found the true Gilsland Spa, issuing from the bedrock through an arched niche, now almost covered by rubble and leaf-mould; the roadway crumbling into the river (careful !). It is not difficult to imagine the Romans sanctifying this well, or the half-remembered midsummer procession of monks from Lanercost coming to bless the waters. The grotto is covered with a white slime of precipitated sulphur formed by species of bacteria thriving on poisonous chemicals. They are one of the most ancient forms of life, much older then the surrounding rocks, colonising the Earth before there was any oxygen to breathe or other organisms to live upon. If there is life on other planets, it is very likely to be of this type, and if the first man on Mars is another Armstrong, he may find the flora familiar !
On the far side of the bridge the road surface changes to cobbles for the steep ascent to Wardrew. The walker who chooses to follow this path will certainly be treading in the footsteps of the young Walter Scott as he strode impatiently from his lodgings at Wardrew to a Ball at The Shaws, all agog for his next meeting with Miss Charpentier. Turn left here, however, to continue our circuit, into the wood, to be greeted by the Woodland Trust’s seedy corporate notice board. Increasing biodiversity, eh ? If only this could be done by wishful thinking, then the Red Deer pictured and mentioned twice on the board might appear in Gilsland. It’s Roe Deer that are typical of local woodland, Dearie, and an organisation dedicated to woodland ecology should know that – and be mortified that such a howler appears on their board. When I contacted them I was told that "The board is not scheduled for renewal". (April 2007 - The boards have been crudely replaced, but the red deer is still there - and Wylie Syke has been labelled "River Irthing") - (March 2010 - The board at the bridge has now dropped orf, but the other continues to broadcast its CEO's message as she goes from meeting, to meeting, to meeting . .)
The woodland seems to be doing fine despite the ministrations of the Trust, especially the numerous slender, scrubby Birch, Ash and Hazel trees. Remnants of field walls show that this land must once have been grazed. Are you sure this is ancient woodland ? I suppose they must know. (WT web page)
Make your way down to the water’s edge for a good view across to the old Spa Well and its geological strata, then onward across the haugh to the Popping Stone Bridge, flanked by alder trees. The dense growth of these and other trees along the river banks make this stretch of the Irthing a secure refuge for otters, and are one reason for its SSSI status.
The bridge was built in 1905 by Mr W Fletcher, engineer, at a cost of Ł90, and dedicated to the use of the public for ever. Here, again, across the bridge the paths diverge and the walker has a choice of turning left to return to the hotel or right to the Popping Stone. I recommend the latter ! The approach to our venerable relic is through a long, narrow meadow, where its dramatic setting between the tree-lined walls of the gorge can be appreciated to the full, and a great place for fossil-hunting among the rocks at the water’s edge – look for ammonites, crinoids, worm burrows and brachiopods. In June this lovely spot is essence of Borders; the rough turf richly studded with upland flowers including abundant pale pink orchids with black-spotted leaves. It is, however, a quagmire in winter due to the presence of cattle, for which the ground seems quite unsuitable, but perhaps the regular churning contributes to the richness of the flora. Keep close to the river bank to avoid the boggiest bits.
Rounding the bend in the gorge, past the stand of tall Norway spruce, we come at last upon Gilsland's Kaaba; the inscrutable Popping Stone. Bloodied but unbowed by centuries of abuse, both physical and verbal, it has silently awaited its pilgrims, be they Neolithic or Edwardian. The secluded grove is as it must always have been, overhung by brooding, wooded slopes and delimited by the slow-flowing, nut-brown water. Sit awhile, watch the trout rise and sample the ambience, or, as Scott recalled in the introduction to The Bridal of Triermain:
“And now we reach the favourite glade,
Paled in copsewood, cliff, and stone,
Where never harsher sounds invade,
To break affection's whispering tone,
Than the deep breeze that waves the shade,
Than the small brooklet's feeble moan.
Come! rest thee on thy wonted seat;
Moss'd is the stone, the turf is green,
A place where lovers best may meet
Who would not that their love be seen.”
The Popping Stone is reputed to have heard more than its fair share of feeble moans in its time, but its reputation is extremely difficult to pin down to particulars. The writer of Arthur’s Guide (1877) tied himself in knots trying to hint at it without actually saying anything:
“. . . a sublime mystery, being neither visible nor tangible, portable nor transferable; nevertheless it pervades all nature, is as old as creation, and as young and fresh as ever; it electrifies you, warms your blood, and makes your eyes twinkle; its aroma can't be imitated or forged, but can be reproduced an infinitude of times . . .”
Its aroma ?? The voluptuous curves of today’s Popping Stone are vaguely suggestive, as I think they were intended to be, but bear signs of having been recently shaped by the mason’s chisel rather than by any natural process. Fortunately for the historian, photographs exist from before 1870 showing that drastic re-shaping did take place around that date, but the stone was already named and popular long before it was hijacked by a cynical promoter. This emasculation (or possibly defeminisation) of the Popping Stone was the hotelier’s treacherous master-stroke, retaining the innuendo at the core of the Spa’s allure while signalling an end to the coarser rustic traditions which must have offended many of his patrons. It was nevertheless a betrayal of one fundamental principle of the Romanticism upon which the hotel’s popularity depended: a respect for the primitive and the mysterious. The hotel’s intensive lobbying of later nineteenth century guidebook writers with the shiny new myth of the Popping Stone’s naming was extremely successful, and the silly story has been re-echoed by every lazy hack since.
Often mentioned in the same paragraph as the Popping Stone is the Kissing or Wishing Bush. This was apparently an ancient, gnarled Hawthorn, and a glance at any book on the folklore of trees will tell you why this species should be linked to a disreputable stone. I have found a photograph which seems to show the tree, with a bench below for contemplation of sublime mysteries, but it seems that the original is long gone and what looks like an attempt to replace it has also died. The Kissing Bush, gone, and apparently irreplaceable ? Is nature trying to tell us something ? Has the compact sealed between Man and his environment gone the way of the European Constitution ? (2009 - the resurrection of the Euro Constitution by political brute force opens up the possibility of considerably extending this metaphor . .)
You can make your way a few yards beyond the Popping Stone onto a stone ledge which appears when the water is low. This is worth doing for a glimpse of a wild Yew tree clinging to the rocks – one of the area’s botanical specialities.
Retrace your steps along the meadow to the bridge. Concealed in the darkness of the plantation on your right are the ghostly foundations of Green Grove, a small group of buildings where people lived and holidaymakers stayed up to around 1960. On the way, try to spot the small but spectacular waterfall tumbling down the cliffs of the opposite bank, the subject of Edwardian postcards but now almost invisible in summer behind the trees. You can have too much of a good thing, and trees are no exception. One of the reasons why Victorian photos of the landscape are so interesting and attractive is that in those days you could actually see it. They had uses for their trees and knew how to manage them – today you are an eco-criminal if you so much as prune a twig, but middle-class guilt-tripping isn’t really a useful guiding principle for anything. One of the main reasons for visiting the Spa is its views and scrubby, unmanaged trees are spoiling them.
Carry straight on along the river bank past the bridge, through the kissing-gate and begin to ascend the cliffs, enjoying views across the gorge and the route you have just walked. Just after the path levels off, watch out on the right-hand side for a disgusting trickle of something that looks like effluent from a neglected scrapyard. It can be followed under the path and down into a gully where it is possible to make out the remnants of masonry. This is the Spa’s other, less well-known, iron-rich or chalybeate spring. Despite its appearance, it was drunk by thousands of Victorians without drastic ill-effects, but be warned, if you feel like sampling it, it will turn your poo black.
Here is another crossroads in the path. There are two opportunities to branch right, up to the Butterburn road and open moorland, one of which runs along a narrow valley. This used to be the jewel in the crown of the Home Walks, with numerous Japanese bridges criss-crossing the burn and gazebos among the trees for Edwardian canoodling. The left-hand path continues to climb towards the hotel through a fine stand of Beech trees, whose leaves form russet drifts among the tussocks of woodrush (Luzula). Look for the line of hairs along the edges of the rushy leaves, showing that this plant is not a grass, despite appearances. On the cliff edge there is a hollow beech tree where New-Agers sometimes leave offerings. The cliff-top viewpoints are especially recommended in Autumn, when the stand of larches below go through a kaleidoscope of colours. It is also a good place to watch wildlife as buzzards and ravens often soar overhead, and squirrels can sometimes be seen in the treetops below. I once watched a family of Jays from up here, flirting their vivid blue wing-patches at each other, concealed, as they thought, by the leaves.
And so back to the car park. I hope you will agree that the Home Walks are more than just another pretty Borders woodland, and will feel that the existence of this carefully laid-out network of paths is also an invitation to share the excitement of the intellectual conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries. A swift half at Galloway’s Bar is an ideal opportunity to reflect on how these ideas have percolated down the decades to influence our own appreciation of nature.
Will Higgs, June 2006
Full references to the books mentioned here can be found in the Gilsland Bibliography