One of the most frequent questions we get asked by visitors to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is “what did this building used to be?” prompted by the ornate pillars and Art Nouveau stained glass, they suspect the town museum was not its original purpose. The short answer is The Peak Hydropathic Hotel but many of the staff can accompany this with a short history of Buxton as a spa resort; its rise and fall and recent return. Volunteer Ian Gregory expands with the help of images from the collection:

Thermal Baths, Buxton, 19th century oil, artist unknown.

The Victorian age was a time of rapid change. Its people considered themselves to be the drivers of progress. Cities expanded, new technology was developed, more people got the vote and education became compulsory. Buxton grew in size as the railways made it more accessible than before. One of many photos I have catalogued shows an example of change in Buxton and it links one century to another.

From 1852-53 Henry Curry, an architect employed by the 6th Duke of Devonshire, designed thermal baths in Buxton. They sat next to the Crescent and were supplied with water from the town’s hot springs. Many visitors came to the baths seeking medical treatment for illnesses like gout and arthritis.

During the 20th century the popularity of spa treatments waned. Medical advances meant they were no longer necessary. The Thermal Baths no longer served their original purpose. From 1985 they were converted into a shopping centre. A barrel-vaulted glass roof was added. The photo here shows it in the later stages of construction.

Today abstract designs in stained glass decorate it, below are independent shops and restaurants. In the late 20th century, many shopping centres were built across Britain. They were filled with well-known shops like Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose. Today many retail giants have closed many physical shops and have adopted shopping online. In Buxton, the Thermal Baths are recovering from the lockdowns, but Marks and Spencer pulled out before Covid. Some say that to save high streets we need more small, independent shops and cafes. This would be a return to what was, before the 1960s, the norm in most towns, what the retail giants swept aside. Fashions come in cycles; one generation’s idea of progress may not be another’s.