Sacred Waters and Altars

Bret Gaunt sheds more light on some of the Roman artefacts at Buxton Museum:

With the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century a new culture was introduced to the tribal lands of the Corieltauvi, the native, Iron Age people of the Peak District. Although the region remained largely agricultural, the Romans exploited the rich lead deposits and established forts, such as Melandra and Brough, to control both the commodities and the local people. The Romans also built the town of Buxton, centred on the sacred thermal spring.

One of the ways in which the Romans integrated into the local cultures that became part of the Empire, was by the adoption of local gods into the pantheon of Rome. The Iron Age Celts largely worshipped at open air sites, most often associated with water, such as lakes, bogs, rivers and sacred springs. One of the most famous watery sites in the Peak District is the thermal spring at Buxton, then known as Aquae Arnemetiae, meaning ‘the Waters of the goddess Arnemetia’.

Buxton is one of only two places in Roman Britain known to have the prefix ‘Aquae’, the other being Bath in Somerset, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis (the Waters of the goddess Sulis). Like its counterpart in the South, Roman Buxton consisted of a series of Bath houses, now under the Crescent, close to the sacred springs. On the Slopes, overlooking the site of the baths and springs, was a temple dedicated to the goddess Arnemetia; excavations in the late 18th century revealed that the temple was of typical Classical design with a rectangular podium supporting a shrine room with portico of columns to the front. Such temples are a rarity in Roman Britain with only five such examples being known; temples in Roman Britain more often take the form known as Romano-Celtic, being a tower type structure with colonnaded ambulatory around all four sides.

The name of the goddess Arnemetia contains the Celtic word ‘nemeton’, meaning ‘sacred grove’; so her name is interpreted as being ’she who dwells over against the sacred grove’. The springs at Buxton must have held special powers for the local people as there are six grouped closely together in the valley floor and which provide both hot and cold water. During the Roman period offerings of jewellery and coins were made at one of the springs located between The Old Hall Hotel and the Crescent; these finds are now in the Wonders of the Peak gallery at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

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Altar to Arnomecta from Brough

Other evidence for the goddess Arnemetia comes in the form of an altar from the fort of Navio, close to the village of Brough, and now in the Wonders of the Peak gallery. Here the goddess is given the name Arnomecta. The altar was found in the underground strong-room of the headquarters building and consists of the typical block shape with a pair of bolsters to the top and inscription to the front. The inscription, which is contained within a wreath, reads ‘Deae Arnomecte Ael(ius) Motio V(otum S(olvit) L(aetus) L(ibens) M(erito), meaning ‘To the goddess Arnomecta, Aelius Motio gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow’.

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Imperial altar top from Melandra

Altars were central to the cults of most gods and was the focus for sacrifices and offerings to the particular deity. At temple sites the altar was generally outside, and opposite the main door, though at military shrines in forts and Romano-Celtic temples the altars were often placed inside and against the walls. The large outdoor altars were for the public ceremonies associated with the deity, which generally involved the sacrifice of animals accompanied by prayers for the well-being of the Emperor and the community. The smaller altars would have been more suitable for the offering of food, incense and for wine to be poured over the top. It was not unusual for an altar to be erected or promised to a god in exchange for a safe journey or other favour, thus the phrase ‘gladly, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow’ on the Navio altar shows that whatever Aelius Motio asked for, the gods provided!

Other altars in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery include the top to a large Imperial altar from Melandra Roman fort near Glossop, a badly weathered altar from Hope village, as well as a small altar dedicated to Mars, god of war, from Brough. There must have been numerous altars set up at the healing shrine of Arnemetia in Buxton, including a large altar outside the temple for the focus of worship, but to date none have been found. Many of the altars were dedicated by people from across the Empire; an altar at Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, is dedicated to the Roman god of war Mars, and the Celtic goddess of sacred intoxication, Braciaca, by a high ranking officer from Numidia in North Africa, revealing the diverse cultures that existed in Roman Derbyshire.

 

Buxton: An Architectural Super Power

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory reveals why a town the size of Buxton has such palatial buildings:

Visitors arriving in Buxton for the first time are sometimes surprised by its architectural heritage.  The Crescent, Opera House, Cavendish Arcade and The Dome are not what some people expect in a town this size. The patronage of the Dukes of Devonshire explains some of it, but there are other factors to consider.

The Industrial Revolution began in the northern Midlands; Sir Richard Arkwright built his pioneering cotton mills here in Derbyshire, while Josiah Wedgewood developed mass production of pottery not far away in Staffordshire.

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Interior of the Dome in Buxton, formerly The Devonshire Royal Hospital, now part of Derby University

Buxton’s heyday came in the 19th Century, when the process they began snowballed and made Britain a superpower.  When the railways arrived in 1863, visitors came from far and wide, some to take the waters, others to enjoy a holiday. Buxton grew because it was close to an economic powerhouse. It wouldn’t do to over-idealise the past; children were employed in mines and factories while all the women and some of the men were denied the vote. Nevertheless their world was changing and many towns, including Buxton, expanded rapidly.

As the twentieth century grew older, another economic shift occurred. British manufacturing declined and regions that once had thrived suffered recessions.  Economic power shifted to London and the South-East.

As I catalogue images at Buxton museum, I’m reminded of that time when the North and the Midlands drove Britain’s economy.  If dramatic transfer of power have occurred before then they could again. Some would argue that one is happening now, in the wider world, as China becomes the second largest economy on Earth.

Will there be others, not only shifts between nations but within them?  Have some already started in a small way, to be recognised when they have snowballed and we have hindsight?

Scenes of summer

While we enjoy the last days – and rays – of summer, it seems like as good a time as any to share some images of the season from the museum collection. There are certainly plenty to choose from, even though you’d be forgiven for thinking that Buxton is better known for its somewhat wintry reputation!

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Postcard sent from Buxton, postmarked July 11th 1908

These pictures, reproduced on postcards, demonstrate the variety of activities available to residents and visitors in Buxton during the warmer months of the year.

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Ashwood Park was built in the early 1920s on the grounds of the Ashwood Park Hotel. 

As well as sporting activities like tennis, bowls, boating and golf, visitors and residents could enjoy strolls in landscaped areas around the town and walks in the countryside.

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The Serpentine Walks extend along the River Wye to the west of Pavilion Gardens

The more adventurous could explore further afield with trips by horse-drawn carriage and charabanc to scenic destinations including Dovedale, Ashford-in-the-Water, the Cat and Fiddle public house and the Goyt Valley.

 

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Passengers leaving Buxton with their driver J Wilkinson and guard A Gallinson, pulled by the horses Black Jack and Little Arthur. Early 20th century.

While adults enjoyed promenading through Pavilion Gardens, there was also plenty of entertainment for children. We love this postcard of a Punch & Judy show by the Crescent:

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Postcard dated 1896

Lest we forget that the sun doesn’t always shine in Buxton in the summer, we have two postcards showing a flood in Pavilion Gardens, which (while it may not have been the result of heavy rain?) certainly must have put a dampener on the usual summer pursuits.

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Enjoy the rest of the summer – wherever you are and whatever you’re doing! Remember Buxton Museum and Art Gallery closes for redevelopment on 5 September so you only have until the weekend to pay us a visit.

 

May these waters never cease to flow

This week Buxton celebrates the well dressing festival, which began in 1840 to thank the Duke of Devonshire for piping a supply of fresh water to a well on the Market Place. Apart from a break between 1912 and 1925, the event has been held annually.

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Celebrations on the Crescent in 1864, the first year that St Ann’s Well was decorated.

Since Thursday volunteers have been busy creating the dressings inside St John’s Church and this morning the results will have been installed at the three wells around the town ready to be blessed this afternoon.

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The blessing of Higher Buxton Well in 1910.

 

The blessing of the wells starts with a service at St Anne’s Church on Bath Road followed by a procession that marches to each of the three wells in turn for a short blessing at each one. Afterwards the new well dressing Queen is crowned in a ceremony at St John’s Church. Next Saturday she will lead the annual carnival procession through the town.

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Festival Queen Florence Morten leading the carnival procession in 1925.

 

The three wells are  St Ann’s Well on the Crescent, the Children’s Well (or Taylor Well) on Spring Gardens and Higher Buxton Well on the Market Place. The displays remain up until the following Monday (11th July this year) for visitors and residents to enjoy.

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Palace Hotel Laundry parade float, June 1932

 

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has a large collection of photographs and postcards that record the history of well dressing in the town, including wonderful well dressings, former festival queens, prize-winning parade floats and spectacular street scenes. Thanks to the people who collected them and the generosity of our donors and supporters, we’ll be able to keep and look after these snapshots of Buxton tradition for future generations to enjoy.

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May pole dancing on the Crescent in front of St Ann’s Well, 1912.

More information about Buxton well dressing and associated events can be found on the official festival website here.

Curiosity of the Month

Visitors to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery are often curious about the history of the building. The Art Nouveau stained glass in the museum foyer is a hint of its past and frequently provokes the question “what was this place?”

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Built in 1880, the building was originally the Peak Hydropathic Hotel. The town’s reputation as a fashionable spa had been established since at least the 1790s, when the Duke of Devonshire had built the Crescent and Assembly Rooms. The Peak Hydropathic was never a profitable venture and it went up for sale several times in the first decades of the 20th century. This recently acquired document relates to the auction of the building in 1915. It is currently on display with a similar plan for an auction in 1909, along with some photographs and items from that era.