‘Fynnon Deg. There’s a place below Kaer Gwrle on ye Bank of Alyn which affords a Salt Water.’
Edward Lhuyd, ‘Parochialia’ (1696)
At the end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, the village of Caergwrle became something of a tourist hotspot. The natural beauty of the surrounding area is well known, with nearby Hope mountain overlooking the village and some many miles of wonderful landscape. Of course, Caergwrle Castle, dominating the village centre, was something of a draw as well. Still, Caergwrle’s rise in popularity at the end of the 19th century was made possible by the railways which made cheap weekend day trips from the cities and towns of Liverpool, Manchester and Birkenhead possible. But as the 20th century began, there was another reason to visit Caergwrle - Rhyddyn Hall Spa and Wells.
Caergwrle became known as 'Girlie' by tourists, largely from Merseyside.
The saline springs by the River Alyn had been known of for some considerable time, our first documented mention of them being that of a correspondent of Edward Lhuyd at the end of the 17th century. It’s likely, however, that their fame, at least locally, was rather more ancient. Still, by 1740 it was clear that their renown was somewhat greater, since the waters are discussed by a Dr Thomas Short, an English physician from Sheffield with a profound interest in mineral waters, but more famous for his work on population theory.
‘Caer Gyrle…There are two Wells, the farther more Salt and Brackish than the nearer, it’s five foot nine inches deep. The last is Water commonly used and carried away, it’s 19 and half food deep; the oldest People alive can give no account when these Wells were sunk, or upon what occasion, but about 40 years ago they were clear’d to the bottom…The water is as clear as Crystal, none can be finer, yet looks whitish in the Well. It has been much used of late, as a Purge, and is sent for a great way into Wales.’
Dr. Thomas Short, ‘An Essay Towards a Natural, Experimental and Medicinal History of the Principle Mineral Waters’ (1740)
Perhaps the fact that Caergwrle’s challybeate well (a mineral spring containing salts of iron) was so well known in 1740 comes as something of a surprise, but Short makes clear its successful medicinal properties, giving several examples of people having been cured of scorbutic ailments, including one Elizabeth Jones of Mold, cleared of ‘so great a scurf all over her body, that she was even loathsome’, a gentleman of Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire who was, ‘freed from a severe fit of the gout’ and a servant of a Mr Middleton of Wrexham who, ‘reduced to a skeleton, was cured by drinking half a pint at a time’. It was even said to cure leprosy.
The entrance to the Spa grounds, the crenelated wall and portcullis amazingly well preserved, with the pay booths to each side.
The waters were required to be drunk, it seems, rather than simply bathed in, and references describe the water as a purge, as would be expected given that this was effectively salt water that was being taken. Thomas Pennant references Dr Short in his own description at the end of the 18th century, as well mentioning the fascinating nugget of information that the salt was a draw for pigeons.
‘On Rhyddyn demesne, belonging to Sir Stephen Glynne, adjoining to the Alyn, are two springs, strongly impregnated with salt; which, in dry weather, used to be the great resort of pigeons to pick up the hardened particles. These were formerly used as a remedy in scorbutic cases. The patients drank a quart or two in a day; and some boiled the water till half was wasted, before they took it. The effect was, purging, griping, and sickness at the stomach, which went off in a few days, and then produced a good appetite. Dr Short gives an instance of a woman in a deplorable situation from a scurvy, who was perfectly restored by the use of these springs.’
Thomas Pennant, ‘Tours in Wales’ Vol. II (1781)
As Pennant mentions, the lands upon which Rhyddyn Hall was built belonged to the Glynne’s of Hawarden, and the land was rented out to a number of tenants, restricting access to the wells. Writing in 1834, Samuel Lewis makes mention of the Wells, but also suggests that their powers have diminished somewhat.
‘On the banks of the Alyn at Rhyddin are some fine springs, the waters of which are strongly impregnated with muriate of soda, and were formerly in high repute for their efficacy in the cure of cutaneous and other diseases, greatly resembling in quality those of the fountain at Borrowdale, near Keswick, in Cumberland. In dry weather, pigeons flock to them to pick up the crystalized particles; but their medicinal virtues have been greatly deteriorated by an admixture of other waters, or impoverished by drainage.’
Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1834)
It was then sold by the Glynne’s in 1846 and by the end of the 19th century was in the hands of the solicitor, Lt. Roe-Browne of Gwastad Hall in nearby Cefn-y-Bedd. It would seem he was well aware of the reputation of the waters, and employed a team of men to dig for the wells, suggesting they had been covered or lost to nature. He was successful, and had the waters analysed in 1902.
‘From the saline spring an excellent aerated table water was obtained, found equal if not superior to the much vaunted German water. The water from the sulphur well was found to be most valuable for certain disorders.’
A newspaper advert for the Spa from 1909.
Roe-Browne was well aware of a business opportunity when he saw one and opened up the wells to the public.
‘Discovery of Mineral Springs - Mr Lt. Roe-Browne, solicitor of Wrexham and of Gwastad Hall, Cefn-y-Bedd, has discovered the Rhyddin Hall historic mineral springs, to which reference is made by Pennant in his ‘Tours in Wales’ published in 1778. About a hundred years ago these springs were closed owing to visitors invading the privacy of the tenants at Rhyddin Hall, but Mr. Roe-Browne, the present proprietor, having read the references of Pennant and other Welsh historians to the wells, employed a number of men to dig for the springs, and they have been discovered and reopened. The waters have also been analysed. The sulphur saline is pronounced to be the strongest of the waters. It is said to be similar to the water of the old sulphur well, the principal of the wells at Harrogate, but weaker, and it is added that it could be used with beneficial results for the same disorders that are treated at Harrogate. One of the wells contains saline sulphuretted waters of a remarkable character, containing a dozen different classes of saline ingredients and four qualities of gases. Another contains the only water in Great Britain known to contain carbonate of strontia. The discovery of the wells, which were formerly noted for their valuable medicinal properties, is looked upon in the Wrexham district as an important step towards the making of the village of Caergwrle, near the wells, a popular holiday resort.’
Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales, 19/8/1903
Roe-Browne sold Rhyddyn Hall, along with its wells and 80 acres in 1907 to a syndicate, fronted by R.N. Woolett of Wrexham, but bankrolled by the Bate family, they of the long established Wrexham brewers, C.Bate & Son. It was during this period that Rhyddyn Hall was developed as a spa resort, the house developed into an eight bedroom residential hotel, a bottling plant built, a pavilion and pump house raised in the grounds. And central to this success was the development of the railway in Caergwrle, the station renamed ‘Caergwrle Castle and Wells’ to reflect the importance and draw of the Spa. The platforms at Caergwrle were extended to cater for the longer and more numerous excursion trains at weekends, the cheap fare bringing hundreds of visitors from Merseyside for the day.
Visitors would enter the Spa through the rather wonderful portcullised gate in a crenelated wall, paying their entry fee at the stone pay booths to each side of the entrance. They would have been immediately confronted by St Cuthbert’s Tower to their left, which was the Spa manager's house.
The Pump House with the Pavilion in the background.
Once within the grounds, there was plenty to do. The pavilion seems to have been the centre of festivities, with a bowling green laid and penny machines available, bands, fetes, festivals and pierrots employed. The guests could sample the waters at the pump house. Small bottles of the saline water could be bought at 2s 6d a dozen, with larger bottles sold at 4s a dozen. In its heyday, the bottling plant was producing some 14000 bottles of aerated saline water every day.
The rather wonderful Bottling Plant, built with Ruabon red brick.
Caergwrle Spa and Wells were sold to another syndicate in 1922, with ambitious plans mooted to extend Rhyddyn Hall into a 34 bedroom hotel. However, by the 1930s, the Spa was in decline. It would seem that the economic depression was much to blame, along with an increase in train fares from Merseyside. There is also the possibility that the general improvement in public health made the need for Spa cures increasingly irrelevant. The end came quickly, with the Spa closing in the 1930s and abandoned.
The view down to the Spa entrance from the site of the lost St Cuthbert's Tower.
What remains today of this abandoned curiosity is rather wonderful. Portions of the crenelated wall remain, along with the portcullis, if you please. And wonder of wonders, the glazing within the pay booths is still present. The rest is entirely ruined, with St Cuthbert’s Tower gone, along with the pavilion and the pump house - marshy wetness and debris the only reminder of their presence. The bottling plant, its Ruabon red brick resplendent, is now privately owned, although little changed. Rhyddyn Hall is also privately owned. It’s all hugely atmospheric and strangely moving, especially when one considers that less than a century earlier, hundreds of visitors would once have wandered the grounds, amongst the hustle and bustle, perhaps with a glass of ‘Girlie’ saline water in hand, the Buckley band playing on the lawns. Gone now, but the remains serve to remind us of this glorious period of Caergwrle history.