The town of Buxton, Derbyshire
Unlike other towns that suffered the effects of mid-20th century 'new build' Buxton's architectural splendours remained unharmed and ripe for a 21st century reincarnation. Mike Smith explores the gem of the High Peak
Viewed from the summit of steep gardens known as The Slopes, Buxton is a perfectly preserved spa town, little changed since 1903, when the completion of Frank Matcham’s Opera House brought to an end a major building programme that began in 1780 with the construction of the Crescent. The glorious townscape of domes, towers, cupolas, crescents and colonnades from this period has remained intact, largely because Buxton went to sleep in the second half of the twentieth century, when the beauty of some other former spa towns was being scarred by the addition of incongruous new buildings.
With the restoration of the Opera House and the launch of the Buxton Festival in 1979, the town began to wake up from its long slumber. As luck would have it, these first stirrings of Derbyshire’s ‘sleeping beauty’ happened at a time when the brutalist architecture of the sixties and seventies was becoming discredited. Instead of demolishing and replacing old buildings whose original function had become obsolete, planners throughout the country were starting to look at the possibility of renovating them and putting their interiors to new uses. Since that time, many of Buxton’s old buildings have been saved and cleverly adapted for modern purposes. Although the pace of constructive conservation has been slow, it has quickened in recent years and promises to accelerate even more in the coming months.
The longest-running restoration saga concerns the magnificent Crescent, which sits at the foot of the Slopes. Originally designed to provide accommodation and facilities for visitors who came to take the Buxton waters, the building was occupied in the late 1970s by the St Ann’s Hotel and the town’s public library. The hotel closed in 1989, after health warnings had been issued, and the library closed in 1992, when the weight of books began to overburden the floor of the Georgian ballroom, which had been designed with some ‘give’ to make it suitable for dancing. From that moment, the Crescent has remained empty and earned a reputation as ‘the most at risk Grade I-listed building in England’.
After lots of promises that came to nothing, there is now genuine optimism that work will begin shortly on the conversion of the Crescent into a thermal spa hotel, which will restore thermal bathing and spa treatments to Buxton and put to good use a building that was described by Nikolaus Pevsner, in his Buildings of England, as ‘more elegant than John Wood’s Royal Crescent at Bath’. The proposed development by Natural Health Spa Resorts will also see the restoration of the Pump Room, which stands across the road, and the Natural Baths, which adjoin the Crescent on its western side.
The Hot Baths, which abut the Crescent on its eastern side, have been converted into the Cavendish Arcade, an indoor precinct of specialist shops. This sensitive restoration was topped off by the addition of a glass barrel-roof, stained with a semi-abstract pattern by Brian Clarke, who took his inspiration from the effect of leaves falling onto the roof of the conservatory in the Pavilion Gardens. Shoppers are given a theatrical and sensory treat as soon as they step into the arcade, because a large window provides a view of Steve Lee preparing handmade chocolates for his caf� and shop in the first unit of the precinct. Given the delicacy and artistry of his work, it is hard to believe that Steve is a former coal miner.
The Cavendish Arcade exits on the Quadrant, a street with arcading on its western side and a curved terrace on its eastern side. Along with several excellent eating places and specialist shops, this splendid street possesses a beautifully preserved pharmacy that was established in 1875 and is Grade II-listed, both within and without. When I called in to admire the tiers of Victorian shelving, dispenser Nicky Ottewell was serving David Russell, retired founder of Buxton’s excellent art shop, which still operates at the head of Hall Bank, a fine street that was built in 1790 to link the higher and lower parts of the town.
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Another precinct of specialist shops and caf�s has been created in the Old Court House, which stands behind the Cavendish Arcade and was built by the fifth Duke of Devonshire, who hatched the plan to convert Buxton into the northern Bath by commissioning John Carr to design the Crescent and also the Stables, which were set around a central exercise yard of half an acre. When the Stables were made redundant by the coming of the railway, the sixth Duke agreed to fund a scheme to convert them into a ‘hospital for the sick poor.’ This early example of constructive conservation involved a wildly extravagant schemeto cover the exercise area by a dome that turned out to be the biggest in the world at that time.
The hospital closed in 2002, leaving another landmark building empty, despite fierce lobbying for it to continue as a hospital by the Buxton Group, an organization formed by concerned residents who first came together under the chairmanship of architect Trevor Gilman to express their concerns about the future of the Crescent. As things turned out, the ‘Dome’ fared better than the Crescent, because it was acquired by the University ofDerby for use as a new campus. Thanks to a �23 million restoration completed in 2006, the Dome has become the most spectacular university building in the country.
The 4,000 students attached to the campus have given Buxton a new lease of life. One noticeable development has been the opening of many new coffee bars, and it was in one of these that I met up with Emily Bury and David Foster, who are both taking a BTEC Business Studies course. The two students were full of praise for a university that is unusual in offering further education courses alongside degree and post-graduate studies. As further education students, they feel that they benefit from a university atmosphere in which they are trusted to organize their own work but given lots of support when they need it.
As well as catering for different levels of study, the university offers many specialized courses. One of these is the Uniformed Public Services course, which prepares people for careers in the forces or the emergency services. When I walked into the grounds of the Pavilion Gardens, Buxton’s Victorian pleasure grounds, I was surprised to find students from this course undergoing buxton rigorous exercises under the leadership of their tutor, ex-Navy man Richard Robinson, who was preparing them for a timed field gun competition in Portsmouth, where they will be up against teams from the armed forces.
The glass and iron buildings that overlook the gardens were built in 1871 and extended by the addition of an octagonal concert hall in 1876, the Paxton Suite in 1889, and an indoor swimming pool, fed by spa water, in 1972. A devastating fire in 1982 turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it prompted the restoration of the building and the removal of a false roof that had hidden a fine ceiling. The swimming pool is currently undergoing renovation and the Paxton Suite is being converted into a space that will serve as a conference centre, a venue for fairs, a stage for events in the Festival Fringe, a part-time lecture hall for the university and a children’s theatre affiliated to the Opera House.
Other recent improvements to the Pavilion Gardens have seen the refurbishment of the lounge and bar area, the construction of a first-floor ‘art caf�’, which provides extensive views over 26-acres of landscaped gardens, and the creation of a space that is shared by the tourist information centre and Gallery in the Gardens, an art gallery devoted to work by the highly talented members of the High Peak Artists and Craftworkers Association. Jan Dewberry, a former teacher, showed me examples of her hand embroidery, including an absolutely stunning image of a sunflower that had taken 200 hours to produce.
Although Jan is based in Glossop, she lived in Buxton for 33 years and looks forward to a return to the town at some stage. In the first-floor Edwardian tea rooms of Hargreaves on Spring Gardens, I met two ladies who have lived in the town even longer. Joyce Alsop has spent her entire life in Buxton and her sister-in law Margaret Goodwin has been a resident for 52 years. The two friends meet every Tuesday and Friday in the tea rooms, where manager Heather Smith is always ready to serve them toasted teacakes in their regular corner seat and give them plenty of time to catch up on the latest gossip.
The cook and gift shop on the ground floor of Hargreaves was founded in 1865, just 13 years after the building of the splendid Royal Hotel, which now houses shop units but retains its stone verandah and its convex fa�ade, designed to complement the concave Crescent. The former hotel stands at the western end of Spring Gardens, the town’s pedestrianised shopping street, where I encountered schoolchildren from Springfield Primary School in Sale who were interviewing passersby as part of a project to compare Sale and Buxton. I listened in as Eileen Scullion, a visitor to the town, told the children how much she likes shopping in Buxton and visiting the Peak District. During their own stay in the area, the children had been trying their hand at rock-climbing and abseiling, as well as visiting local show caves.
On rainy days, visitors and residents alike are only too pleased to take refuge in the Spring Gardens Centre, an indoor shopping mall that hides deferentially behind the fa�ades of Spring Gardens. The centre, which has more than 30 retailers under one roof, is managed by Diana Golding, who brings added life to its L-shaped arcade on occasions by arranging for appearances by a dragon at Chinese New Year and a ‘beastie’ at Halloween. Although Diana will be leaving the centre shortly to work alongside her husband, David Golding, in his wedding photography business, she will continue to chair Vision Buxton, a group that provides networking for the town’s business people and community groups.
Diana is passionate about making Buxton an even better place and believes that the town would greatly benefit if current plans to extend the Spring Gardens Centre were to go ahead, because she contends that the scheme that would stimulate and transform the Spring Gardens area by ‘bringing a critical mass of good retailing to the town’. The proposals include a new superstore, office space, a hotel, four new retail units and 200 additional parking places.
Needless to say, Trevor Gilman’s Buxton Group is keeping a careful eye on these plans, because they would result in a significant addition to Buxton’s townscape, rather than a conversion of existing buildings. Trevor is supportive of the development, not least because it could help to mask the slab-like fa�ade of the current shopping centre and the higgledy-piggledy backs of buildings on the north side of Spring Gardens. However, he has one important proviso: the new-build should be compatible in material, size, height and shape with the town’s superb buildings from the spa era.
While change may be on the way in Spring Gardens, there are no plans to alter the fabric of Higher Buxton, which remains a stone-built township with a plethora of traditional pubs, some famous fish and chip shops, several other eating places and lots of specialist shops, including a secondhand bookshop with 40,000 volumes. The large triangular space at the heart of Higher Buxton accommodates the highest stall market in England, where traders brave the elements on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The millinery stall is run by John and Marguarite Molloy, who stock a fine selection of panama hats – headgear that is almost de rigueur for visitors to the Buxton Festival and the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival. Aware of the stimulus that these popular annual events bring to the town, Trevor Gilman would like to see a rolling programme of festivals throughout the year. However, the seasonal vitality brought by the two existing festivals has already been supplemented by the permanent injection of new life by the university. Buxton may look like a fossilized spa town when viewed from The Slopes, but there is still plenty of life in the old place, which will be even livelier when facilities for shopping and accommodation are extended and the
Top Tips for a Visit to Buxton
• Walk to the summit of The Slopes for a panoramic view of one of England’s finest townscapes.
• Enjoy the many and varied pleasures of the Pavilion Gardens, in 26 acres of pleasure grounds and in the long range of Victorian pavilions.
• Visit the Dome, in order to view the spectacular interior of one of the world’s largest unsupported domes and enjoy meals provided by catering and hospitality students.
• Take advantage of Buxton’s many shopping opportunities in the higher and lower parts of the town, from arcades and indoor malls to shopping streets and stall markets, and take a break for refreshment in a traditional tea room or an up-to-the-minute coffee bar.
• Visit Poole’s Cavern, a natural cave with fine stalactites and stalagmites, which stands on the western outskirts of town, at the foot of a path that leads through woods to the spectacular viewpoint of Solomon’s Temple.
• Visit the Museum and Art Gallery on Terrace Road, which has a superb reconstruction of the study of famous fossil-hunter Sir William Boyd Dawkins, changing art exhibitions and a gallery that provides an imaginative walk through the history of the Peak District.
• Even if you are visiting Buxton outside Festival time, be sure to go to the Opera House, not only to see one of its excellent productions, but also to admire the fabulous auditorium, which is a restrained