Miles From Anywhere
In Praise Of Warm Water
I would unhesitatingly say that the three most famous domes in the Western world are St Peter's, St Paul's and Lord Longford's. These domes are all famous in their own particular way – St Peter's because it's the only place in Rome where you can guarantee not to be run over. St Paul's because it's the only impressive cathedral in Britain built by a non-Catholic, and Lord Longford because he has the best publicity machine of all domes.
But none of these is the most impressive dome in Europe, nor indeed the largest. It was Oscar Hammerstein, I believe, who wrote there is nothing like a dome. If he really meant what he said, then he would have been overjoyed at the finest one in Christendome. I am referring to the dome of the Devonshire Royal Hospital in Buxton Spa.
Buxton Spa is, briefly, an attempt to create in Derbyshire the northern equivalent of Bath or, to put it another way, the southern equivalent of Edinburgh. Either way, it is a dismal failure. It does not have the over-priced shops of Bath and the silent, admiring crowds of Americans. Nor does it lie in darkness three-quarters of the year, like Edinburgh, waking up only for three weeks of frenetic festival during which 900 mime groups attempt to put on consecutive performances in the same Masonic tent.
Buxton Spa, in other words, is a step ahead of both. It is small and selective. It crowds into its little valley one crescent, one opera house, one tropical conservatory, one swimming pool and one county cricket ground. Neither Bath nor Edinburgh has all these. Bath, admittedly, has more than 300 good restaurants whereas Buxton has only one, and Edinburgh has more than 300 churches in which John Knox personally condemned the latest Paris fashions, whereas the latest Paris fashions have not yet reached Buxton. But Buxton has the finest dome in the world, as I think I mentioned.
When you look at the dome of the Devonshire Hospital you will be reminded of other similar structures in the worlds: the Pantheon in Rome, the Capitol in Washington, the Duomo in Florence, even the British Museum Reading Room. The hospital's dome is larger than all of these. If you need brute facts, the Capitol is 135ft across, St Peter's Rome is 138ft and the British Museum reading Room is 140. The Devonshire Hospital's dome is 154. I believe that there are a couple of sports stadia somewhere, recently built and larger, but apart from these no doubt meretricious bubbles, the Buxton dome has been the largest of its kind in the world since its opening in1881.
This being so, two questions come bubbling up as fast as the waters which have made Buxton a spa. Why is this hospital dome not more famous? And what one earth is it doing there in the first place?
The answer to the first is something of a reflection on human credulity. The dome is not famous because it does not look famous, at least not from the outside. Just as we like our mountains to be snow-capped, our leaders to be tall and our cars to be faster than they can possibly be driven, so we like our domes to soar into the sky, preferably on the top of cathedrals. St Peter's and St Paul's look wonderful because they are the peak of a great deal of architecture designed to make them look good. Even Lord Longford's dome is built on five foot of aristocratic infrastructure – but the Devonshire Hospital dome stands on the ground.
From the outside, from almost anywhere in Buxton, it looks like a great setting sun about to go down below the horizon and already half-hidden behind the foliage, as it were, of its own octagonal outbuildings. Impressive, but no more. It does not even look as big as the Palace Hotel up to the right beyond the trees and when I first arrived in Buxton I explored Poole's Cavern, the Crescent, the old Assembly Rooms (now the library) Nathaniel's restaurant, nearby Chatsworth… I believe I had even visited the Palace Hotel before I was reluctantly persuaded to put my nose inside the hospital.
I am always reluctant to go inside hospitals. I fear that a passing doctor will recognize some terminal illness and clap me straight into bed. I feel something prison-like about hospitals. But there was no such feeling involved in walking across a short entrance hall and finding myself in a huge cathedral, risking only a broken neck as my head went back to try and take it in.
If you were in the same position in St Paul's you would be hovering in mid-air, just below the start of the dome. If you were in the British Museum, you would be 50ft up, with some of the best brains in the world below staring at you in surprise.
But one of the most amazing things about the hospital was that on the huge wooden floor there was nothing except two patients in chairs and a ping pong table. Otherwise the whole expanse is empty. The bottom of the dome is totally encircled by massive columns of stone, supposedly taken from Bolton Abbey, and through that enormous arcade you could see the normal bustle of hospital happenings but within the charmed circle there was only the biggest dome in the world (apart from those two damned stadia), two patients and a ping pong table.
While the eye flies upward to the great lantern skylights high above, the feet start walking towards the middle. I do not know what it is about domes or towers, but we all want to go and stand under the central point, do we not? It's like the urge to go to the South Pole, on a smaller scale. So I found myself pretending to look at the ping pong table or looking like a distant relative of one of the patients, but what I was really doing was going to the middle, edging unostentatiously nearer and nearer.
When I got there I received a tremendous shock. I was almost deafened. A noise like an express train hit my ears and rushed off again. Involuntarily I said: "What…?" Then a huge voice in my ears said: "WHAT…" And then I realized that the first noise had been myself coughing and the echo bouncing back off the dome, gathering strength as it came. It was the old whispering gallery effect, far stronger than I had ever experienced it. So I stood for a while, clicking my fingers, clearing my throat, slapping my thighs and luxuriating in the warm echo as it washed back over me, until I glanced up and caught the eye of a distant patient. He knew what I was doing. He could not hear what I was doing, but he could see my ridiculous mime in the middle of the wastes, and he was thinking: "Hello, here's another one." I made an excuse, a voice roared "SORRY!" and I left.
The reason for the dome being there is quite simple. Water. Everything in Buxton is to do with the warm mineral waters that flow beneath the town and come up wherever you poke a stick. When the fifth Duke of Devonshire decided 200 years ago to turn the little village into a grand spa, it was to bring people to the water. To cater for the waterers, they brought the railway, built an opera house and threw up hotels. And to help with accommodation the sixth Duke of Devonshire donated his riding stables for use as a hospital.
Oddly the stables were round, a huge circle of buildings enclosing a large exercise area, so that when they eventually came to enclose the space to make the hospital bigger, it had to be a dome. The medical staff of the time were mostly opposed to it, and one wrote that the enclosure of the open space would "turn the hospital into one of the most unhealthy buildings to be found in England." He was overruled by a canny authority who saw that the dome would get the hospital into the Guinness Book of Records.
The water is still there, everywhere. There are streets in Buxton called Spring Street, Fountain Street and Bath Street. The hospital still has two treatment pools piped down from the springs, and the water in the town swimming pool comes straight, warm as it is, from the bowels of the earth. When they renovated the Opera House in 1978 they found a river running through the orchestra pit.
Water, in fact, is almost an embarrassment. Within 50 yards of the central crescent there are three grand buildings once dedicated to doing people good. There is the Natural Mineral Baths, "founded by the Romans and entirely rebuilt by the Corporation", which is now a tourist information office. There are St Anne's Wells, now a wonderful museum of microscopic life called the Micrarium, and there are the Buxton Baths themselves, now closed and shuttered, with the water still flowing underneath as they debate how to turn this into a mini-Covent Garden.
This effort to cut the public off from Buxton water is offset by the sale of bottled water, which may be prosperous elsewhere but is doomed in Buxton because the same water comes rushing absolutely free out of the town drinking fountain, marked "A Well of Living Waters". It you sit by it for a while, there may be the occasional customer who tries a sip and is revolted by its warmness, but there will be others who drive up in their car and produce multiple bottles to fill. "Much nicer after it has been in the fridge and makes a lovely cup of tea," I was told.
There is, as far as I can tell, only one absolutely dry spot in Buxton and that is in a cave. Poole's cavern, formed by an underground river rushing through the limestsone; the river departed thousands of years ago and is not expected back again, leaving hundreds of feet of stalactites and all the stuff that proves nature can always do it better than Henry Moore.
I personally, prefer domes. Every time I go back to Buxton, I make a small pilgrimage to the centre of the hospital and stand there gawping until someone tries to treat me for something or bundle me back into bed. I suppose it is the ridiculous unexpectedness of the thing that takes your breath away. One so expects Florence to be magnificent or Athens to be awful or the Sahara to be sandy that one is left unmoved by the spectacle, but the greatest dome experience in the world in Buxton… It is as shocking as finding Frank Sinatra singing in the local pub or a giant beanstalk in the garden, and what is so wonderful is that the hospital people have had the sense to keep this great dome absolutely clear and uncluttered.
Maybe it is because anyone they installed there would be driven deaf by the echo in days.
The Times 14th August 1984
photography Alain le Garsmeur