Lying at the bottom of the Avon Gorge, under Clifton, is the district of Hotwells. Not surprisingly, it gets its name from the spring of warm water that used to bubble up through the mud of the river and at one time was one of the places to be seen in. The warm water would flow at a rate of 60 gallons a minute at 76 F. At high tide the source would be 26 feet below the river and at high tide was 10 feet above it.
The spring is mentioned in a 15th Century account as being used by sailors suffering from scurvy. In 1677 Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II, visited it and shortly after it was acquired by the Society of Merchant Venturers. In 1695 they leased the well for 90 years at a nominal rent on condition that a pump room and other amenities were built. The pump was supposed to help stop the spring from being polluted by river water but wasn't entirely successful. The rise in popularity of the place was swift and soon people such as the Duke of York, Duchess of Marlborough and the Prince of Orange would regularly visit and facilities were built to house and entertain them. The Earl of Jersey once gave a breakfast party for 150 people here.
The hotwell soon also attracted invalids and physicians who made claims that the water would cure "hot livers, feeble brains, old sores and diabetes". The water was bottled and shipped around the world, it was thought that it was so wonderful.
When the 90-year lease ran out in 1785, the Society of Merchant Venturers demanded that on resumption of the lease that £1,500 would have to be spent on improvements to the quay and pump room. This put the prices of the facilities up and soon the people stopped coming to the area in the numbers they once had. Another reason that people might of stayed away was that the spa became very popular with incurables, especially those with consumption, and the high mortality rate of the area did nothing to enhance it to visitors. In fact so many people were dying that one group of lodging houses were known as Death Row.
In 1822, the old pump room was demolished and an improved one built. This couldn't revive the areas fortunes and it was demolished itself in 1867. A promontory into the river, Hotwell Point, was also removed at this time as it was becoming a hazard to shipping. The spring was enclosed and piped to a small cavern hollowed in the rock.
In 1890, the last attempt to re-establish the spa was made. Sir George Newnes, the publisher, asked the Merchant Venturers permission to build a cliff railway. They agreed on condition that Sir George built a hydropathic institution and another pump room. This opened as the Clifton Grand Spa Hydro in 1898 and is now the Avon Gorge Hotel.
The end of the spa came in 1913 when the pollution to the spa was so bad it was closed on health grounds by the authorities.
The "zig-zag" is a steep winding lane that runs down the cliff from Clifton to the Portway, a little beyond the site of the lower entrance to the old cliff railway. It's well marked from the Clifton side of the Suspension Bridge but not so well from Hotwells.
Hotwells from the other side of the river.
The entrance to the old Clifton Rocks Railway
The railway was closed many years ago, but was used as a bombproof studio for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and as safe storage for the City's archives and art treasures during WWII.
Many fashionable houses were built to accommodate visitors to the Hotwells
This plaque is attached to the wall of the house pictured above.
This page created 5th August 2000, last modified 28th August 2009