Ensana Buxton Crescent Hotel – Review
By Clare Jenkins, November 2023
People always mention the weather in Buxton. “It would have been lovely if it hadn’t been raining all the time,” said one fellow guest checking out of the Ensana Buxton Crescent Hotel. “Shame about the weather,” said another. “It’s meant we’ve not done everything we planned to do.” “I’m going to move to Wales,” said a charity shop volunteer. “I’m fed up of the winters and all the snow.”
Half an hour later, the sun came out and The Slopes – the terraced park opposite the hotel – was transformed from a misty grey-green into a Parisian park, all autumn-gold trees, stone urns and windy paths leading up to Higher Buxton and its market square.
And, after all, what do people expect? Buxton is “A Town Shaped By Water”, where a cricket match in June 1975 had to be abandoned because of snow. Forty years earlier, the Shell Guide had called it “a delicious town, combining the intimacy of a mountain village, with the spaciousness of an eighteenth-century spa”.
The highest market town in England, more than 1,000 feet above sea level, its climate has helped make it. Despite its higher-than-average rainfall, its bracing air and mineral-rich waters have encouraged people to visit for health cures since Roman times.
But if you’re a wuss needing shelter from the elements, there can be no better place than the Ensana Buxton Crescent Hotel. The curving, four-storey building is slap-bang in the middle of the town – up from the main shopping street, down from The Slopes, round the corner from the Art Nouveau-influenced Opera House and the adjoining Pavilion Gardens. And it occupies the whole of the iconic, Grade 1 Listed crescent built in the 18th Century for the 5th Duke of Devonshire, husband of the now-famed Georgiana (played by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess).
Having realised the health benefits of Buxton (which he conveniently owned), the duke hit on the idea of turning the town into a northern version of fashionable Bath. As a result, people travelled here to take the waters and enjoy the social life. This reached a peak in Victorian times, thanks to the arrival of the railway. Not that everyone was happy: the Victorian writer and critic John Ruskin famously wrote, “The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton.”
In more recent years, the crescent fell into disrepair. Used as council offices and the public library from the 1950s, it had to close in 1992 after the Assembly Rooms nearly collapsed through the weight of books. It stood empty and boarded up for years until, after a series of expensive and protracted stop-starts, it reopened in October 2020, this time as an 81-room hotel run by the European spa hotel group, Ensana. Though it then had to close again a month later, thanks to the pandemic, it’s now a fully-fledged spa hotel: one of Conde Nast Traveller’s top UK destination spas, and the Sunday Times’s best spa hotel of 2020.
And glorious it is, too, both outside and in, creating its own world of subdued elegance with luxurious spa attached. You could almost imagine Georgiana or Jane Austen at a masked ball in its magnificently restored Assembly Rooms.
Our front-facing suite – bedroom, bathroom and lounge – nodded towards its Georgian heritage with a four-poster bed, large gilded wall mirror, original mantelpiece and fireplace, and grey-and-white-lacy wallpaper. The dazzling white bathroom offered a walk-in cascade shower and ‘Blenheim Bouquet’ Penhaligon toiletries. And there was a claw-foot bath under a window so you could, if you were that way inclined, bathe while watching the comings and goings outside.
Because the suite overlooked the Pump Room and The Slopes, it was almost impossible to do anything other than people-watch. The rain-glittered cobbles reflected dog-walkers, families, and water-gatherers. Buxton residents are allowed unlimited access to St Ann’s Well next to the Pump Room, so there were always people there with plastic bottles and containers, filling up from the ever-flowing waterspout. According to a 1947 guide to Derbyshire, the well is one of the ‘seven wonders of the peak’.
“My wife won’t drink anything else,” said one man, filling up five-gallon canisters. “She says it just tastes so much better than the bottled variety.”
“It’s tastes so fresh,” agreed a woman whose car boot was full of water bottles. “And it’s good for arthritis. I come down here every couple of days to refill.”
Its healing qualities even drew Mary Queen of Scots here, four times between 1573 and 1584, to find a cure for the rheumatism caused by her imprisonments in damp houses. There’s a plaque commemorating those Royal visits on the Old Hall Hotel at one end of the crescent.
And it does indeed taste fresh despite, as Gill Williamson, our Buxton Crescent Experience guide, later told us, being 4-5,000 years old. “Astonishing to think that what’s falling as rain at the moment will be drunk as spring water in another few thousand years,” she said.
That same water is used in the spa pool and treatments. But before sampling those, it was time for dinner. The restaurant décor was a tad anonymous: biscuit-coloured muslin drapes, dark turquoise walls, swirly carpet… But the food was excellent: deliciously creamy celeriac and apple soup, followed by roast squash and sage salad, baby cauliflower and leaf and herb salad, broccoli, carrot and potato rosti. By their vegetarian choices shall ye judge them, and this was five-star.
Breakfast was an equally wide-ranging spread: blueberry smoothies and Peak District yoghurts, fruit salads and a host of cereals, a charcuterie selection and a ‘Viennoisserie’ (pastries and croissants). Plus a range of eggs, oak-smoked haddock, Manx kippers and full English to order.
Then, while my husband explored Scrivener’s celebrated bookshop in Higher Buxton, I rocked gently on a waterbed, having my back and legs massaged. This Wave Balance treatment is one of a wide range offered by the hotel spa, a warm, meditative place with mermaid murals, soft lighting and calming music. Facilities include the only underwater jet massage in the country, three pools (including a rooftop thermal one), three different types of saunas, and a warren of sweet-smelling rooms.
I relaxed further in the Salt Cave, a room completely lined with salt, accompanied by more bells-and-birdsong music and ‘light therapy’. It’s good for respiratory functions, according to spa manager Lydia Eaton, a mine of information about the magnesium-rich properties of Buxton’s water and its various therapeutic effects.
Afterwards, hotel manager James Turner gave us a tour of the hotel, with its club-style bar (dark brown leather sofas and bright endangered-animal wallpaper), quiet bookish corners and a maze of original staircases from when the crescent was two hotels and a series of lodging houses for rich and poor alike. The most impressive sweeps up to a balcony and the stunning Assembly Rooms ballroom: 70ft long, 30ft high, with an ornately carved and painted ceiling, marble fireplaces, chandeliers and Corinthian pillars. No wonder it’s so popular for weddings.
The next day, our Buxton Crescent Experience tour, based at the hotel, traced the story of the town from Roman times, when it was known as Aquae Arnamatiae, meaning ‘The Waters of the Goddess of the Grove’. As well as fascinating facts, it included a fun virtual reality tour in a hot air balloon, and a visit underground to an 18th Century apothecary’s shop.
Afterwards, a passing pedestrian noticed where we were staying. “Oh, lucky you!” she said. “It’s lovely, isn’t it? And it’s such a boon to Buxton, having been boarded up for so long. Now they just need to fix the rest of the town!”
As we returned to reception, another woman was checking out. “I wish we weren’t leaving today,” she said wistfully. “Our daughter’s been working 18-hour days and she really needed a break. And this has been perfect… I just wish the weather had been a bit better.”
Rooms at the Buxton Crescent Hotel start from £170 in low season (October to May), including bed and breakfast. All rates include spa access for the duration of the stay.
The Buxton Crescent Hotel, The Crescent, Buxton SK17 6BQ: ensanahotels.com
The Buxton Crescent Experience: buxtoncrescentexperience.com
More info: visitbuxton.co.uk