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Spaw Sunday Celebration and Community Picnic

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Sunday 8 May 2022: 2.30-4pm
Meet at St. John's Church at 2.30pm pm for music and dancing from Ryburn Longswords and join the procession from St John's Church across the field, past Papermill Cottage, the Robin Hood, and on to the spa. If anyone wants a shorter walk, simply wait at the Robin Hood Inn until the procession comes past and join us for a short walk down the tarmac path to Spa Laithe Farm and the spa. The blessing will take place at around 3pm.

Free Community Picnic followed by Music and Dancing with Ryburn Longswords at the Robin Hood.

Background to Cragg Vale's Spaw Sunday - with thanks to the Cragg Vale Community Association

Upper Calder Valley folk had no need to travel far afield to spa towns such as Harrogate, Bath or Buxton to "take the waters" - right on their very own doorstep they had their own local spa!

Cragg Vale Spaw (northern dialect), nestling in the beautiful Cragg Valley, is reputed to be at least 300 years old and has clearly been of some historic importance locally, hence many nearby places bearing its name - Spa Laithe Farm, Spa Terrace, Spa Wood, Spa Bridge and Spa Laith, and, at one time, a "Spa Tavern", all sited around it.

In medieval times and earlier, winter was a very difficult time for local inhabitants. The long season of cold and darkness, with limited food, caused hardship and ill health. Consequently, people looked forward to the onset of spring with warmer weather and more food. It was the custom in early spring for people to gather at the spa to drink the water and cleanse themselves of their winter ailments, and to give them strength to face the coming year.

Whether or not the water had a medicinal effect is debatable, but the waters were a way of celebrating the passage of winter and the beginning of spring - and there are anecdotes from a number of local octogenarians of the curative and restorative properties of the Spaw waters, attributing their long standing to regular draughts of Spa water!

In the 19th century this event usually occurred on the first Sunday in May and was called "Spaw Sunday". It was said that on this day the water at Cragg Spa took on "an especial different taste".

Local children in their Sunday Best "taking the water" in 1911

All you needed was a medicine bottle, filled with the spa water, liquorice was added (to make it more palatable for drinking) then the mixture was thoroughly shaken and – if you didn't want to look like a cissy! – swigged down in one. The sulphurous water from the spa was deemed to be excellent for making tea, although some recommended a pinch of bicarbonate of soda to take the edge off the "bad eggs smell".

As time passed these gatherings became quite popular, and attracted tourists and early socialists as well as local people. At the beginning of the 20th century the Independent Labour Party saw an opportunity to play an important part in the "spaw" celebrations locally, and the early religious orators gave way to those of a political nature.

In 1906, a report on a pilgrimage to the Cragg Spa and then on to Blackstone Edge, noted that numbers at the event were becoming fewer and only 500 people went on to the White House where the Hebden Bridge band was playing.

The Second World War ended "Spaw Sunday "celebrations at Cragg Spa. Although the event was briefly revived in 1987 along the lines of a Well dressing celebration, this revival was only brief and the Spa fell into disrepair, becoming overgrown, unused and its presence unknown to many Cragg Vale inhabitants – until 2009 when work was undertaken to restore it to its condition at the turn of the 19th Century, with steps to give easier access, and landscaping to the area around.

On 1st May 2010 Spaw Sunday was again revived, in a simple form, and now, with our Community Picnic and the assistance of Ryburn Longswords, we are continuing to re-establish the old traditions!

See 2012 Guardian Report by Berringden Brow author Jill Robinson.

Photo: John Billingsley