Helia Phoenix visits Wales’s little-known and only thermal spa – but is she brave enough to take a dip?
Wales is not a country well known for its thermal spas, and there’s a good reason for that. We only have one.
Taff’s Well – our one and only thermal spa – is situated in the village of Taff’s Well, on the banks of the Taff. The warm, watery hole starts appearing on maps around the end of the 1700s. You can’t see the village at that time, because the village doesn’t exist yet.
People have speculated that there was Roman masonry attached to the well when it was found, but there’s no actual proof of this. And although the warm waters have been there for thousands of years, the frequently flooding Taff would have made them difficult to find, which might explain why the Romans never ventured up for a tepid bath, despite having strongholds in nearby Cardiff and Caerleon.
I’m not the only one that thinks the water is tepid, by the way. In the 1800s, the well was sometimes called ffynnon dwym in Welsh – “tepid well”, in English.
The map below is from 1898.
Although one of the signs that now stands proudly outside the well proclaims it to be ‘One of Wales’ most unusual natural wonders’, it’s also one of our least well known. I surveyed a mixture of friends (either native to Cardiff or towns nearby), and not a single one knew that Wales had a thermal spa, never mind that it was only a couple of miles from where we all live. I only know about it after obsessive Googling after a recent trip to Iceland, where I was inspired by the Blue Lagoon.
This is an extremely poor show, when you consider I actually drive through the village of Taff’s Well to get to work.
If you’ve got visions of something mythical and Blue Lagoon-esque (or the super pimped-out grandeur and majesty of Bath Spa) then allow me to check your reality. In comparison to those two thermal heavyweights, Taff’s Well is…underwhelming. The water comes out at a bone-chilling 21 degrees (versus Bath Spa’s 46), and is housed in a small concrete shed, in a quiet public park, just north of Cardiff.
Since its discovery in the mid 1700s, the well has enjoyed and endured a rollercoaster of fortunes. The first recorded visit was in 1760, by a German chemist called D.W Linden, and the well was noted for the waters that could cure your rheumatism, or generally revitalise you.
This was during the height in popularity of bathing in warm, thermal mineral waters. Britain only has a handful of spots where this is possible, and so on the advice of chemists and physicians like Linden, sickly locals would drag themselves to Taff’s Well, either for a full-on dunking or to neck pints of the strange, bubbling water, in the hopes of curing whatever ailed them.
Since then, the well has fallen into disrepair a number of times. Bathing in eggy, metallic soup fell out of fashion shortly after the bath house was built in the 1890s, and soon Taff’s Well was derelict. Some 30 years later, in the late 1920s, an outdoor swimming pool was constructed in the space, filled by the warm waters of the well.
The pool remained popular until the late 1950s — some locals can still remember swimming in it as children — but ultimately entry fees couldn’t cover maintenance costs, and Taff’s Well was abandoned again. During the droughts of the 1970s, local park keepers re-opened it, desperate for water to save the scorched bowling green. They removed rubble from the site and used it to revitalise the park, but that was as far as it went.
The doors were closed for a third time, until the early 2010s, when scientific experiments on the waters reignited interest.
Since then, universities, local interest groups and tourists have all started making pilgrimages to the site, which has been cleaned up and had signage installed, giving visitors background information. It’s open on most days to the public, and there’s even talk of using the waters to heat the local pavilion, or possibly turning it back into a bathing spot.
I visited the well on the hottest day of the year in June 2017, when it was a brain-melting 34 degrees in south Wales. I had seen people swimming in the Taff on my way to work that morning, and wondered whether I could have a quick dip in the well. Would there be anyone there? Would anyone notice? Would I get in trouble?
All of these became moot points when I arrived at the bath house. This was definitely not a place I felt like swimming. I’ve done my fair share of gung-ho solo explorations in the past, and this was one of the spookiest places I’ve been to. I can’t really tell you why. It’s small and enclosed, and has been cleaned up (and even has a sound and light show installed!). It seems like it should feel cosy. But it really doesn’t.
The waters are rich in iron, copper and manganese. The iron is what has stained the walls red, and the copper gives the place its green tinge.
I listened to the audio programme and watched the light show, which were interesting enough. Then I stayed for some time afterwards, watching nitrogen bubble occasionally to the surface.
The well was silent and echoey, and a little menacing. I wanted to challenge myself to a dip, but in the end only managed to put a hand in, then withdrew myself from the space, sharpish.
Back outside in the relative safety of the sweltering heat, I took a minute to catch my breath. Three topless lads went past on mountain bikes, weaving through the well-manicured park. Nearby, a lady sat on a bench reading a book, the straps of her vest tugged down over shoulders to maximise tanning potential.
Despite how much the place freaked me out, hundreds — maybe thousands — of people have dipped in its waters. If you’ve got eight minutes to spare, I highly recommend this video, which was made by a team of students from the Welsh School of Architecture in 2013, who become the first people to actually get in the well for over 60 years. The film is described as an “empathic study of the visual qualities of the spring water and acoustic qualities of the well”, but basically ends up with them all getting naked and jumping in. Don’t watch it if you’re easily offended by willies.
I’d recommend a visit to Taff’s Well, though if you’re a big scaredy cat like me, make sure you take someone with you. And maybe a flashlight, so you can see all the scary monsters down in the well.
Helia Phoenix has written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Kruger Magazine, and now runs the We Are Cardiff project. The previous instalments of her column can be found here. You could also take a peek at her website or follow her on Twitter, if you felt like it.