A Brief History of Petwood
In the Beginning: Waters and Wealth
The story of the hotel and Woodhall Spa itself begins in accidental circumstances in 1811, with the arrival of wealthy developer John Parkinson. Spending thousands of pounds, he dug over a kilometre into the ground aiming to establish a coal mine. But his plans were scuppered as the waters of the village spring rose and the works were abandoned. However, Parkinson’s loss was the village’s gain a little over twenty years later as Lord of the Manor Thomas Hotchkin realised the value of the mineral rich spring water below and spent a small fortune of his own building spa baths and accommodation. Visitors flocked to the healing waters and the pretty village at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds welcomed train loads of new guests.
Also drawn to Woodhall Spa was wealthy heiress Baroness Grace van Eckhardstein. Undergoing a painful divorce, she hankered for a country retreat and it seemed her favourite wood (or “pet wood” as she called it) was the perfect spot. The bungalow first proposed in 1905 didn’t meet her lavish tastes however, and the project quickly grew wings under architect Frank Peck. The extended house became a grand affair of “Tudor to Jacobean” style, complete with “elaborate oak features” such as the beautiful hand-carved staircase visitors admire to this day.
Grace married again in 1910, the house providing an ideal place for her new husband, politician Sir Archibald Weigall, to flaunt his wealth to the great, the good and the not so good. From aristocrats and MPs to music hall stars and sporting greats, all were entertained in style at Petwood. Accustomed to welcoming guests, Grace had the house reopened as a hotel in 1933.
From Royalty to Rabble Rousers: Famous Guests at Petwood
A long list of famous people have stayed at the Petwood over the years. Perhaps the most famous royal was King George VI, who not only visited but played tennis in the grounds. It is often forgotten that the king was an excellent player and even competed at Wimbledon. Foreign royalty also visited, including Victoria Eugenie, Queen of Spain. Of the current generation of the British Monarchy, Prince Charles has been a guest at the Petwood.
Other dignitaries and aristocrats make up a long list, from Stanley Bruce, Prime Minister of Australia, to Lady Mountbatten. Perhaps no guest made a more spectacular entrance than the Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale, famous for flying over Everest, who landed his aircraft in the grounds. The high and mighty were not simply present to show off or drink cocktails however; charity fetes were popular and such events raised money for good causes such as the local hospital.
Explorers, sporting greats and stars of the stage and screen also attended regularly. Actress and party girl Ruby Miller, known to sometimes quaff champagne from one of her slippers, was joined by greats such as Gracie Fields and Australian Soprano Dame Nellie Melba. Later guests include Harry Secombe, Edward Woodward and Christopher Plummer.
War Days and Dambusters
The hotel building served as a military hospital for injured soldiers during the Great War, but it is as the home of the legendary RAF 617 “Dambusters” Squadron in World War Two that Petwood is best known. Occupied from 1942, it was originally home to officers of the 97 and 619 squadrons, but with nearby Woodhall Airfield chosen as the operational base, 619 squadron moved away and the officers of 617 moved in.
Composed of Canadian, New Zealand and Australian as well as British Air Force personnel, 617 Squadron were a top secret group entrusted with the task of crippling three key German Dams. Carried out on May 17th 1943, this crucial attack was called “Operation Chastise” and utilised an ingenious “Bouncing Bomb” designed by engineer Barnes Wallis. The bouncing explosive was a stroke of genius, able to be launched directly at targets before it detonated underwater, creating a “bubble pulse” effect capable of causing huge damage to enemy targets. The Squadrons badge, picturing a breached wall, and motto “Apres moi, le deluge” (“After me, the flood”) pay homage to the deadly effectiveness of the mission.
Today, the Squadron Bar hosts a range of memorabilia and tributes to Guy Gibson VC, Leonard Cheshire VC and their Officers. Petwood was a scene of some jubilant celebrations with the breakthroughs made by Squadron 617, as well as tragic losses. We can only imagine the sheer bravery of the Squadron and the huge risks they took in enemy territory, facing death time and again. Guy Gibson alone, the Squadron’s heroic young Wing Commander, carried out over 170 raids by the age of 24. Just two years later he was killed in action.
The Squadron’s feats live on at the Petwood, which remains a fascinating testament to the Dambusters. Besides the attacks that destroyed two key dams in the Ruhr area of Germany, the Squadron also used cutting edge “Earthquake” bombs to score critical hits on the warship Tirpitz, and various other key targets including bridges, shelters and canals. In 2010 it was also uncovered that they were being considered for a special mission to target Mussolini himself.