A Brief History
In the beginning: Waters and wealth
The story of the hotel and Woodhall Spa itself begins with a happy accident in 1811. Developer John Parkinson had intended to create a coal mine, but the work was scuppered by underground springs. 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 invested in 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 longed for a country retreat and it seemed her favourite wood (or “pet wood” as she called it) was the perfect spot. After her father had bequeathed her a sum of money in his will for the house she set about building her home in the peaceful plot of land in the woods. 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 entertain the great and the good of Victorian society. From aristocrats and MPs to music hall stars and sporting greats, all were entertained in style at Petwood. After a spell as a military convalescence hospital in WWI, in which the house had a number of wards and an operating theatre to treat recovering soldiers, the house was returned to private use at the end of the war. In 1933 it became a hotel and Lady Grace Weigall and her husband left Lincolnshire for their other home 'Englemere' in Ascot, Berkshire. Some of the original garden features from the Petwood still survive at Englemere to this day.
You can read more on the history of the Petwood in the official guide book by Edward Mayor. Available here.
From royalty to rabble rousers: Famous guests at Petwood
Many famous people have stayed at the Petwood over the years. King George VI not only visited but played tennis in the grounds. 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.
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. Not that it was all frivolity, because as well as raising cocktail glasses, famous socialites also helped raise money for good causes including the local hospital.
War days and Dambusters
The hotel building served as a military hospital for injured soldiers during the Great War complete with wards and an operating theatre, but it is as the home of the legendary 617 “Dambusters” Squadron in WW2 that the Petwood is best known. Occupied from 1942, it was originally home to officers of both 97 and 619 squadrons, but when 619 squadron moved to RAF Coningsby and 617 squadron moved to RAF Woodhall Spa the officers of 617 made the Petwood their home.
Composed of Canadian, New Zealand and Australian as well as British Royal Air Force personnel, 617 Squadron were a top-secret squadron entrusted with the specific task of crippling three key German Dams. Carried out on the night of May 17th 1943, this crucial attack was called “Operation Chastise” and utilised an ingenious “Bouncing Bomb” designed by engineer Sir 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 effectiveness of the mission.
Today, the Squadron Bar hosts a range of memorabilia and tributes to Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC and their Officers. The Petwood was a scene of some jubilant celebrations with the breakthroughs made by 617 Squadron, as well as soul searching after 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 as well as all the squadrons and RAF personnel who visited or stayed over the years. Besides the attacks that destroyed or damaged the dams and industry in the Ruhr Valley, the Squadron was also responsible for the sinking of the German warship Tirpitz, which had been concealed in the Norwegian Fjords, with the new Tall Boy bomb. Alongside other squadrons, 617 squadron were also involved in raids on other key targets including bridges, shelters and canals as well as using the innovative 'Grand Slam' bomb to destroy U-boat shelters, railway bridges and viaducts in Germany. In 2010 it was also uncovered that they were being considered for a special mission to target Mussolini himself.