The name Epsom may evoke two images in the mind, at least for those who do not actually live in that part of Surrey. One of them is the racecourse where The Derby originated way back in 1780, and the other is Epsom salt.
Epsom salt was discovered well over a century before the area became the venue for a famous horse race. It was not horses, but cows, that helped bring this about when, in 1618, herder Henry Wickham was left rather confused about the behaviour of his cows.
Despite a drought that summer, there was water available through springs, which sprouted up at the boundary between chalk downs and London clay. However, when Wickham brought his cows to a pool formed by one of these springs, they refused to drink from it.
The cattle were deterred because they could smell and taste what chemical analysis could soon confirm: This water, so far from the sea, was salty. But this was not the sodium one finds in shakers on the table. Specifically, it contained magnesium sulphate, an important mineral found to a certain level in some foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, bran, parsnips and chocolate.
With its bitter taste, Epsom salt was not a substance that could be used in food as a seasoning, but it had medicinal benefits, in particular being a very useful remedy for constipation. However, that was just one of its many attributes. Indeed, if you buy Epsom bath salts you will be making the most of one of them.
As Healthline notes, the substance has many uses and very few side effects. When it comes to the benefits of soaking in a bath with it, the purpose is to absorb some of the magnesium into the muscles to reduce stiffness and tiredness, although some dispute how effective it actually is compared with the general calming effects of reclining in warm water.
Nonetheless, there are many who swear by its use, not least sufferers from conditions like fibromyalgia and arthritis, which are linked to shortages of magnesium.
With Epsom salt being discovered more than 400 years ago, there has been a lot of extraction work taking place, which has naturally depleted its supply. That is why we no longer get it from the Epsom Downs. However, while it can be manufactured synthetically (a lot of imported synthetic Epsom salt is from China), we still get the naturally occurring food grade stuff, which comes from Germany.
Epsom itself developed as a spa town because of its mineral-rich waters in the late 17th and early-18th century, with its qualities being praised by writers who visited regularly such as Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe and John Toland. Eventually, however, it was surpassed by the development of other spa towns like Bath and Tunbridge Wells.
While Epsom’s fame may now lie in its racecourse and the minerals that it gives its name to mainly come from elsewhere, the discovery remains one that has been life-enhancing for many. Whether a medicinal remedy or an enjoyable addition to a hot bath, the discovery made with the help of a herd of cows all those years ago remains one many draw great benefits from.