A day in…Cheltenham

By | Category: Travel destinations

Cheltenham as many envision it

What do Horace Ford, Sir Ralph Richardson, the jockey, Fred Archer; the composer, Gustav Holst; the Australian explorer, Charles Sturt and Dr Edward Wilson from the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole all have in common? The answer is Cheltenham, that spa town in Gloucestershire that has been attracting tourists to take its waters for three hundred years.

If a man called Henry Skillicorne hadn’t spotted the potential of the mineral springs that were discovered there in 1716 the town may not have grown into one of the Victorian tourist attraction that it did. For over twenty years, until he moved there, little had been done to highlight the springs but this tourism entrepreneur spotted the potential and not only built a pump to control the springs but an elegant well house. The visitors flocked to the town which became better known after the discovery as Cheltenham Spa.

The Pittville Pump Room

Today that original pump room has gone with another famous Cheltenham institution, Cheltenham Ladies College, occupying the site in Montpellier. Another, the Pittville Pump Room, survives and is open for visitor to try the spa waters. But the building is also a popular venue for private functions so check before you visit.  It must be popular as on the two occasions I visited it was closed!

Set in gardens with large, regency houses nearby it gives a look to Cheltenham that is widely anticipated by visitors.  You can still see at least two post boxes from the time of Queen Victoria that are still in use! Visitors expect an air of gentility like that provided by other spa towns such as Harrogate and Tunbridge Wells.

The Union Jack front door on a regency house

They expect a fairly wealthy area and, walking along a road with a series of seven detached regency houses that expectation seemed to be proven. The first house had only a white workman’s van in the drive; the second had a Range Rover and an Aston Martin, the third – a Mercedes and a BMW 4×4; the fourth a Mercedes, a BMW and a Smart car; the fifth a Jaguar and a BMW whilst the sixth had a Mercedes and one of those retro Fiat 500’s. The seventh only had an Audi and a Bentley but it did have two white vans with workman busy renovating the front door.

It was a bit of a surprise to find, in an adjacent road, a similar house but the double  doors were not a discrete, varnished wood but a bold Union Jack pattern. What do the neighbours think?

Like most towns, Cheltenham has changed over the years. There are at least two pound shops which would have been unheard of thirty years ago. The High Street is pedestrianised and is about to attract even more people because a John Lewis store is going to open in 2018. Most of the major brand names are in the town including Superdry a brand that started in Cheltenham and has since expanded with shops and franchises in 46 countries but its home is still here.

The Wishing Fish Clock in the Regency Arcade

One of the attractions is the Regent Arcade because here is to be found the Wishing Fish Clock– a strange apparatus that has visitors photographing it from morning till dark. But Montpellier to the south of the High street is where you’ll find most of the boutique shops, restaurants bars and trendy cafes rather than in this arcade.

Needless to say, there are a lot of listed buildings in the town, many in Montpellier and that is part of the Cheltenham Central Conservation Area. There the architecture of the town melds; in other places it does not.

a modern row of shops besmirched with concrete staining

For example, in the High Street, there is a grubby, concrete building that houses WH Smith and the Post Office. It stands out as being thoroughly out of place with most of the buildings. Out of the central part of the town you can find an eight storey, block of flats adjacent to regency homes and, despite having old ornate pillars at the entrance, it still looks out-of-place. But then, within a hundred yards, is a long dry-stone wall, a feature I hadn’t expected to see in an urban setting.

Back in town, The Wilson, an art gallery and museum is a hybrid building, acting as the tourist information centre on the ground floor as well as housing one of the important collections of the arts and crafts movement from the first years of the twentieth century. From the same era it contains the Antarctic diaries and archives that were held by the family of Dr Wilson.

the birthplace of Gustav Holst

Around the town, you will find blue plaques (not the only colour; there are white and green ones as well) that have been installed on important buildings or those with historical connections. The composer, Gustav Holst, was born and spent the first nineteen years of his life in Cheltenham. Today, the Holst Birthplace Museum,  is open not just so that you can see items relating to the man and his lesser known Hollywood actor brother – Ernest Cossart – but because there is also a working Victorian kitchen there.

The plaques are placed by the Cheltenham Civic Society and include many people that you might not associate with the town such as Horace Ford. He is the founder of modern archery, the style you see in the Olympic Games and founder of the Cheltenham Archers. The eccentric actor, Ralph Richardson, was born in the town as his father was an art teacher at Cheltenham Ladies College. Surprisingly, two well-known Australians have links with the town. The poet and author, Adam Lindsay Gordon lived his early years in the town before his family tired of his wild ways and shipped him off to Australia where he was a politician, a jockey and a poet of national significance before he committed suicide in 1870. Charles Sturt, on the other hand, ended his days in Cheltenham after becoming one of the most successful explorers of central Australia and inland NSW.

the famed Cheltenham racecourse

Fred Archer, perhaps the most famous Victorian jockey  is linked to one of the other well-known pastimes in Cheltenham – horse racing. To the north of Pittville is the racecourse, a place that attracts punters from the UK and Ireland to the Cheltenham festival each spring. Although there are other races throughout the year, it is the Festival that causes the ferries from Ireland to be filled with punters all heading towards the town and a time when an Irish accent is more common than an English one.

It is next to the racecourse that you’ll find the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway which runs to Laverton and to Broadway as from March 2018. The future hope is that the line links up with the mainline trains at Cheltenham Spa  and this plan has the support of the council which sees it as a way of easily moving racegoers from the mainline to the racecourse.

Hillary Clinton poster from the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

Cheltenham will also always be linked to a variety of arts festivals attracting some very high profile names including ex-US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who was at the Literature Festival the weekend before last. There is also a jazz festival, a music one and a food and drink festival as well as four theatres including the Everyman. This has a distinctive entrance which was designed by a local lad, Frank Matcham (he has a plaque as well) who went on to be the foremost designer of theatres of his day. For those not of an arts disposition, there is a science festival as well.

The Everyman Theatre

I drove to Cheltenham as the access motorways because this the easiest for most people. It does mean that you have to be prepared for the odd traffic jam and parking problem particular in the summer or when there are significant events occurring. There are park and ride locations outside the town such as near the racecourse and all are quite well signposted. Signposting isn’t necessarily the best in the town where the need to switch lanes in one-way systems does snarl the traffic for those who find they have to switch lanes at the last moment.

The alternative is to travel by train but Cheltenham Spa station is about a mile or so away from the town. Catching a bus from the station to the middle of town requires about 15-20 minutes which gives you an idea of the traffic the buses face. It is just as easy to walk it if you are able.

Much of the town, as I said earlier, is still strongly regency and better it should stay that way for much of the architecture of the last fifty or so years has done it no favours.  It is the past that attracts people to Cheltenham and the way in which the town has preserved it.

For more about Cheltenham, click here.

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