Cheltenham: Ahead of next month’s Gold Cup, Phil Penfold finds this spa town has many other draws to attract visitors.
When it comes to festivals, Cheltenham has pretty much cornered the market.
There’s racing, of course, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup festival, but there’s also festivals devoted to folk, literature, music, science, comedy, film, cricket and wait for it, ballroom dancing. They all junk the image of Cheltenham of being a rather sleepy, architecturally fascinating backwater, stuck somewhere in a time warp circa 1800. A place to which you can retire – and then gracefully expire. The only month that seems bereft of some festival festivity is January. It seems a sure bet that that omission will be rectified before very long.
Cheltenham became a spa town in 1716 after a farmer investigated pigeons pecking at something on his land. With a little investigation, the “something” turned out to be salt crystals and spring water. He dug – literally – a little deeper. He then dug a little more, built some buildings around his discovery, and the tourists started to arrive. There are heraldic pigeons on Cheltenham’s coat of arms to this day and the discovery of spa waters led to a frenzy of building, much of it financed by local businessman Joseph Pitt.
His most grandiose plan was to build a huge circus, with houses in two crescents, rivalling Bath in size and style. Pitt’s finances sadly waxed and waned and only half of his plans were ever realised. Royal Crescent is home to elegant gardens, a fountain and some tree-shaded walks, but not all of Cheltenham is as pretty.
The concrete bus station is like a huge wart on Cheltenham’s forehead and to complete the indignity, the Crescent looks at the bland rear of the splendid municipal buildings of the elegant Promenade.
The town falls into two sections. One is to the north, and centres around Pittville Park and the Pump Room, and the other is to the south, where you find The Promenade, the old town hall (an Edwardian building that shouts “We are British and we have an Empire, and, by jingo, you’d better not forget it!”), Imperial and Montpellier Gardens and Suffolk Square.
Pittville Park (itself home to Grade II listed building and many rare and interesting trees) is an agreeable places to go for a saunter and when we visited the Pump Room itself, a piano tuner was making sure there would be perfect pitch for that afternoon’s concert. There’s a nice little café, an animal petting area for youngsters, and the lawns are clipped immaculately.
There’s a lot more in the southern section, including the buildings of the Cheltenham Ladies College, built over the site of the original well that started the town on its path to prosperity. Now these you have got to see. They are a must, a truly barking mad, brilliantly bonkers mix of high camp Victorian Gothick, with a Venetian bridge, a Moorish cupola and town, lots of faux medieval French flourishes, and some windows that look as if they have been rescued from Mr Rochester’s country seat, Thornfield Hall.
What the good burghers of the area thought of it in 1873, is anyone’s guess. A guide book calmly claims this part of the College to be “an excellent example of 19th-century eclecticism.” It’s not. It’s Looneytoons on a stick with knobs on.
Almost as bizarre is a grotesque addition to Montpellier Street, built as a courtyard by Sir Hugh Casson in 1985. It’s one of those Marmite buildings, with most townspeople and visitors opting for the inverted, downwards thumb. Not to worry, you can scamper past to Montpellier Arcade, built in 1831-2, which is a gleaming example of a shopping experience of the day, designed to shift luxury goods to the well-heeled. And then there’s the charm of Montpellier Walk, a parade of 1840s shops with doors and windows supported by no less than 32 armless Greek maidens.
It is not knocking Cheltenham to observe that so much of it is so perfectly preserved that you do sometimes feel that you have strayed onto a film set, and that Dame Judi Dench and Emma Thompson in bonnets and frocks might bowl around the corner at any minute.
The Broadwalk, on the southern side of Imperial Square is particularly finely proportioned. And then you learn that it was actually built 14 years ago, to ape its surroundings. It works – as does a nearby terrace on Trafalgar Street, which is strikingly modern, but elegant in a vague post-deco manner.
Bayshill and Parabola Roads have many more exceptional villas. One is the Montpellier Chapter, which has been converted into one of the very best hotels in the area. Clean crisp modern design within and with its very own collection of contemporary art. There is a stunning extension; a relaxing library, a spa, and a conservatory to watch the world go by.
Cheltenham is a place full of agreeable surprises, a great weekend break in itself, or a base from which to explore the Cotswolds. I only wish that I could have taken off in the vintage green Bentley parked outside the Montpellier Chapter. There are great little pubs and scores of restaurants and bars to choose from. There’s a Frank Matcham-designed theatre, The Everyman, and those festivals... if you bet on Cheltenham, you can’t lose.
Phil Penfold stayed at The Montpellier Chapter Hotel, 01242 527788, and email@example.com
For more information about festivals, events and where to stay go to www.visitcheltenham.com or call 01242 522878.