A Weekend in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
There are those who go to Cheltenham for its superb festivals, the Regency architecture or its racecourse. But there are many others for whom the main appeal of the spa town is its steam railway, the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway (GWR) which is a great way to start your weekend, exploring the area. The 12 miles (19km) line stretches from Cheltenham Racecourse to Laverton Halt, a 17th-century hamlet in the Cotswolds. The journey takes you through some of the most glorious Cotswolds countryside, where on a good day, you can see the Black Mountains in Wales.
The GWR route closed to passenger traffic in the 1960s and was only resurrected in the 1980s when a society of volunteers was formed to save the line. It’s taken the better of 30 years to get it to the state it is in today.
A ride on the rain will allow you to meet some of these enthusiastic volunteers – there are about 900 in total. If you like the smell of trains and the sight of clouds of steam blowing back along the track then there is no better place. En route, the train stop off at the delightfully retro Flag and Whistle Café, where they serve ice cream made from milk fresh from the farm. Everything in the trains, from the GWR logos painted on to the benches to the moquette that covers the seats, the adverts and the uniforms, evokes the 1950s, the line’s heyday.
The train takes you to the. There weren’t any races on as we pulled into Cheltenham Racecourse, but it would be a stylish way to arrive on a race day – a reminder for when you are planning on visiting Cheltenham. In town, we explored the stretch from Monpellier Gardens to Imperial Gardens, a few hundred yards of Regency architecture and manicured public space which, once a year, heaves with the literati and their followers.
The 19th-century pamphleteer William Cobbett, described Cheltenham as, “a place to which East India plunderers, West India floggers, together with gluttonous drinkers and debauchees of all descriptions, female as well as male, resort, at the suggestion of silently laughing quacks, in the hope of getting rid of the bodily consequences of their manifold sins and iniquities.”
Some things don’t change. It’s here that you find John Gordon’s, a whisky, wine and champagne saloon bar on Montpellier Arcade; a favourite watering hole for authors.
The arcade is now home to dozens of independent shops, clothing boutiques, cafes and wine bars. The vintage shopping scene has clearly picked up in the past few years – the streets were lined with trinkets to catch my magpie eye. You can even pick up a Monmouth coffee a Pink Vintage while you browse their decorations and furniture.
Walking around this area, you can’t help but notice the armless ladies – caryatids – that line the streets. There are about 32 in total, dating from the 1840s, which are based on those found at the temple of Erechtheum at the Acropolis in Athens.
On the Promenade is the Boer War Memorial, commemorating the local soldiers who died in the South African war of 1899-1902. Just a few minutes’ walk from there is the birthplace of Gustav Holst on Clarence Road. The composer lived here from his birth in 1874 to 1882, shortly after his mother died. In the music room you can see the piano on which he composed much of The Planets and an ornate golden music stand to die for. It’s a reminder of just how fashionable the town used to be in its spa heyday, when it was a creative hub visited by the likes of Lord Byron, Jane Austin and the Duke of Wellington.
Sadly, Cheltenham spas went into decline in the late 19th century. A few small wells remain dotted around the town, including Pittville Pump Room, just a short walk from the centre and now a wedding venue.
Then it was on the Wilson art gallery and museum (no relation) on Clarence Street. You shouldn’t miss the chance to read the Antarctic explorer Edward Wilson’s stoic final letter to his wife – he died on Captain Scott’s fatal expedition in 1912. Wilson was raised in Cheltenham and the gallery was renamed in his honour in 2013. But the main draw here is the museum’s Arts and Crafts collection.
Despite the development of railways and canals in the area, the Cotswolds was still more or less a backwater during the Industrial Revolution, which helped to preserve the Arts and Crafts tradition. William Morris leased nearby Kelmscott Manor in 1871 with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Their designs can be seen in local churches and, of course, at the gallery.
For culture, one weekend in this spa town is more than worth it.