In early March 2020, I spent a day in the Gloucestershire spa town of Cheltenham. Two weeks later we all went into lockdown and this post has sat languishing in my ever-growing drafts pile since, as it didn’t feel quite right to publish it at the time when we couldn’t leave the house. So in a bid to start getting through my seemingly endless backlog of pre-pandemic posts, here are my thoughts on Cheltenham…
Ambling around Cheltenham, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a Jane Austen novel – that is, if you conveniently ignored the shops, bars, restaurants and cars. For this Gloucestershire town, on the edge of the Cotswolds, is billed as the “most complete Regency town in the UK”.
The former spa town’s architecture is astonishing with 18th century Regency buildings, and handsome parks and gardens everywhere you look. You can easily imagine Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood or Jane Bennett strolling its streets 200 years ago in a little bonnet, small parasol in hand.
The town’s wealth is evident as every house or building we stumbled upon seemed to be a large Regency villa or block of flats, and I was left wondering where the regular folk lived as I’d be surprised if any of the houses we passed cost less than £1 million.
The highlight of our visit was the beautiful Pittville Pump Room (above), set amid the splendid greenery and lakes of the 19th century Pittville Park, a 15-minute walk or so from the town centre.
Cheltenham made its name as a fashionable spa town in the 18th century and the Regency glitterati, including King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, flocked to the town to rest, recuperate and take its waters.
The Pittville Pump Room is the largest of Cheltenham’s pump rooms and is a wonderful example of the Regency style. Sadly, it was closed the day of our visit for a private event so we couldn’t tour the building, but we were allowed a quick peek inside and its suitably grand interior (above) didn’t disappoint.
Aside from its extensive Regency architecture, Cheltenham is famous for its many festivals – it hosts annual literary, jazz, science and music festivals. But it’s most renowned event is The Cheltenham Festival, a four-day celebration of horse racing in early spring.
The town is also the location of one of the UK’s most famous boarding schools – Cheltenham Ladies’ College (above). Situated in the heart of the town, the upper crust school educates girls between 11 and 18 years old and its ex-pupils include actress Kristin Scott Thomas, 90s ‘It’ girl Tamara Beckwith and former Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Of the town’s other main sights, Cheltenham boasts a few museums – the most notable being the Holst Birthplace Museum, which as its name suggests is where the composer Gustav Holst was born, and The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum.
We had a pleasant day out in Cheltenham, ambling around the city centre and admiring the town’s handsome parks and elegant architecture. I can’t say we did very much in terms of visiting museums, but it was nice just to wander around, popping inside the odd shop, strolling past the sights and stopping for a tasty lunch at local bakery and tearoom chain Huffkins.
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