Until the eighteenth century
CHELTENHAM was like any other Cotswold town, but then
the discovery of a spring in 1716 transformed it into Britain's
most popular spa . During Cheltenham's prime, a century or so
later, the royal, the rich and the famous descended in hordes
to take the waters, which were said to cure anything from constipation
to worms. These days, while a fair proportion of Cheltenham's
hundred thousand-odd inhabitants are undoubtedly well-heeled,
of Conservative persuasion (true of the Cotswolds in general)
and above retirement age, the town saves itself from too smug
an image by a lively and increasingly cosmopolitan atmosphere.
It's by far the best spot around for nightlife and makes a convenient
base for touring the area.
The focus of Cheltenham,
the broad Promenade , sweeps majestically south from the High
Street, lined with the town's grandest houses, smartest shops
and most genteel public gardens. A short walk north of the High
Street, brings you to Pittville , which, planned as a spa town
to rival Cheltenham, was never completed and is now mostly parkland.
Here you can stroll along a few solitary Regency avenues and
visit the grandest spa building, the domed Pump Room (Mon &
Wed-Sun 11am-4pm), whose chief function nowadays is as a concert
hall - though you can sample England's only naturally alkaline
water for free here. On your return route, the Holst Birthplace Museum is worth a glance, at 4 Clarence
Rd (Tues-Sat 10am-4pm): the former home of the composer of The
Planets , it holds plenty of Holst memorabilia, including his
piano, and also gives a good insight into Victorian family life.
Back in the centre, the well-set-out Art Gallery and Museum on
Clarence Stret (Mon-Sat 10am-5.20pm, Sun 2-4.20pm; free) marks
the high point of Cheltenham. It's very good on social history,
with different eras represented by table displays of personal
belongings and a typical dinner of the time. There's also a room
dedicated to the Arts and Crafts Movement, containing several
pieces by Charles Voysey and Ernest Gimson, two of the period's
most graceful designers. Also on display is an array of rare
Chinese ceramics and works by Cotswold artists such as Stanley
Spencer and Vanessa Bell.
The town is also a thriving
arts centre, famous for its festivals of jazz (April), classical
music (July) and literature (October) - and then, of course,
there are the races. In addition, Coopers' Hill, six miles southwest
on the A46, is the venue for the region's most bizarre, and established,
competition. On the second bank holiday in May, a steep section
of the Cotswold escarpment hosts the annual Cheese Rolling Festival
, when a large Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the one-in-two
incline and chased by dozens of drunken folk; the first to grab
the cheese is the winner.