Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Hotels, Resort Accommodations

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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.

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