And they’re off – or very nearly so. Tens of thousands of people are preparing to descend on Cheltenham for one of the biggest fixtures in British horse racing. The Cheltenham Festival runs from March 12-15 this year, and each of its four days typically attracts crowds of some 60,000.
Yet for all the buzz at the race course, the Regency heart of this Cotswold town remains pretty much empty during Festival days. Which is a shame, for this is an elegant gem of a destination that oozes cultured charm.
Cheltenham looks terrific in the watery sunshine of early spring. The glory of the town is in its early 19th-century buildings, so the first thing on your list should be an architectural wander. It’s remarkable how much the pillars, porticos and pediments of the past have an uplifting effect. Start in the Tivoli and Suffolks area to the south – the Earl of Suffolk developed this from farmland in a flurry of construction in the 1830s – for some of the most refined residences in town, complete with wrought-iron balconies and big, beautiful windows.
Heading north to the town centre, saunter through the gracious Montpellier district where caryatids – Grecian-style pillars of sculpted females – add funky flourishes to several properties. Just up from a proud parade of these embellishments is the Grade I-listed Rotunda building, which evolved from a spa established in 1809, and which since December 2017 has been home to The Ivy restaurant.
In the 19th century Montpellier Spa was one of six or so places where the great, the good and the sick flocked to take Cheltenham’s mineral waters and this route will take you past the well-clipped Montpellier Gardens and neighbouring Imperial Gardens, where many of the town’s other festivals take place – jazz in May, science in June, music at the end of June and literature in October. Next is a stroll along the Promenade, an avenue built in the 1820s which still exudes grandeur.
Cheltenham offers a generous choice of cafes, from Carluccio’s to Cotswolds favourite Huffkins. Head down Regent Street for a stop at The Find which, neatly, is a sort of 21st-century version of a Regency coffee house. With its period cornicing and zany wallpaper it’s a chic social hub that serves locally sourced food (even wine from nearby Poulton Hill vineyard) and also provides co-working desk space on its top floor.
Nearby, just off the sweep of the Royal Circus, is the town’s museum, The Wilson, which is renowned for its Arts & Crafts collection – a room of exquisite furniture and homeware by Ernest Gimson, William Morris and more – which you can easily get lost in for a good hour or so.
It would be impossible not to get sidetracked here: by the founding collection of Flemish art, by a wonderful Stanley Spencer, by an absorbing archive room with changing exhibitions of local history, and most of all by the poignant watercolours and story of Edward Wilson. Scientist, artist and explorer, Wilson was born in Cheltenham in 1872 and died with Captain Scott on his fateful Antarctic expedition in 1912.
Another national hero was born in Cheltenham just two years after Edward Wilson. The composer Gustav Holst spent his early life at 4 Clarence Road, a relatively modest Regency house 10 minutes’ walk from The Wilson. The name of the Holst Birthplace Museum doesn’t convey the charm and scope of this little establishment. Of course you see Holst memorabilia, from the composer’s music scores to his gramophone and even the piano on which he composed The Planets.
You also get an absorbing insight into life in the town at the time – the tiny third-floor bedroom of the maid, and the back-breaking labour evidently involved in running the basement kitchen and laundry, is particularly striking. Rather interestingly, in Holst’s lifetime Clarence Road and the surrounding area were known as ‘the Anglo-Indian’s paradise’ because of the number of retired employees from the East India Company – and subsequently the British Raj – who had taken up residence there.
In keeping with Cheltenham’s resourceful spirit, there’s a Curry and Colonels walking tour that takes place in spring and summer. This involves being led by ebullient actor Phil Collins, dressed as 18th-century entrepreneur Henry Skillicorne, who established the town’s first spa. Among other locations, the tour stops the Queens Hotel, site of the Imperial Spa, and the ornate Pittville Pump Room, where Cheltenham’s mineral water can still be sampled – at no cost. The trip ends, rather suitably, with a tasting of Indian cuisine at the Spice Lodge restaurant.
If you want to ring the changes from Regency riches, this year you can join a walking tour that marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Brian Jones. The Rolling Stones founder was born and grew up in Cheltenham and this trip provides a feel of the town in the 1950s and 60s, with stops including the site of the Odeon cinema where the Stones played in 63 and 65, and St Mary’s Church where Jones’s funeral took place.
For an up-to-the-moment take on the town, call in on Dunkertons Organic Cider on the eastern edge of Cheltenham. The stylish shop and cider mill offers guided tours and is a family business that moved here from Herefordshire in late 2018. It’s partly owned by Julian Dunkerton, who co-founded the fashion label Superdry in Cheltenham and who has made a huge impact on the town with his boutique hotel group Lucky Onion.
This has several sleek new properties in the pipeline; a welcome development for the town since hotel beds are in short supply, particularly during the March horse events. Be sure to book ahead if you fancy attending next season’s Cheltenham Festival – and enjoy the Regency glories of the town as well as its equine activities.
The Cheltenham Festival starts on March 12 and culminates with the Gold Cup National Hunt race on March 15 (jockeyclub.co.uk/Cheltenham/).
The Cheltenham Jazz Festival runs from May 1-6 (cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz/).
What to see
The Wilson, Clarence Street; free; Tues-Sun (cheltenhammuseum.org.uk).
Holst Birthplace Museum, 4 Clarence Road; adults £6, children £2; March Fri and Sat, April to mid December Tues-Sat (holstmuseum.org.uk).
Take a tour
Curry and Colonels two-hour walking tour plus restaurant tasting – selected Saturdays in April, May, June, July and August; £60 per person (visitcheltenham.com).
Brian Jones 50th Anniversary Walking Tour – selected Saturdays in March, April, May and June; adults £10 (visitcheltenham.com).
Dunkertons Organic Cider guided tours, London Road, Charlton Kings – selected Saturdays and Wednesdays; adults £20 (dunkertonscider.co.uk).