Although I’ve been to any number of events in the Cheltenham area over the years, I can’t remember when I last explored the town itself. The opportunity to rectify that omission presented itself at the beginning of August 2017, when I arrived a full day before I was due to be marshalling and spectating at Prescott Speed Hill Climb. I didn’t have a lot of time to research the tourist opportunities beforehand, although I was staying with an experienced tour guide, but I decided my best option was to take a bus into the town centre and see what struck me as particularly interesting.
Cheltenham has a comprehensively stocked Tourist Information Centre, along with a sizable quantity of pedestrian signs. From these I was able to find my way (via a number of highly photogenic buildings) to 4 Clarence Road (formerly 4 Pittville Terrace), the birthplace of the composer Gustav Holst. Having become familiar with Holst’s best-known orchestral suite, The Planets, while at school, I was keen to find out at last about the man himself, and also to look around yet another recreation of a Victorian family home: always an inspiring experience for me, especially since, by Victorian times, and in spite of their German-sounding names, the Holst family were very much a typical middle-class English family.
From the outside, the former Holst family home doesn’t look particularly impressive, particularly when compared with some of Cheltenham’s older, and larger, residences. The inside and its contents, however, are fascinating. Gustav Holst was a member of a family of musicians, composers and artists: his great-uncle Theodor von Holst was a great influence on the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his father was a well-known music teacher and performer, and his younger brother became the Hollywood actor, Ernest Cossart; further back, Holst’s great-grandfather had moved from Latvia to London at the beginning of the 19th Century, while his son – Gustav Holst’s grandfather – had moved to Cheltenham in the 1830s as it was gaining its reputation as a spa town. Evidently the Holst family were good at spotting and following new trends, as can also be seen by the presence of Gustav’s 1926 gramophone (newly acquired by the museum) on prominent display in the music room, which also contains his piano (recordings of both can be played back by visitors).
The rooms in the Museum alternate between recreations of their Victorian and Regency appearances, and purely educational areas. I particularly enjoyed investigating the Victorian ‘service rooms’: kitchen, larder, scullery, and so on, while the rooms on the upper floors – the Regency Sitting Room, and Victorian Bedrooms and Nursery – are well worth lingering over. Although the music that Gustav Holst became famous for was written in the Edwardian and post-War periods, the museum remains true to its roots, as well as telling the full story of its most prominent inhabitant’s life.
Keen to see more of the Cheltenham that sprang up in Regency times, however, I took the advice of the Museum volunteer who was on duty and crossed Clarence Road, into Pittville, a development of grand early 19th Century houses leading to Pittville Park and Spa. The area is now a suburb of Cheltenham, but its developer envisioned that it would become a spa town in its own right, to rival its older close-neighbour.
The houses are all beautiful in their own individual ways, in spite of many being too obscured by trees to photograph easily in their entirety; the presence of so many cars in front of them barely dissuaded me from envisioning how they would have looked in their heyday. Many have been converted into flats or offices, but some are still single private residences.
The park, meanwhile, is a vast area of green, with an impressive lake, play-areas for younger visitors, and the dominant Pump Room (closed for a private function when I visited) overlooking the whole from its location at the top of the slope at the far end. I definitely plan to revisit Cheltenham at some point in the not too distant future, and discover its other attractions, of which I am sure there are many.