Cheltenham cocks a snook at candyfloss

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The Independent Online
FIRST IT was chilli relish and potatoes, now candyfloss and hot dogs. In the genteel enclave of Cheltenham, they are all seen as indicators of unwanted social and cultural change. Accordingly, they have been banned as too down market.

The latest barrier to encroaching vulgarity was erected by Cheltenham council's licensing committee nine days ago. They decided against allowing the sale of candyfloss and hot dogs in parts of the High Street during the run-up to Christmas. Neither contributed to the Victorian flavour they want for the festive season.

Last year, the same committee vetoed the sale of chilli and other 'exotic' relishes as fillings for baked potatoes sold by High Street stalls. It was the smell, they said. In the past, the same explanation has justified banning sausages, while a prospective vegetable-stall trader was turned down because unwashed potatoes were deemed unsightly.

Cheltonians are sensitive people; the ruling Liberal Democrats also refused hypnotists permission to perform in nightclubs, and a block has been put on charity collections.

Bill Bullingham, a former Tory mayor, is critical. 'We have a town steeped in history, but some councillors need reminding that we are in the 20th century.'

But over-enthusiasm for tradition goes further than the Liberals and comes much uglier. It was Mr Bullingham's local party colleagues who caused outrage three years ago by objecting to the selection of John Taylor, a black barrister, to contest the Parliamentary seat of Cheltenham vacated by retiring MP Sir Charles Irving. Worse, the electors who gave Sir Charles a 4,896-vote majority rejected Taylor, returning Liberal Democrat Nigel Jones by 1,668 votes. Taylor later said race was a factor in the result.

The objectors claimed to speak for Old Cheltenham, a bastion of tradition preserved in the town's elegant Montpellier area. Here, among Regency architecture, fountains and gardens, is the Conservative headquarters.

Cheltenham earned its stuffy reputation in the days when wealthy Victorians came to take the spa waters. Later, it became a favourite retirement town for naval officers.

Today though Cheltenham is town of big corporations, including Eagle Star, Dowty, and Smiths Industries. There are chain stores in the High Street, council estates, unemployment, burglaries and drug-taking.

This weekend, Miss Doreen Wright, 90, a thoroughbred Cheltonian, reflected on the changes. 'It is a slum, and yet it was a millionaire's paradise,' she said. 'We have litter and cigarette ends everywhere, and we have tramps sleeping under the bandstand. It is because we don't have the real Cheltonians anymore.'

However, Taylor rushed to defend the people he once sought to represent. 'The people of Cheltenham are not stuffy. It is an attractive town, full of attractive people.' Deborah Griggs, the Mayor of Cheltenham, said: 'It is a town of the 1990s with super people.'

Councillor Alan Stone, who, as chair of licensing, is responsible for the latest ban, takes criticism personally. 'I am a Cheltonian, and I wouldn't say we are snobbish.'

Although he himself likes both hot dogs and candyfloss, he feels they do not belong in the High Street at Christmas. 'They are more in place at a fairground.'

Officials have advised Edward Danter, the main victim of the candyfloss and hot dog ban, that if he 'Victorianises' his stall, he may be able to pitch it in the High Street after all.

As he sold his wares to children in Montpellier Gardens this weekend, Danter, 39, said: 'If they stop it altogether, it is a sad day. Children from all over the place enjoy my candyfloss.'

His gentle reaction was not shared by customers. Amanda Urch, 23, said: 'If we want it why shouldn't we be allowed to have it whatever the time of year. Its just plain snobbishness.'

(Photographs omitted)

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