Pigeons often get a bad press. However, it was these winged pariahs that – back in 1716 – unearthed Cheltenham's fortune. Blithely pecking away one day, they alerted locals to the presence of an underground spring. Suddenly, all manner of aristocrats and hypochondriacs trotted into town, eager to take the medicinal waters of this leafy Cotswolds corner. King George III arrived to treat his infirmities in 1788, rows of Regency houses then appeared – and the town then known as "Cheltenham Spa" was born.
When The Montpellier Chapter opened late last year, it could have used a little of this good fortune. Perhaps even an enterprising pigeon or two.
The story had started so well. Following successful luxury hotel launches in China (The Opposite House, The Upper House and East hotels), the Swire group turned its attention to Britain. The new brand, Chapter Hotels, was conceived as a series of properties set in the "hearts of British towns and cities", and the first opened in the Montpellier area of Cheltenham last November without a hitch.
Head chef Tom Rains was lured back to the Cotswolds, where he was born and trained, to preside over the restaurant following stints at Claridge's and The Berkeley; the library shelves were lined with a collection of pertinent tomes to reflect Cheltenham's history (a spies section nods towards the nearby GCHQ building).
All was well until the hotel was beset by last winter's floods. The basement spa was the main casualty. Only a few weeks after fanning out the fashion magazines and lining up the herbal teas, the hotel was forced to close the treatment area and repeat the renovation, while normal business continued upstairs. Now, with the spa fully open again, The Montpellier Chapter is ready to restart its narrative.
A British theme hits you straight away. You walk into a large open-plan reception, past the gleaming white Regency façade, which is topped by a billowing Union flag. It's not all rosy-cheeked politeness though. Contemporary artwork adorns every space, much of which has been commissioned from Central St Martin's students and alumni. The work of these artists hangs beside etchings and photographic works created by veteran names such as Susan Hiller and Tacita Dean.
The Swire heritage is also in evidence, with efficient service and a fondness for snappy technology drawn from the parent company's existing hotels in Asia. Some of the gizmos work (paperless check-in is executed well), while others are a fad too far (iPads loaded with the restaurant wine list, plus reams on grape varieties, might better have been delivered on a plain old sheet of A4). Nevertheless, with further Chapters planned in Exeter and Bristol next year, the Montpellier edition is an inventive beginning.
Montpellier is where Cheltenham's elite reside. Here, small boutiques jostle for space with wine bars and restaurants such as Brasserie Blanc, Raymond's informal spin-off of Le Manoir. The centrepiece is the Montpellier Gardens, blooming with flowers and containing a fountain surmounted by a bespectacled Gustav Holst, who was born in Cheltenham and now stands with his baton raised aloft above the water jets.
Too big to rival the quaint charms of Chipping Campden or the sleepy riverside refinement of Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham instead pitches itself as a "touring hub" for the wider Cotswolds area and has devised a burgeoning events calendar – jazz in May, literature in October – that reaches well beyond March's Gold Cup.
The 60 rooms and one penthouse are spread between the Regency building and a new extension to the back. I slept in the old wing, where my room was furnished with plenty of extras: homemade shortbread, an iPod loaded with Cheltenham guides and playlists, a Nespresso machine and a complimentary mini bar.
However, although the bed was plush and cosseting, and the monochrome bathroom chic and stocked with Aromatherapy Associates products, the décor in my room fell slightly flat. A dizzying combination of lime green furnishings with charcoal grey carpets rather undermined an otherwise handsome aesthetic elsewhere in the hotel.
More exciting options are in the modern crescent, where 16 "feature" rooms stand on two levels along a claret-paned glass corridor, overlooking a pretty outdoor courtyard where breakfast is served on balmy mornings. Open-plan with creamy, neutral hues and oak floors inside, they are divided by sheer curtains, which separate bed from bathroom. Beyond lies Cheltenham Ladies' College, including tennis courts and sports facilities which all guests can use, free of charge.
The Montpellier Chapter, Bayshill Road, Montpellier, Cheltenham, Gloucs GL50 3AS (01242 527788; themontpellierchapterhotel.com).
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