Somewhere for the weekend... Cheltenham
Enjoy this elegant Gloucestershire town in good company, as culture vultures flock to its Festival of Literature
Wednesday 15 October 2003
To meet novelists, biographers, poets and storytellers, philosophers, explorers, artists and film-makers, all in Cheltenham for the annual Festival of Literature, which runs until next Sunday 19 October. The Gloucestershire town is brimming with literary talent from around the globe, with over 400 writers in residence. This weekend the festival reaches its climax: Marina Warner meets Magnus Magnusson, Amanda Craig and Alastair Niven for some myth mangling; Ranulph Fiennes promotes his passion through his biography of Scott; and Griff Rhys Jones joins his fellow comic Rory McGrath to reflect upon his "journey into the heart of the Nordic soul, via the bilges of experience".
If you can choose between the numerous talks, walks and workshops, tickets range from £4-£12 for both adults and children, and most need to be booked in advance. Some events, such as storytelling and poetry reading, are free. For details of events, times and venues visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk. Bookings can be made 9.30am-10pm by calling 01242 227 979, e-mailing boxoffice @cheltenham.gov.uk or in person at the Town Hall on Imperial Square.
If you're travelling by car, Cheltenham is just under 50 miles from both Bristol and Birmingham, close to junction 11 of the M5, and 40 miles west of Oxford on the A40. Cheltenham is better connected by coach than train. Buses pull into the central bus station just off The Promenade in Royal Well Road. The journey from Birmingham (£10.50 return) and Bristol (£9 return) to Cheltenham takes one hour and 15 minutes; from Victoria Coach Station in London, the journey time is nearly three hours (£21 return). These services are run by National Express (08705 808 080, www.nationalexpress.com).
If you prefer to take the train, beware of engineering work, which is set to frustrate visitors from London on 18 and 19 October; on other days it runs from London to Cheltenham in two hours (from £32 return, or £18.50 if you book a week ahead). Trains also run regularly from Bristol (30 minutes, £13.50) and Birmingham (45 minutes, £15) and many other places on the Virgin cross-country network. For details on times and prices, contact National Rail Enquiries (08457 484 950, www.nationalrail.co.uk).
The train station is in Queens Road, a 20-minute walk to the town centre or a short ride on bus F or G (running every 15 minutes, £1.10).
The discovery of a spring in 1716 transformed the sleepy Cotswold town of Cheltenham into one of England's most revered spa towns, patronised by royalty and the nobility. Early literary sojourners included Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe, who came here to sup the only naturally alkaline waters in England. The elegant Regency arcades, simple white façades punctuated by iron balconies and self-consciously formal gardens, boast a sophistication that has not faded with age. The tourist information centre (01242 522878, www.visitcheltenham.info) is at 77 The Promenade; open 9.30am-5.15pm daily except Sundays.
Cheltenham's hotels and guesthouses fill quickly at festival time, but there are usually enough beds to go around. Festival of Literature packages offering two nights' B&B, four tickets of your choice and a guided tour around Montpellier are good value. The package costs £88 per person at the elegant Pittville Gate Hotel, 12-14 Pittville Lawn (01242 221 922). At the George Hotel on St Georges Road (01242 235 751), which occupies one of Cheltenham's finest Regency terraces and is located just a couple of minutes from the town centre, it costs £112. These rates are available only through the Cheltenham booking line (01242 517 110).
Of course, you can also book a room direct with the town's hotels. The Queens Hotel (0870 400 8107, www.heritage-hotels.co.uk) on The Promenade offers the ultimate Cheltenham experience, with views of the Imperial Gardens. A double room with a four-poster bed costs £209, excluding breakfast.
For something a little more intimate, the delightful Lypiatt Hotel on Lypiatt Road (01242 224 994, www.lypiatt.co.uk) offers open fires and private gardens, with double rooms from £90, including breakfast. But if you fancy a comfortable, centrally located and quiet night for only £44 for a double, including breakfast, book a room at the Brennan Guest House at 21 St Lukes Road (01242 525 904).
The genteel centre of town is the elm- and chestnut-lined Promenade, where imposing Regency architecture and smart shops bestride a genteel public garden. Detour into the Regency Arcade shopping centre to see Kit Williams's fantasy Wishing Fish Clock, where kinetically charged balls rotate and slide around the fish, and which rewards those patient enough to wait with a blow of bubbles on the hour.
You can usually take the spa waters at the impressive, domed Pittville Pump Room (01242 523 852), open daily except Tuesday 11am-4pm, but it is currently under repair. The Art Gallery and Museum on Clarence Street (01242 237 431, www.cheltenhammuseum.org.uk) has a unique collection of textiles, ceramics, furniture and metalwork from the local-born Arts and Crafts Movement. It opens 10am-5pm from Monday to Saturday, 2-4.20pm on Sundays. All the above attractions are free, but you might wish to pay the £2.50 admission charge for the Holst Birthplace Museum (4 Clarence Road, 01242 524 846) to experience a Regency house to the music of its most famous occupant, Gustav Holst.
The Promenade has all the usual upmarket retail suspects, from Jigsaw to Space NK. Don't miss the exceptional footwear at Keith Scarrott (8 The Promenade, 01242 253 154); the shoes are as magnificent as their trompe l'oeil surroundings. More unusual shops can be found in the delightful Montpellier area. At Tizziana (9 The Courtyard, Montpellier Street, 01242 582627), Dawn Tizzard uses her spiritual and psychic abilities to kit you out in something gorgeous. You can try on the Nursey of Bungay suede jackets at Flax (1 Montpellier Walk, 01242 574 555) and indulge your culinary desires at the Kitchener (4 Queens Circus, 01242 235 688), home to every imaginable kitchen gadget. At Decorative Textiles (5-6 Well Walk, 01242 574 546), tassels, textiles and trimmings in abundance are on offer.
Boogaloos Coffee House (16 Regent Street, 01242 702 259) does decent lunches for around £7. Adjoining the Queens Hotel, the Petit Blanc Brasserie (01242 266 800) is an excellent place for lunch or dinner; prices from £13.50. On Friday afternoon you can take tea at The Daffodil, 18-20 Suffolk Parade (01242 700 055), in the company of the authors Roy Moxham and Antony Wild. This former art deco cinema is also a great place for dinner. For the best Chinese in town, try Mandarin Kite (5 Rotunda Terrace, Montpellier Street, 01242 228 882). More pricey but worthwhile is the Lumière (Clarence Parade, 01242 222 200), where such dishes as seared scallops and truffled mascarpone speak for themselves.
INTO THE NIGHT
Cheltenham's nightlife has brightened considerably over the past few years. The best place to begin an evening is the Montpellier district, before moving on to the popular Subtone nightclub at 117 The Promenade (01242 575 925). This listed Regency townhouse was once a jazz club, but has turned into a Fifties-style club, complete with four bars. It is both a live and turntable venue for dancing divas. It also has a more chilled piano bar for those wanting a singalong.
Another popular nightclub is Time at 33 Albion Street (01242 224 844), but this is towards the High Street area, which can be a little more rowdy after hours. There are many clubs, bars and pubs offering anything from jazz to trance, so the night can go on for as long as you want.
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