PUBLISHED: 17:34 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:32 20 February 2013
What is now Montpellier, was once a blank canvas on which the architects and designers of Regency England drew their shapes of the day. It was the inspiration for what Cheltenham has become.
In the mid 1970s, Roger and Josette Champness took over premises that had been empty for twenty years in Montpellier Arcade, renovated them, and opened their Acanthus gift shop. At the time, the whole area was being redeveloped and several new businesses were setting the tone for the exclusive visitor-friendly retail style that has become its hallmark. At the time, Roger and Josette commissioned an artist to make a series of sketches showing streets and landmarks adjacent to Montpellier Arcade. The couple moved into decorative lighting, and, in the 1980s, moved on; but the sketches are the inspiration for this month's piece on Cheltenham's cosmopolitan relative.
Montpellier has a parent and child relationship with Cheltenham. It was the child of the medieval village that had grown little by the 17th century; thereafter, it looked after its parent, nurtured and sustained it, and enabled the parent to prosper whilst Montpellier simultaneously developed its own interests. It must always have seemed like a place apart; an offspring that was into things that the parent did not quite understand. It was held at arm's length, while fashionable Cheltenham made up its mind whether this youngster's interests in spas and entertainments constituted high fashion or just another branch of trade. As with most fads and fancies of youth, the appeal gradually waned, by which time Montpellier had developed into a much more sophisticated being.
That sophistication infuses Montpellier today. It hangs about the bars and restaurants of the area's cosmopolitan society; it loiters in its galleries and fashion houses; and it is the fine tailoring in the fabric of Regency that clothes its streets. Upmarket and accessible is what Montpellier is all about. It is a place that is a delight to walk about, a pleasure in which to shop, and an education in which to eat and people-watch. It does not have the high street chains of Cheltenham, of course, but it does have their equivalent in independent specialists.
Montpellier Walk and the caryatids
Montpellier Arcade faces Montpellier Walk, and is a paved shopping development dating from the early 1830s. Here was a place where visitors to the spas might browse for trifles under cover, in the same way that we search through gift shops today. George Rowe, in his Illustrated Cheltenham Guide of 1850, said that there was a maker of corsets and stays at one entrance, and inside could be found 'Mr Brown's snug and retired coffee and cigar divan' where one might have 'Indian weed and finest coffee'. The dignified entrance and the buildings within - there were originally sixteen small shops - are now Grade II listed. Although it predates the Walk, the Arcade is now very much of it.
In the late 1830s, Cheltenham architect William Hill Knight foresaw the retail potential of exposing women of fashion and quality to luxury goods, as they promenaded between Cheltenham and the Montpellier spas. It was a time when the popularity of the spas was very much on the wane, whereas that of the entertainments - particularly those held in the ballroom at the Montpellier Spa - was higher than ever.
Knight was a jobbing architect who, in years to come, would design vicarages around the Cotswolds; in 1867, he restored the church at Moreton-on-Lugg, Herefordshire. In the 1860s too, he designed the pair of gothic chapels in Decorated style, flanking a tower and spire at Cheltenham's Bouncer's lane cemetery, and he was also associated with cemeteries at Hereford and Great Malvern. His idea for a trading precinct on the spa approach in Montpellier came when he had just designed the classical-style Jewish synagogue, now Grade II listed, that was built 1837-39, off St James's Square. His next project would be Montpellier Walk, completed in 1840, along which the must-have blandishments of the moment would be displayed to Cheltenham's spa society.
Montpellier Walk is undeniably the most attractive of the more intimate terraces in a town that, in architectural terms, usually went for the triumphant sweep. Here is a short two-storey terrace, faced in ashlar, with square-headed windows, and attics behind a serpentine, balustraded parapet. At ground-floor level, a run of white-painted, heavy-robed caryatids support the Walk's stepped and equally serpentine cornice with its frieze of oak leaves. Today, it is caf society that lingers here beside the armless ladies that characterize Montpellier. These caryatids date from 1843 when three of them, sculpted in terracotta, were brought by Montpellier spa owner Pearson Thompson, and set up as attractions in the new shopping terrace. Nottingham sculptor John Charles Felix Rossi (1762-1839), who had worked in Rome and had a penchant for classical Greek art, executed the originals. He also favoured terracotta as a working medium. Thompson set up the first three outside what was the National Westminster bank, facing towards the promenade.
Four more of Rossi's caryatids, based on those of the temple of Erechtheum at the Acropolis in Athens, adorn William and Henry Inwood's St Pancras church, built 1819-22, in Marylebone Road, London. His ladies of Montpellier Walk were made of Coade Stone - from the Lambeth factory where the sculptor worked for some time, and which was almost wholly contemporaneous with his life. They are said to also have been modelled on statues at the Acropolis, but those in Montpellier were done with a lightness of touch and a gentility of proportion, and were given a spirit of enigmatic girlishness that was not accorded to the sombre caryatids of the London church.
Now Montpellier has many more of these Grecian ladies, and it has always been said that the majority were created in stone from the originals by William Giles Brown of Tivoli Street. He was an established builder and stone carver, who was involved in a good many of Cheltenham's public buildings that had been put up since the 1840s. However, researcher and Tivoli historian Fr Brian Torode has very recently uncovered evidence that it was W.G's father, James Brown (1804-71) who was given the contract by Pearson Thompson. James was the head of a building firm of six employees including his son, William, who assisted his father in carving some of the caryatids. By the time of his death in 1926, at the age of 98, William Brown had achieved a not entirely correct local reputation as 'the man who carved the caryatids'. In the event, the Browns made eighteen caryatids between 1845 and 1850, and each was added to its allotted place in Montpellier Walk as it was finished. Two were subsequently removed to private gardens, and their whereabouts have never been ascertained. If you are interested in the history of the Tivoli area, you should look out for a copy of the currently out-of-print Tivoli,'near this town' (1998) by Brian Torode, who is assistant priest at the parish church of St Stephen.
The Rotunda and the royal statue
The Rotunda is the landmark building of Montpellier. There may be great town houses nearby, terraces may sweep about it laced with the decorative balconies that characterize this part of Cheltenham, and there may be buildings here that are individually of greater external architectural interest; but it is the Rotunda that draws the eye and invites comment. Today, it sits above the Montpellier branch of Lloyds TSB.
Just outside, in the middle of the road, is a statue of Edward VII with an integrated horse trough. After the second Boer War, Edward made it his business to foster an improvement in relations between Great Britain and other European countries. In France, he was called 'The Peacemaker', and this is the label that endeared him to J.W. Drew and Mrs Drew of Hatherley Court, Hatherley Road, who paid for the likeness to be erected. The king is dressed in a Norfolk suit, and is holding the fingertips of a barefoot waif who is clearly overawed by the experience, and his other hand is placed comfortingly on her shoulder. The horse trough reflects the Drew's hobby of rescuing retired horses and donkeys after a lifetime in service.
In a way, the Rotunda - or at least, what it represented - is the reason for Montpellier, an area that was first mentioned in 1809. For it was here that Henry Thompson, a London merchant, built the pump room that was to become such an attraction. Thompson bought land thereabouts in 1801, very close to the Royal Old Well that George III, Queen Charlotte and the royal household had patronized during a five-week stay in 1788, to the great benefit of Cheltenham's reputation as a spa. Thompson had an entrepreneurial spirit, and 10,000 to spend on sinking wells, capturing the essential waters and marketing the venture. Eventually, the product of about half a dozen wells - each of which, according to Thompson had individual mineral compositions, characteristics, and strengths - was made available. According to one early 19th-century writer, where now stands the Rotunda, Thompson 'built first a modest looking pump room for the distribution of the water, then one of more pretension which was subsequently enlarged, to be at length removed altogether for the present magnificent Rotunda, erected ... by his successor'.
Henry Thompson died aged seventy-two, and his successor was his son Pearson, who built the domed Rotunda in 1826. The years between had provided a mixed press for the Montpellier Spa. There were accusations that 'additives' had been introduced into some of the natural spa water, thereby giving it unnatural properties. There was disquiet over the manner of its presentation - a pump room operative was in charge of filling tumblers upon request, pumped from spouts connected to lead pipes that disappeared beneath the floor, with only his word that each led to a different water source. And patrons grumbled that the leafy walk across the newly laid out Pump Room Gardens towards the doors of the spa was too short, in contrast to the lengthy promenade that ran between St Mary's church in the town and the Royal Old Well.
As you stand today on the opposite side of the road in front of the Rotunda building, imagine how it looked in the 1810s. An embryonic tree-lined walk led to a low, rectangular building with a wooden colonnade that was standing in a more-or-less isolated spot. There was space for an orchestra to entertain those who took the waters. And there was no doubting the popularity of doing so at this time; so much so that, in 1817, Thompson had George Allen Underwood, architect and surveyor, redesign the place in stone and add the crouching lion that still adorns the parapet. The simple stone colonnade and the low baluster parapet on the outside belie the spaciousness of the interior.
Pearson Thompson changed the visual appearance when he commissioned architect John Buonarotti Papworth, who was also to design nearby Lansdown Place and Lansdown Crescent, to create the Rotunda. Papworth modelled the piece on the two-thousand-year-old vault of the Pantheon in Rome; what is now the banking hall is a remarkable piece of decorated architecture. Papworth's design has Corinthian pilasters where the original has freestanding columns supporting part of the entablature, and, whereas the dome is open in Rome, in Montpellier this airy feature has an ornamental centrepiece that is bracketed out.
All of this actually had less to do with the spa water and more to do with entertaining fashionable Cheltenham society. Here orchestras played and great balls were held; concerts of classical music took place; there were daily musical soirees; other entertainments were staged, and there were ante-rooms for relaxing and studying. Adolph Holst gave piano concerts there in the 1870s and '80s, and his son Gustav's Scherzo and Intermezzo were premiered there in 1891. Imagine it all, as you look around the interior of the Rotunda. A bank was tucked into a corner of the building from 1882, forerunner of the business activities that now occupy the whole place; Lloyds took over in 1926 and, in 1962, bought the Rotunda and restored it. The Rotunda and the pump room is Grade I listed.
Montpellier Street begins at the Montpellier Wine Bar, and continues past the modern Courtyard shopping precinct. In retail terms, it is a fascinating road, for there is very little here that is day-to-day, but much that might excite the visitor, or the seeker of fashionable clothes or furnishings for the home. A little to the left of the wine bar is the triumphal arch that was intended to be an integral part of George III's stay at nearby Bayshill Lodge, when he sampled the waters where part of the Cheltenham Ladies' College now stands. The arch is a shabby thing; beyond it, the triumphal way that was never completed promises now only the backs of Montpellier Street. Next door to the arch, is The Ballroom, built as such c1850 by a retired colonel who wanted somewhere to dance with his lady; remodelled internally and refurbished, it is now one of Montpellier's landmark shops for designer wear.
Architecturally, there is little to get excited about in Montpellier Street, largely because Cheltenham has so much to offer of a similar nature. The south side has been much altered by trade, at least at ground level. The north side of Montpellier Street is a functional, three-storey terrace with rusticated pilasters, a cornice of dentil, and little triangular pediments above the square-headed windows of the middle storey. The commercial aspect of the street is laced with caf bars, restaurants, and takeaway food outlets; they are enjoyed by local residents who live in the uniform, formal terraces that characterize this part of Cheltenham, and by business people. During Cheltenham Festival week, the area is seemingly taken over by a huge Irish contingent.
Two retail sectors are prevalent here: fashions and soft furnishings. There are also gift shops, and a number of specialist retailers: the jewellers, lingerie and nightwear shop, kitchen shop, a retailer of products in natural stone, and the specialist in cookery books are all landmark businesses that help to give Montpellier its character. The Courtyard, with its metal-built, stylized pediment and columns painted in Mediterranean blue, is a mixture of caf bars, restaurants, women's clothes and fashion accessories, art galleries, craft and lighting specialists. It was built in 1985, and has shopping on two levels, covered walkways, and a sunken piazza.
Montpellier Spa Road and Montpellier Gardens
Montpellier Spa Road was built in the 1820s on the north side of Montpellier Gardens, where the three-storey terrace was built speculatively as lodging houses. The road overlooked an area where, for about a decade, tree-lined walks had been created; throughout the next forty years, pleasure gardens would be developed and redesigned to meet the requirements of the patrons at Montpellier Spa. Today, most of the terrace has been converted into flats or apartments, although a few continue to be inhabited in their entirety. They overlook what had previously been known as Red Acre Field, a public space. Pearson Thompson acquired the land, had it all redesigned by John Papworth, included glasshouses packed with exotic plants, and opened the result in 1830 as pleasure grounds with drives and walkways to his Montpellier Spa on the western side.
The gardens were acquired by the borough council in 1893, and are currently being restored to the point to which they had been developed by 1923. This means replacing the railings and park entrances that have been absent since they were removed in 1940 to advance the war effort, refurbishing and rebuilding some of the architecture in the gardens, redesigning the soft landscape, and putting in new street furniture. The project will cost just over 1 million, of which a little under 800,000 has been allocated to capital works, and the redevelopment has been part-funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund - the first one the Borough Council has received. The work is being carried out as part of the Borough Council's Civic Pride programme, also bearing in mind how integral Montpellier Gardens are to Cheltenham in Bloom.
Amongst the projects currently in development is the renovation of the Proscenium, which is to be restored and rebuilt to reflect the original design, and refurbished as a potential for exhibitions of art and as a performance space. The historic bandstand, built in 1856, was restored in 1994. The area around The Lodge, which is now a private dwelling, will be landscaped, and railings are to be erected on the nearby boundary with Montpellier Walk. The refreshment kiosk is to be refurbished, and toilet facilities will be upgraded throughout the development. New seating is going alongside the major walkways, based on the designs of the original seats; the paths are to be resurfaced in either coloured asphalt or resin-bonded gravel; and new lighting, supplementing that from the old lighting columns, will be by way of lanterns that reflect the original design.
The Princess Hall and the Observatory
Cheltenham was once a little country village clustered about its medieval church. The original spring that was to change it into a fashionable Regency town was found in a field where the Princess Hall of Cheltenham Ladies' College now stands. William Mason discovered the spring in 1716, enclosed the site in a brick building and, twenty-two years later, his son-in-law Henry Skillicorne enhanced the property, pumped the water, marketed it, and thereby set Cheltenham on its period of spa mania. Skillicorne's enterprise became known as the Royal Old Well only after George III visited. His supposed approach, now called Old Well Walk, runs beside the College in Bayshill Road. The other side of the College lines the northern part of Montpellier Street, where the Princess Hall now stands.
The Princess Hall is also the site of the Royal Well Music Hall that formed part of the early spa complex. This was built c1850 as a promenade room, and obtained its theatre licence in 1860, when it became the Theatre Royal. Performances ended there thirty years later, when, according to a society newspaper of the day, the management of the ladies' college who had recently bought the grounds did not think it right and proper to have such a place of entertainment in such close proximity. The old theatre was demolished in 1897, and the Princess Hall was built in its place to the dimensions and internal configuration of the earlier building. Externally, it is Victorian Gothic, in Decorated style, with plain and cinquefoil-headed windows, buttresses and pinnacles, foliated crockets and finials. Internally, it has a steel framework enclosed in pitch pine; the two tiers of galleries and the other feature woodwork give the interior a very rich feel.
Aspects of astronomy have always played a key part in the education of students at Cheltenham Ladies' College, and astrophysics can be taken as a subject at AS level. The landmark, copper-coloured 'onion' dome on top of the tower was built in 1897 as an observatory, but has rarely been visited in recent times. It was then described thus: 'A staircase leads up to the tower, through the clock room, to the observatory, which is prepared to accommodate a telescope and other astronomical apparatus; the revolving dome, pierced by a shutter, is constructed of steel covered with papier mch and canvas painted sea green.'
The College wants to change this lack of use, and has raised enough money through gift funding to buy the kind of telescope that will allow the students to make their own astronomical observations. It has also bought astro-binoculars, a camera that can photograph objects in deep space, and the associated software. Now it is looking for funds to return the clock room in the tower to a teaching space, restore the old fittings where a telescope may once have been, and refurbish the domed roof so that it can be opened.
The Princess Hall was named after the then Princess of Wales, who became Queen Alexandria; it is used daily and seats up to two thousand people. A new, greatly acclaimed organ has recently been installed, following a successful organ appeal that closed in 2005. This instrument has 2,342 pipes, and is made mostly with European oak from the Czech Republic; it also has Czech pine, American poplar; and cedar, hornbeam and maple in the mechanical action, and weighs about seven tons.
The original drawings of Montpellier are available for sale. If you are interested in further information, please let Cotswold Life have your contact details, and we will pass these on to Roger Champness.
SOME PLACES TO SEE
Montpellier has a lot to offer at any time of the year, but it is particularly splendid when Cheltenham is in bloom. Here are some of the sights that make it special.
Bandstand, Montpellier Gardens. Cast at Coalbrookdale in 1856, it is said to be the country's oldest bandstand still in use. It has recently been restored.
The Caryatids. The classical ladies of Montpellier Walk stand up to be counted and admired, and make a focus for luscious container planting in the season. They are a wonderful backdrop to cosmopolitan Montpellier.
Cheltenham Ladies' College, Bayshill Road. Tel: 01242 520691. The college opened in 1854, and moved to its present location in 1873, after which a series of major building projects went hand-in-hand with the teaching. There is now a fascinating series of buildings and gardens on this historic site.
The Courtyard. The striking, Mediterranean- blue sunken piazza shopping precinct in Montpellier Street was designed by Sir Hugh Casson, and opened in 1985.
Crimea War Memorial. Erected as one of a pair in 1858, the memorial commemorates Cheltenham's fallen during the Anglo-French wars against Russia in the Crimea, in particular, the Seige of Sebastopol, 1854-55.
Hotel Kandinsky, Bayshill Road. Tel: 01242 527788. Once owned by Cheltenham Ladies' College, this magnificent building has been a hotel since the 1920s and is well loved for its eccentric styling and dcor, and its feeling of decadence and luxury.
Imperial Gardens. Imperial Square is a typical Montpellier development of c1845, on the site of a one-time horticultural nursery. The gardens were laid out in the 1940s.
Jubilee Seat, Montpellier Gardens. Commemorating the half-century of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, the five-sided, slate and marble seat was designed by Stroud sculptor David John and mosaic artist Oliver Budd.
Montpellier Avenue. Montpellier dissolves into the Promenade by means of this attractive linking street, where there are more independent retailers and a fine gallery and picture framing business.
Queen's Hotel, Promenade. Tel: 0870 400 8107. Built by R.W. Jearrad, this pedimented architectural extravaganza opened in 1838 on the site, from 1818, of G.A. Underwood's Sherborne Spa.
The Rotunda. A place of balls and concerts, developed out of the Montpellier Spa, where it is said that Jenny Lind, 'the Swedish Nightingale' sang in 1848, and which was involved in the lives of the Holsts - piano-playing father and composer son.
Statue of William IV, Imperial Gardens. The king is depicted in garter robes. The statue was paid for locally by public subscription, and marked the passing of the Reform Bill in 1833.
Willoughby House Hotel, Suffolk Square. Tel: 01242 522798. The home of the Earl of Moray in 1837, a hotel since the 1960s, and now in the hands of Frank Eckermann. Renowned for its English food with a French influence, and its staircase. William IV's queen once took tea here.
Words and photography by Mark Child