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Montpellier has managed to encapsulate the elegance of the Regency period and the identity of the individual shops.....
There are places where you can shop; there are places where you can admire the architecture; there are places where you can feel the planet has a certain elegance after all; but it's rare that all three come together at once. Montpellier, in Cheltenham, is that rare conjunction.
The small, specialist shops seemed designed to exemplify good taste; and they're admirably complemented by their surroundings: Regency buildings, and those lovely Montpellier Gardens. (Cheltenham, as they aptly say, is a town within a park.)
These shops have character; these shops have stories; moreover, they're run by the sorts of people who've seen the world, taken inspiration from it, and still decided to return to Cheltenham because they know a good place when they see one.
Dr Holley Martlew, who's originally from Philadelphia, leads two very different lives. By day, she's the owner of The Ballroom in Bayshill Lodge, a large boutique with three floors of stunning fashion, which she opened in 1982. But, whenever she can, she pursues the other love of her life, as a scholar and writer specializing in Bronze Age Greece.
"I called it The Ballroom because, as a writer of academic pieces, I couldn't see myself with my name over a shop; but it also describes this wonderful old building's heritage," Dr Martlew says. "It was the ballroom, in around 1850, for a colonel who'd been in the Indian Army. He'd come to Cheltenham to retire, and had fallen in love with a young lady who loved to dance - I love to dance too. I restored the building and added to it.
I have wonderful staff here - my ladies are the only ladies in the world who have elegant clothes on one side and samples of old pots from Greece on the other!"
There is, indeed, a cosmopolitan feel to the area - and not just thanks to the caryatids (the rather lovely classical figures who separate the properties in Montpellier Walk). There's an Italian deli, French-style design shops, and continental-style cafes and wine bars.
That's one of the reasons Marie-Anne Strmbck loves both shopping and working here. She celebrated her Swedish roots by opening Skandic Hus in the heart of Montpellier three years ago, selling beautiful and distinctive Scandinavian modern and traditional design classics, including furniture, lighting, kitchenware, and glassware.
"Montpellier has managed to encapsulate the elegance of the Regency period and the identity of the individual shops," she says. "Even the Courtyard, which is the more modern part, has been integrated beautifully; you don't get that aesthetic detail in most town centres." Indeed, this glass and iron 'arcade' - if such an ill-used word can be applied here - was built in 1985 with Sir Hugh Casson as consultant architect.
The sorts of unusual and often exquisite articles you can buy in this quarter will have one thing in common: quality. "One of the wonderful things about being here is that you can direct customers to any of the other shops in the area with confidence," says Suzanne Langley-Sowter. Her store, The Square Pillow, is an independent specialist in bed linen, duvets and pillows - very much a made-to-measure service, using fabrics from Italy and Switzerland. "Our customers are discerning people who not only want that little bit extra from products; they also enjoy the personal service they know they can expect in Montpellier."
You can find out more about the area at www.montpelliershops.co.uk