Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 11:53 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013

Regency splendour

Regency splendour

When it comes to 'attracting peoples fancies', Cheltenham boomed as visitors to take the waters...and we have the local pigeons to thank

"I have rarely seen a place that so attracted my fancy." Such was the impact Cheltenham had on quintessential Victorian author Charles Dickens who was a regular visitor. Cheltenham's been attracting people's fancies for centuries. Recorded as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the River Chelt's banks, the town was the site of a monastery in 803 and possibly took its name from Celtenhomme, "the town under the hill."

But according to legend, local pigeons were responsible for the spa town's fame. In 1716 they discovered the first medicinal waters on the site of what is now Cheltenham Ladies' College. The birds appeared to thrive after pecking at the salty deposits, so locals tried the spring waters and found they eased many disorders troubling 18th century man. Entrepreneurs tapped into this discovery and developed the town to attract the rich and famous.

"The mineral waters lately discovered....are what will make this place more and more remarkable, and frequented," predicted author Daniel Defoe in the early 18th century. He was right. Distinguished people like Handel and Samuel Johnson were among the early visitors to take the spa waters. King George III visited in 1788 and Cheltenham's success as a fashionable spa town was ensured.

Famous for its Regency architecture, Cheltenham is considered "the most complete regency town in England." Its impressive architectural riches were built near early spa buildings around 1790 to 1840, the most outstanding set-piece being Pittville Pump Room. Designed by Joseph Pitt, this magnificently austere, Grecian-style edifice overlooks the lake and gardens and once formed the centre-piece of the Pittville Estate. It has remarkable acoustics and is considered one of the country's finest concert venues.

Today Cheltenham is undoubtedly the jewel in jump racing's crown. The stunning natural amphitheatre of Cheltenham Racecourse is known world-wide as the home of National Hunt racing. The highlight is the National Hunt Festival in March featuring the famous Cheltenham Gold Cup which acts as a magnet for thousands of Irish visitors and a strong line-up of Irish horses. This month's Open meeting also draws in top class fields. The racecourse, which charts a history of steeplechasing dating back to 1819, also hosts first-class concerts, opera and theatre in The Centaur. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Jools Holland, Sting, Status Quo, Stephen Fry, Rory Bremner, Ronnie Corbett and Dame Judi Dench are just a few well-known celebrities who've appeared on stage. Greenbelt, a Christian arts and music festival is annually held in the racecourse grounds.

Festival fever is contagious in Cheltenham. Artists of international repute are drawn to the town's music, jazz, folk, literary and science festivals. One of the major festival venues, Cheltenham Town Hall, set within the Imperial Square gardens, stages concerts including classical and contemporary music, as well as comedy, dance, exhibitions, antiques and collectors' fairs.

The cricket festival, held in the beautiful grounds of Cheltenham College is the oldest in the country. Cricket legend WG Grace, an outstanding right-arm fast bowler, played in the first ever Cheltenham Festival match, helped cricket become a mass spectator sport and scored the first triple century against Yorkshire at Cheltenham. Equally big in the literature world, Cheltenham Literary Festival pulls in some of the most famous writers to various town venues for a feast of literary fun. One venue is The Everyman Theatre, which opened in October 1891, and has showcased acting legends including Lily Langtry, Ellen Terry, HB Irving and Charlie Chaplin.

Inspiration and talent are part of Cheltenham's heritage. The Arts and Crafts Gallery in Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum pays tribute to the fine craftsmanship, art and design produced between 1880 to the 1940s. Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass based on an ornate mirror he'd seen in a house in Charlton Kings. Gustav Holst, the prolific 19th century composer who wrote The Planets, was born in 1874 at 4 Clarence Road, now the Holst Birthplace Museum; former Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones was born and is buried in Cheltenham; and explorer Dr Edward Wilson, an influential figure of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, remembered today as the artistic scientist who died with Captain Scott was born in Montpellier Parade in 1872.

Actor and television presenter Richard O'Brien, best known for writing the cult musical The Rocky Horror Show and Michael Edwards, affectionately known as Eddie the Eagle for this Olympic ski jumping efforts in 1988, are both Cheltonians.

"I think Cheltenham is a gorgeous place. I particularly love Pittville Park. We used to run over the lake when it got frozen and play on the swings and slides at the Pump Rooms. I also remember doing cross country runs over Leckhampton Hill and training on the running track in the sports centre,? recalls Eddie, whose story may soon be turned into a blockbuster movie.

Cheltenham's motto, Salubritas et Eruditio, means health and education and refers to Cheltenham's status as a centre of education. Cheltenham Ladies' College has a world-wide reputation and is Europe's largest girls' boarding school, catering for 845 girls.

But the town also has some unusual and unique landmarks. Towering above the main road to Birdlip like a sentinel, The Devil's Chimney on Leckhampton Hill is a limestone 'stack', named for its peculiar shape of a crooked and twisted chimney rising from the ground.

Another landmark, popularly known as the Cheltenham Doughnut due to its circular design, is home to GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), which was established in 1952 and became famous for deciphering codes. And the recently refurbished 1935 Sandford Parks Lido, a white-colonnaded classical 50m (164ft) heated pool, is one of the largest outdoor pools in England.

Cheltenham boasts one of the oldest croquet clubs in England; and the enchanting bubble-blowing Wishing Fish Clock by Kit Williams, author of Masquerade, hangs 15m (50ft) above Regents Arcade and is thought to be the tallest in the world.

Described as a "town within a park," Cheltenham's parks, gardens and tree-lined avenues are nationally recognised as some of country's best. Cheltenham has won more awards in the annual Britain in Bloom competition than any other town.

The famous tree-lined Promenade dates back to 1818 and Cheltenham's colourful Long Gardens is one of England's finest boulevards. Neptune's Fountain was based on Trevi in Rome and the town's award-winning farmers market is held nearby on the second and last Friday of each month. On the pedestrianised part of the Promenade stands a 7ft high bronze statue of "The Minotaur and the Hare," sculpted by Sophie Ryder in 1995.

With a cosmopolitan choice of places to eat; from a Michelin two star restaurant - one of only ten throughout the whole of Britain - to wine bars, brasseries, caf bars and a vibrant night life, it's easy to see why Cheltenham is an exciting cultural centre.

Philosopher, poet, literary and cultural critic, George Santayana described this Gloucestershire spa town as "charming, clement and eminently habitable." A description few can argue with.

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