Unearthing hidden gems in Cheltenham's independent stores this Christmas
PUBLISHED: 13:15 10 December 2018
Tracy Spiers takes an impressive, if hypothetical, budget on a shopping spree in Cheltenham's independent stores
The day I decide to go Christmas shopping in Cheltenham to write this feature, I am conveniently offered a lift by the big red guy himself - Santa. You see folks, my own distinguished white-haired dad is Father Christmas. And to prove it, during our journey to this popular Gloucestershire Spa town, I receive a text on my phone requesting his appearance at a school fair in mid-December. Blessed with a limitless budget – hypothetical of course – to spend at my leisure, I decide to come up with a few suggestions for stocking fillers and more substantial festive treats. Cheltenham always looks gorgeous at this time of year thanks to its impressive Christmas lights and window displays which helps set the mood. The town has every High Street store to enjoy including the newly opened John Lewis. But for my trip my focus is on Cheltenham’s independent shops, which provide that extra special personal service and often those more unusual gifts not likely to be found anywhere else – notably in Bath Road, the Suffolks and Montpellier. I will say one thing, if you want to have a full experience of what these delightful hidden gems have to offer, please note that some shops are closed on Mondays, as I discovered.
• Our first stop is Bath Road, once known as South Town represents more than 200 years of trade. The streets were created in the early 19th century using limestone from nearby Leckhampton Hill, brought down by the horse-drawn tram road. It was built to provide services to affluent townspeople attracted by the rapidly expanding Cheltenham centre. It still has attractive Notting Hill-type qualities for its unique charm and one-to-one service. With Christmas in mind, festive food is always a good place to start, so our quest for goodies begins at COOK foodstore, where there is a feast of gourmet ready meals, cakes and puddings from which to choose. Along with their adjoining Daily Bean Café, Sarah and Lizzie Donnan-Smith have been serving customers for the past eight years. My husband Rog and I have been cooking Christmas dinner together for over 20 years and have had up to 24 people round our table. To know there are places like COOK foodstore which can help relieve the stress, is so reassuring. I pick up a Christmas on a Plate leaflet which gives details of meals on offer. Christmas Lunch for 12 is £177, which includes stuffed crown of turkey, stuffing, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, honey-glazed carrots, Brussel sprouts, roast parsnips and turkey gravy. Options are also for lunch for eight at £111, lunch for two £35, or a new veggie lunch for two for £21.75. Full timings, instructions and even an email to remind the customer to defrost the turkey are included. I browse the choice of puddings on offer in the abundance of freezers. There are so many. For Christmas, my choices are either a mint and chocolate chip ice cream cake, a salted caramel, chocolate and honeycomb cheesecake for £15 or a mojito cheesecake at £8 for my eldest daughter.
• I also take a visit to long-standing butchers, V.W. Lane, which has been serving customers since 1896. Instead of the frozen crown option, fresh ones from nearby Worcestershire, ranging from 4.5kg to 9kg are available. Free-range options go up to £115 in price, regular ones range from £80 to about £35. Streaky bacon and sausages are also a must for the pigs in blanket if you are in a meat-eating home.
• With Christmas food sorted, I get my stocking out ready to fill it with smaller items, which added together often amounts to far more than one realises. We visit Inside Out, owned by Sam Malvern-Costelloe, who is surrounded by a great range of toys, baby gifts and clothes, novelty items which make me laugh and a delightful selection of Christmas decorations and ornaments in the upstairs of her shop. Mum is drawn to a sparkly snowflake (£3.99) and a large robin, big enough to put a pot plant in (£19.99). I opt for six bath bombs (£15) – including a Polar Express bath blaster and an All I want for Christmas is Unicorn bath blaster - a Jelly Cat Flamingo at £45, a whole wood Christmas tree at £95 and my favourite silly item, a nervous poo emoji desktop wobbler at £5.99!
• On the opposite side of Bath Road is Emporium, an Aladdin’s cave of delightful and elegant gifts, homewares, cards and accessories. As one of my girls loves the Nutcracker, I zoom in on some small Christmas decorations depicting the said character in white attire (£4.99). A giant reindeer with in-built LED light (£29.50), a wooden angel (£37.95), gold and green birds for the Christmas tree, at £2.95 each catch my eye, as well as some pocket secateurs for my allotment-man (£13.50). David Theobald runs this delightful shop which specialises in unusual and tasteful gifts not usually found on the high street. His wife Angela runs their sister shop of the same name in Winchcombe. “I definitely think people started buying presents earlier – especially stocking fillers, as towards the end of September I noticed they were buying several smaller items such as lip balms and smaller toys in one go,” David explains.
• Heading out to The Suffolks, considered a destination shopping area full of independent shops and restaurants, Mum and I pop into Eden Health and Beauty Spa, owned by Sally Corless, who has been based here for over 30 years. Sally and her team of professional beauty and holistic therapists, offer clients the chance to feel refreshed, rejuvenated and revitalised. I personally think this is a perfect Christmas present. The only issue is which treatment to choose from the extensive list. Having never had a French manicure, I may well opt for this (£25), as well as the Eden Experience, the salon’s own specialist massage therapy combining aspects of reiki, reflexology, La Stone therapy and traditional massage (£43). And for Mr Spiers there is also the option of an Elemis skin IQ facial (£65), described as “an intelligent anti-ageing facial that helps protects against the harsh, ageing effects of shaving and environmental damage.” Or as it is a big birthday for me next year, I could opt for a ‘Little ladies pamper party.’ Sounds perfect. Sally also sells jewellery, scarfs and unusual gifts in her shop.
• Books are always a must at Christmas and an ideal gift for all. The Suffolk Anthology is an independent bookshop in Suffolk Parade, next door to The Daffodil, famous for its cuisine and jazz events - an ideal choice for festive celebrations. The bookshop, which will celebrate its 4th birthday in February, is a warm and friendly place to enjoy a coffee and a browse. Sallie Anderson who works there suggests Booker prize nominee 27-year-old author Daisy Johnson’s new novel Everything Under as a good read, so I pop that in my Christmas stocking too.
• From books to bikes next as we step inside Roylan Cycles, which has been here for 60 years. “It’s a family business now in its third generation,” says Matt Field. “A lot more people have come into the sport as a hobby. We’ve definitely hit a peak in recent years.” My husband is a keen cyclist so I could easily get all his gifts in here, from a £20 multi-tool, a folding D-lock (£49.99), a chain wear measuring kit for £8.99 and a top of the range ‘giant’ road bike for £10,000. Well I did say that I had a hypothetical budget!
• I could blow the budget even more at Bakers Fine Jewellery in Montpellier, another destination shopping area, considered a hidden gem in Cheltenham. It has a continental feel about it, has an extensive number of historic and iconic buildings and is stunning. Inside this jewellery shop, there are gifts to suit all budgets, styles and tastes, from £20 bracelets and earrings to jewellery worth up to £130,000. Christmas shoppers range from the well-organised who come in early to choose smaller items for friends, to some male customers – yes you still aren’t so great at it – knocking on the jeweller’s door as it is about to close on Christmas Eve. “I like the fact that we gift wrap to make the gifts look pretty. We buy in special lines at Christmas, it’s busier, exciting and it is a lovely party atmosphere,” says Manager Casey Mann.
• To find out more about Montpellier, we pop into Neal’s Yard Remedies in Rotunda Terrace, to meet Margaret Cavanagh, who is Chair of Montpellier Association. Her shop is a franchise and specialises in award-winning natural and organic skincare and wellbeing, using ethically sourced herbs, botanicals and essential oils. “We are a hidden secret. Montpellier is like Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, it has everything here from cakes, vintage shops, art galleries, homeware, plants, beautiful clothes, lingerie and even a dog café. Out of about 25 shop owners, about 13 of us have dogs and two doors up from me is Archie’s, the dog café, complete with little dog beds, where everyone meets with their dogs. It’s a great community to be part of,” says Margaret. In terms of gifts for Christmas, Neal’s Yard Remedies has gift sets from £10 upwards but I think I will opt for Margaret’s suggestion. “We also do massages and facials. People love to have an experience. They come in and have a herbal tea and a warm welcome. It’s about wellbeing, being well, being happy.”
• Walking further into Cheltenham’s own Diagon Alley then, we find Pink Vintage, a treasure trove of collectables, furniture, lighting and homeware with both reproduction, salvaged and antique items on offer. Silvia O’Neill who owns the business with husband Paul, makes amazing artisan cakes. Trained in London with Peggy Porschen, Silvia has a reputation for her culinary skills. I take a fancy to her French opera cake, her sensational salted caramel creation and her pear and chocolate franzipan tart. As for Christmas gifts, I opt for an exquisite humming bird for £7.99 and a perfume bottle for £125.
• New to Montpellier is Roxtons, an independent retailer offering a curated collection of international womenswear labels alongside a range of unique lifestyle products, accessories and gifts. Brands showcased include Marella, Vilagallo, Noa Noa and lesser known Denim Studio and Dea Kudibal amongst others. There is a stunning array of Christmas gifts from heart shaped hot water bottles to spoiling cashmere gloves and socks, books and stocking fillers. I opt for a Twist and Tango geometric print skirt (£108), Denim Studio cords trousers (£130), BRAX Jeans (£99.95), a FOSH water flask (£19.95), and The Bartenders Guide to Gin (£9.99).
With my Christmas sack full to the brim, I ring Santa for a lift home. But I do have to ask the hypothetical question for my hypothetical shopping spree. If I had to choose one big present over several little ones, which would I go for? It would probably be the £10,000 bike for my man. Of course, in reality he’s more likely to get the nervous poo emoji wobbler for his desk!