The home of Sibling gin, Cheltenham sits on the edge of the Cotswolds in glorious Gloucestershire. A popular spa resort since the discovery of mineral-rich waters there in 1716, a five-week visit by King George III in 1788 established the town as a go-to destination for the genteel classes. The writers Jane Austen and Lord Byron were just two of the many notable figures who flocked there, as much to take the waters as to indulge in social pleasures.
The town’s famed Regency architecture bears witness to its rapid growth and fashionable status during that period, but while visitors can still sample the waters at the beautiful Pittville Pump Room, these days the town has much to offer beyond its spa town status.
Off to the races
If you find yourself in Cheltenham around the middle of March, you may well catch the strains of thousands of racing fans raising their voices in unison as some of Britain and Ireland’s best race horses ready for the off.
The famed ‘Cheltenham roar’ is just one indicator of the excitement and esteem with which the Cheltenham Festival, once described by champion Jockey Tony McCoy as ‘our Olympics’, is regarded.
Founded in 1902, the Festival takes place over four days every March (usually coinciding with St Patrick’s Day and attracting a large Irish audience), featuring several Grade 1 races and reaching its peak on the Friday with the most prestigious of all National Hunt events, the Gold Cup race.
Through the looking glass
In a house in Cudnall Street in the Charlton Kings suburb of Cheltenham hangs a very special mirror. Measuring 6ft by 5ft, with a gilded frame featuring interwoven branches, foliage, birds, dogs and various other figures, it is understood to have provided the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s second ‘Alice’ novel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.
The little girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland was named Alice Lidell. Her grandparents owned the house in Cudnall Street which Carroll (whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) visited with Alice during the 1860s and encountered the now-famous mirror.
The house – complete with mirror – last went up for sale in 2014 with a cool £1 million price tag attached.
A centre for learning
What do actress Kristin Scott Thomas, fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, historian Lisa Jardine, socialite Tamara Beckwith and Conservative Cabinet Minister Amber Rudd have in common?
They are all just some of the notable alumni of Cheltenham Ladies College, a prestigious girls’ boarding school founded in the town in 1853. Sometimes called ‘the girls’ Eton’, the school charges a somewhat eye-watering £7,405 a term for day pupils and £11,030 a term for boarders.
The genteel name perhaps belies the school’s serious academic rigour (around 20 per cent of its pupils go on to Oxbridge) and its, at times, radical past – prominent Suffragette educator Dorothea Beale held the position of principal from 1858 and many of the Victorian feminist movement’s key figures were educated there.
It’s not just horse racing that’s celebrated in Cheltenham - the town plays host to four renowned annual festivals of the arts and sciences throughout each year, including two of the country’s oldest. The first Music Festival took place in 1945, followed by the Literature Festival in 1949. A Jazz Festival was added in 1996 and finally a Science Festival in 2002.
Today, the combined Cheltenham Festivals host hundreds of events between May and October, with combined ticket sales of more than 200,000.
All four Festivals attract a prestigious group both performers, with some of 2015’s highlights including Professor Brian Cox revealing the secrets of the universe, Benedict Cumberbatch taking part in a WW1 piano recital and poetry reading, and JK Rowling discussing her new novel.