The sky was blue and the air warm, a treat in late October in England. I was in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire enjoying the sunshine and a wander. The town only really developed from the late 18th century when its spa waters, thought to cure all sorts of ailments, made it a fashionable place to visit. Its reputation was cemented in 1788 when George III sampled them. Because of its late start and quick growth, much of the town centre was built over the next half century, and there’s a fair continuity of style. This owes more than a little to the Grand Tour, the 18th and 19th-century journey around Europe’s cultural highlights seen as part of the education of the British upper classes. Lots of towns have these themes but there’s a few parts of Cheltenham I especially love. It was fun seeing these and I took photos as I walked. All were taken on an iPhone 8 through the Camera+ app.
I started my wander at the southern end of the town centre in Montpellier, Georgian Cheltonians even naming parts of town after continental locations. Built from a soft yellow Cotswold limestone, it creates a warmth of colour in the sunshine. My first stop here was the Rotunda, built originally as part of the Montpellier Spa in 1825 and now an Ivy restaurant, based on the ancient Pantheon in Rome. Its dome is allegedly of the same proportions, and inside the space above your head feels massive, constantly pulling your focus upwards towards the light flooding in through high windows at its top.
Opposite the Rotunda, by the Montpellier Wine Bar, is a random archway, at the end of a small backstreet behind the buildings of Montpellier Street. I have no idea if it had a purpose or not, and who knows, it may just be an attempt to add random antiquity to the town, a faux ruin for a pretend long-forgotten city wall. I love oddities like this. Seemingly forgotten, it was hard to photograph without getting the large array of bins in the shot, and as I took pictures a few passers by looked up at it as if seeing it for the first time.
Something definitely not out of sight are the caryatids set between each shop window on Montpellier Walk, just down from the Rotunda. Put up in 1840, these female figures are a well-known feature of the town, copying the famous pillars of the 5th-century BC Erechtheum on the acropolis in Athens, a temple to Athena and Poseidon next to the Parthenon.
Closer to the centre of town on the Promenade is the Neptune Fountain, inspired by a visit to the Trevi Fountain in Rome. It’s filled with movement and energy, wild-faced horses pulling Neptune’s shell chariot and conch-blowing sea nymphs either side while Neptune sits calmly above it all.
The last place on my Grand Tour was an electricity sub-station built in 1895 on the corner of Clarence Street and St George’s Place. It is, in many ways, completely bonkers. I can imagine the scene at planning meeting, the architect sucking on his pipe and saying, ‘Well, I see that we have no choice, gentlemen, such a building must have grandeur, like the Strozzi Palace in Florence’, to which the other members all twiddle their moustaches and mutter ‘here here’ in agreement. And so, there it is, a Renaissance masterpiece of a sub-station. It’s still called the Strozzi Palace and is now a hotel.
It was a fun walk around a southern English town exploring a Mediterranean past which has had such an influence on British architecture. Looking at these structures, and in the process gazing at other places and times, was a lovely way to while away an hour or two on a sunny autumn day.