Thursday, September 8th 2011
Today there was a hiccup in the porridge supply or, putting it another way, we forgot to buy some yesterday! Instead we went out to breakfast and had toasties and hot drinks in the cafe in Marks & Spencers in Broadmead.
It’s another dull day today but there is no point sitting around waiting for the weather so we caught a number 8 bus to the station where we procured train tickets for Gloucester. Enquiring the time and platform of the Gloucester train we were told to take the train about to depart on platform 1 and change at Cheltenham. The train set off seconds after we boarded.
The plan was to go to Gloucester and then come back to see Cheltenham but as we had to change trains at Cheltenham, it occurred to us to see whether we could leave the station now and visit the town. We could and we did.
I lived briefly in the Cheltenham area (just outside in Bishops Cleeve) but that was years ago when I was also a student at Sheffield University so my memories of the town are no longer clear. The visit was a rediscovery in which I glimpsed times past in flashes of memory. I remember Cheltenham as above, a place of graceful houses characterized by spa town elegance.
In those days, Cheltenham seemed to me a posh town but at the same time one with rural overtones or, as you might say, both “county” and “country” at the same time. When I last looked, though, that country was first disappearing under housing projects.
I remembered the Promenade as a bustling street of elegant and expensive shops but today it seems quieter and part of it has been closed to traffic.
This strange sculpture seems quite out of place with the Cheltenham I knew and seems to obtrude into the scene like something out of a schizophrenic nightmare. Is there some deep symbolism to it or is it one more example of “playful” modern art?
In Regent Street, things were a little livelier. We had a look inside the Regent Arcade – a modern building despite the pseudo-classical look -and found it occupied by the usual suspects. I did discover one modern thing of interest, though.
This was the mechanical “Wishing Fish Clock” which goes through a series of actions with red balls and then, every half an hour, emits bubbles to the music of “I’m forever blowing bubbles”. Quite fun to watch though a I wince when I think of the cost (£80,000).
There are still plenty of pleasant and historically interesting buildings, such as the above, and…
… the occasional picturesque oddity.
In a narrow lane called Grosvenor Place South, I was fascinated to come across this fine set of mosaics. They were set up as advertisements for a corn and seed merchant called Bloodworth’s, an old established firm which still exists, I believe, in association with others.
What is unusual about these pictures is that they are not just a set of single-image adverts but together tell a simple and amusing story, like a cartoon strip. The quality of the mosaic is very good and the artistic design perfect for the purpose. There are five pictures.
Originally, all five pictures owned captions below them on metal plates but the first two have lost theirs. The message, however, is clear: the circus has come to town! In the next three images, the circus parade passes along the street and all goes well until the elephants are irresistibly drawn to the appetizing smell of the grain in Bloodworth’s!
They dash into the store and start eating the grain, despite the best efforts of their keepers to stop them. Meanwhile, a crowd of "Cheltonians" has gathered and looks on, startled or amused, while a policeman instinctively spreads his arms in a protective gesture.
It’s a fine piece of work, much in the style of children’s books and "annuals" of yesteryear. The tone of gentle tongue-in-cheek humour is delightful and is something that is sadly missing from today’s aggressive marketing styles.
We explored a pretty little park called Sandford Park. Among its charms was a lion-headed fountain but I was more interested in this family group of a mother duck and her five ducklings, dabbling in a stream.
We walked on, exploring, and at last reached Imperial Square where Cheltenham Town Hall stands. This impressive edifice was built in 1902-3.
Cheltenham has been a spa since its medicinal waters were discovered in 1716 and this was partly responsible for its elegant subsequent development. I don’t know whether there is much call for Cheltenham’s spa water these days.
In a room in the Town Hall, just off the lobby, stands this venerable spa water dispenser or pump. I am told it still functions. Does the water make good tea, I wonder?
In Imperial Gardens, near the Town Hall, stands a monument to Gustav Holst. The composer of The Planets was born in Cheltenham in 1874. According to a plate on the memorial, this was “given to the people of Cheltenham” in 2008 under a bequest from Elizabeth Hammond.
Finally, we visited Montpellier Arcade which is famous for its set of white caryatids. The original figures, made of terra cotta and based on figures on the Acropolis, were added to Montpellier Walk, as it was then called. Trees were replaced by shops and new figures were added, copied from the original ones.
Here are photos of two caryatids. Though they closely resemble one another, there are sufficient differences to suggest that one is an original and the other is one of the later copies. But which is which? I suspect that the one on the right is a copy but I cannot be sure.
After taking refreshments in Montpellier Parade, we returned to Cheltenham Spa station and very soon had a train to complete our journey to Gloucester, nominally the goal of our expedition.
I have to say that Gloucester did not attract me in the same way as Cheltenham, which is a pity and perhaps unfair because it is an ancient city with traces going back to the Romans and is clearly proud of its heritage. This is shown in the careful labelling of important structures and the pavement mosaics celebrating Gloucester’s historic industries (see below two examples).
The New Inn, despite its name, is very old. It was built in 1430 by St Peter’s Abbey for pilgrims visiting Gloucester Cathedral. It came into private hands on the dissolution of the monasteries. It was also on a balcony of the New Inn that the short reign of Lady Jane Grey began when she was declared Queen of England in 1553.
A famous and well loved feature of the city is Baker’s Clock. Situated above Baker’s jewellery shop, it comprises a tableau with 5 automatons who strike the bells in front of them or, in the case of the central figure, representing Old Father Time, toll the main bell above them. The four figures arranged in pairs on either side are dressed in costumes to represent the four nations of Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland. This remarkable time-keeping machine was made in 1904 by Niehus Brothers and the building is of course listed.
If, during your tour of Gloucester, you fancy stopping for refreshments, you could pop into this Costa coffee shop occupying the ground floor of apothecary Thomas Yates’s 17th century house. The upper floors still retain original panelling and fireplace – at least, so I am told, as we didn’t manage to visit it.
Gloucester’s Roman past is recalled in this equestrian statue of the Emperor Nerva who ruled the Roman Empire in CE 96-98. A nearby plaque states that he was “the emperor after whom Roman Gloucester was named” and this “fact” has been copied uncritically all over the Web. Unfortunately, it is incorrect.
A Roman fort, and later a colonia, were set up near here at a place caller Glevum. This would be the Latinized form of the local British name. The fort saw many important troop movements and became the centre of a colonia, which in Britain meant a settlement composed of parcels of land given to men who had retired from the Roman army. This establishment was called after Nerva, and in Latin was "Colonia Nerviana", or “the Nervian colony”. Its longer name was "Colonia Nerviana Glevensis" or "Colonia Nerviana Glevium", that is, "The Nervian Colony of, or at, Glevum". Finally, the "cester" part of the Gloucester suggests that it became an Anglo-Saxon settlement ("ceaster" – the word from which "chester" usually derives). So Glevum Ceaster became Gloucester – a plausible derivation not requiring any entanglements with Roman emperors.
Gloucester has a famous cathedral, though the assumption that only cities have cathedrals and that cathedrals reside only in cities is of course wrong. There are cathedral towns that are not cities (e.g. Chelmsford) and cities that have no cathedral (e.g. Brighton & Hove). Gloucester, however, is a city with a cathedral, in this case called “Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity” – trips lightly off the tongue, doesn’t it?
It originated in the 7th century with the foundation of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter, the body that later set up the New Inn to cater for pilgrims come to see the Cathedral and the tomb or Edward II. Construction of the Cathedral began in the late 11th century.
Or how about this fine old building, as beautiful today as when it was first built. Adjoining the quaintly named church, St Mary de Crypt, it was a schoolroom set up in 1539 by John and Joan Cooke as “a contynuall free scole of grammer”. The school moved long ago and was modernized (along with the spelling) and the building now serves as St Mary’s church hall.
In a narrow street – just an alley, really – now called College Court, we find this 14th century gate. Once part of the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter, it has also been known as the Cemetery Gate. The reason for this is that the part of the abbey cemetery reserved for lay people was once here and the gate was its entrance. To generations of pilgrims, this was the path and the gate by which they came to visit the tomb of the revered Edward II. Today, visitors come for a very different reason…
Right beside the gate is this little shop, today advertising itself as “The World of Beatrix Potter” and “Attraction and Shop”. This is said to be the very shop that Potter used as the location for her story The Tailor of Gloucester, though whether it was actually occupied by a tailor at the time, I do not know.
Time was getting on and we started working our way back to the station. On the way we spotted this Victorian (1890) pub with elaborate moulded glazed tiles, a handsome piece of work and rightly listed (Grade II).
Gloucester has a lot of treasures, of which the above are but a skimpy sample, and you could probably spend far more time than we had at our disposal exploring it and making discoveries. Perhaps we should return and do just that another time and perhaps then I would gain a better impression of it, for though the details fascinated me, on this dull day the city as a whole seemed grubby and unprepossessing.
Back in Bristol, we decided to round off the day with a meal in an Italian restaurant in that temple of capitalism, Cabot Circus. I have not seen another structure like it, multi-level and topped of with a remarkable contoured glass roof which is a marvel all on its own. You would not call Cabot Circus a “shopping centre”: I have seen towns smaller than this! And whereas shopping centres are apt to close down at night, Cabot Circus gets a second wind and becomes somewhere to meet, dine and be entertained. A place like this where businesses compete for your attention will inevitably produce vulgar displays but at night these are to some extent muted by the magic of the lights.