Our Town

Cheltenham & The Cotswolds

This is the companion webpage for the Our Town booklet, published by John Morrish in August 2023. (Working on it.)

The booklet is available for sale. If you’d like some copies, get in touch: mail@johnmorrish.com or 077 88 515387.

Volume and text: © John Morrish (2023). Cover illustration: © Candice Yu (2023). Cheltenham map: © Christopher Keeling (2023). Contains OS data, © Crown copyright and database right (2023). If you would like to use this material, please ask.

Book and website created and published by John Morrish, 2 Priory Mews, Sidney Street, Cheltenham, GL52 6DJ

mail@johnmorrish.com 077 88515387


ISSN 2977-1455

For the people of Gloucestershire, past, present and future,
and our honoured guests.


John Morrish was born in South Gloucestershire and has lived in Cheltenham since 1996. A journalist and book editor by trade, he has also written plays, poetry, comedy, fiction, and radio and television scripts. Last year he wrote a comic novel, Consequences, about a group of family and friends negotiating life and love in North Gloucestershire. Ask nicely and he will give you a copy: mail@johnmorrish.com.


Candice Yu was born in China, where she had a long business career. Now retired in Cheltenham, she is rediscovering her childhood dreams. She is self-taught as a painter.


Chris Keeling was born near Canterbury, Kent, home of the legendary progressive music scene. The son of a talented teacher, he found education difficult until dis- covering art and film. Now retired from a career spent in graphics and mapping, he lives in Prestbury, a historic village to the north of Cheltenham.


In Cheltenham, nothing is quite what it seems. Cheltonians (as we call ourselves) have a saying: the town is ‘pretty, proud and poor’. It is beautiful. Some residents consider themselves ‘special’. But Cheltenham people earn less than average and there are areas of deprivation. You can enjoy Cheltenham without breaking the bank.


The first local residents lived on Crickley Hill, to the South of the town, about 5,000 years ago. As you crawl up the A417, it’s just beyond the roundabout where the road turns sharp left and heads down to Gloucester: there are Iron Age earthworks and tremendous views towards Wales, Shropshire and the Midlands.

Those ancient Britons lived, worked and traded there, worshipping the spirits they found in nature. They stayed there till Roman times. None of them bothered with the swampy area to the North, where streams congregated and water bubbled to the surface. Turning this damp patch into Cheltenham, a health resort, was a long job.

The name of the town means ‘settlement on the Chelt’. The River Chelt runs a mere 14 miles, from Dowdeswell in the East (you pass it on the A40 from London) to join the majestic Severn just above Gloucester. ‘Chelt-’ apparently means ‘steep hill’. Who does not adore the sound of music in the name in the names of towns?

The Romans didn’t bother with Cheltenham. The Saxons, who arrived when the legions went home, built the town’s first permanent structure, a church, in the 8th Century. William the Conqueror, a Norman (a descendent of the Norsemen of Scandinavia), seized England in 1066. Twenty years later, he ordered a survey of what he’d acquired, later called the Domesday Book. Cheltenham appears in it as a royal manor, formerly owned by the Anglo-Saxon king, Edward ‘The Confessor’, whose successor, Harold, was killed by William’s men in the Battle of Hastings. It was an area of about 1,000 acres, supporting 30-odd tenant farmers and their slaves.

Cheltenham’s oldest surviving building, St Mary’s (now called ‘The Minster’), was built on the site of the Saxon church in about 1200. Three hundred years later, at the time of Henry VIII, a scholar called John Leland visited Cheltenham on behalf of the King and described it as ‘a longe towne havynge a Market. There is a brooke on the South Syde of the Towne’. Apart from the church, there was the High Street, a town hall, a market house, a high cross and a prison.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British Isles were convulsed by religious conflicts, culminating in the Civil War between King Charles I (representing the Anglican church, a kind of English Catholicism with the Monarch at the top and not the Pope) and Parliament (whose ‘puritan’ supporters wanted no Catholic elements at all).

Christianity splintered into competing sects. In the 17th century, the most alarming of these was the Society of Friends (mocked as ‘Quakers’). They broke the rules by sitting in silence until the spirit of God entered them and then speaking up and quivering with religious ecstasy. Some Cheltonians joined the movement. Thomas Mason, a mercer (a dealer in fine imported goods), was jailed for attending a Quaker meeting. Many of his friends fled to America, where they helped found Pennsylvania. His son, William, bought a patch of land called Bayshill Meadow, where Cheltenham Ladies College now stands. One day he noticed some fat pigeons pecking at a puddle.


Mason observed that the spring beneath the puddle never froze. What’s more, a sick horse was cured by drinking the waters. He built a simple well over the spring, but otherwise failed to cash in on the miracle. He died in 1723, and left the well to his daughter, Elizabeth. She married Henry Skillicorne, a retired sea-captain and merchant from Bristol. The couple knew Hotwells, a lucrative spa in that city: wealthy people were flocking to fresh breezes and clean water, believing diseases were caused by ‘bad air’.

So Skillicorne decided to build his own spa in Cheltenham, becoming revered in the town, which has always turned a blind eye to whether he was – along with most of Bristol’s ‘venturers’ – a slaver. He built rooms above the well, including a billiard hall. He added a causeway linking it to the Church and laid out tree-lined walkways.

Until recently, the spring waters could be sampled at the Pittville Pump Room. They taste disgusting – somewhat sulphurous – and are a powerful laxative. Medicine then was all about getting bad stuff out of the body, by bleeding, vomiting or defecation: the waters did the trick.

After constructing the smart rooms above the well, Skillicorne built a row of ‘privvies’, to the amusement of satirists like Bernard Blackmantle and his cartoonist Isaac Robert Cruikshank, who published The English Spy, a collection of ‘scenes and sketches in every rank of society’, in 1825. [Illustration, left, from gutenberg.org.]

When Henry died, his son William cranked up the business. In 1788, he persuaded the minders of the unfortunate King George III to bring him to town for an unprecedented three-week holiday and ‘treatment’. The king had just experienced the first outbreak of the mania that was to plague him for the rest of his life [see Alan Bennett’s film and play The Madness Of King George]. Diarrhoea was probably preferable to the brutal remedies his doctors had already tried.

Fashionable people followed and Cheltenham started to boom, slowly at first. There were 300 houses in the town in 1700, 700 by 1800 and 7,000 within 40 years. By the early 19th century, it was receiving some 2,000 visitors a year. Country people flocked to serve the wealthy newcomers and industries developed: quarrying, coach-building, furniture-making and the manufacture of medicinal salts from the spring waters.

The original spa was soon joined by many more, often very grand. The Royal Crescent, the first of the town’s glorious neo-classical curved terraces, was begun in 1805. By 1820, the population of Cheltenham was more than 13,300. In 1823, the local newspaper said 4,500 workmen were throwing up new houses, in what it called ‘bricks and mortar mania’.

It was an era of boom-and-bust. By 1840 the population had passed 36,000. Speculators bought former common land cheaply, after the Enclosures Act of 1801 streamlined the process. They launched extravagant schemes, overestimated demand, and promptly went broke.

The first casualty was Henry Thompson, a Liverpool and London banker, who acquired 400 acres in the south of the town, started Lansdown and Montpellier, then ran out of money: he went to Australia. Slightly later came Joseph Pitt, who began as a ‘sharp lad’ in Cirencester, earning a penny by holding horses for rich men. A rich lawyer saw his entrepreneurial potential and brought him into the profession. Pitt’s modestly- named Pittville, to the north of the High Street, was intended to be a new spa town, with 600 houses. It was never completed, but is nonetheless remarkable.

That frenzied digging, hammering, bricklaying and plastering gave us Cheltenham’s Regency splendour. It was England’s first planned town, with broad roads, elegant facades, parks, plumbing and sewerage. But it was also a kind of 19th century Disneyland: devoted to pleasure, and cobbled together for looks rather than durability, as buyers of listed villas sometimes discover.


The spa craze went away as quickly as it had come and Cheltenham was no longer fashionable. Pleasure-domes, however, attract puritans and moral crusaders. After the bathhouses, dancehalls and brothels came preachers and their churches. Regency fun and frolics gave way – in public – to Victorian disapproval: respectable streets.

It was a time of muscular Christianity, engineered to conquer the world: confident and conformist. And after the British, especially the military men, had done their duty to the Empire, they came to Cheltenham to enjoy their twilight years. By the end of the 19th century the town was known as the ‘Anglo-Indians’ Paradise’. These were not mixed-race people. They were white British, but some had acquired cosmopolitan tastes.

England was then legally Anglican, and Church of England clerics and military families founded the town’s schools and colleges: Cheltenham College (1841, below); The Church of England Training College for Masters (which over 150 years has morphed into the University); Cheltenham Ladies College (1854); and Dean Close School (1886). At the same time, Catholics, and Anglo-Catholics (adhering to the ‘old’ religion, but not prepared to be outcasts), were agitating. Rivalry, verging on hostility, was frequent.

Cheltenham quickly acquired the essentials of a Victorian resort: the first of seven railway stations, hospitals, an opera house and theatre, a library, a museum, a town council and a coat of arms. It features a tree, the famous pigeons and a couple of books, symbolising health and learning (‘Salubritas et Eruditio’). Cheltonians who were not serving the rich, the elderly, and the future masters of a largely British world struggled to find work in woodcarving, stone-masonry and metalwork. It was not enough. By the turn of the 20th century, the town was deep in depression.

Mars, the Bringer of Cash

For a while, Cheltenham was so empty and depressed that it was known as ‘the town to let’. Luckily, salvation arrived in the shape of the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Early in the First World War, the joiners, H H Martyn, who had built most of the interiors of the Titanic, got a contract to make bits of aeroplane. Martyn spun off the Gloucestershire Aircraft Company (later Gloster, to accommodate non-English buyers), making military aircraft. Frank Whittle, a former RAF apprentice mechanic, invented and patented the jet engine in 1930. The RAF and Air Ministry weren’t interested, so he formed his own company. In 1941, Gloster built a couple of small aircraft to test the engine, but their factory was bombed, so the aircraft was assembled in two garages in Cheltenham, Regent Motors and Crabtree’s. The site of Regent Motors is underneath Decathlon in the Regent Arcade. Crabtree’s, in Carlton Street, was demolished last year. There is not a plaque to mark either. There was a little model in the Regent Arcade at one time but it has been moved somewhere else. In 1931, a young engineer, George Dowty, invented the first practical ‘internally sprung wheel’ for aircraft, starting a huge company in a tiny mews house behind one of Cheltenham’s grandest addresses: Lansdown Terrace.

In the Second World War, Cheltenham was the headquarters of US military logistics: not a small job. In 1951, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) arrived, to occupy a series of huts at Oakley and Benhall, on the East and West of the town. The public only learnt of the organisation’s existence in 1976, when Duncan Campbell and Mark Hosenball wrote about it in Time Out. In 1993, it moved to ‘The Doughnut’.

By coincidence, Cheltenham’s postwar twinning link with Sochi in Russia boomed after GCQH arrived. Junketing was enjoyed by the Great and Good on both sides, even as we were arming our nuclear bombers with weapons made in Gloucestershire. Recently Cheltenham pulled out of the arrangement, noticing that Sochi is where that nice Mr Putin puts the frighteners on his clients and supposed friends.

In 2010, nearby RAF Innsworth became the headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which is effectively NATO + France. Many local families from around the world have achieved their enviable lifestyles from what Jesus – still much talked about, if not followed, in Cheltenham – referred to as ‘wars and rumours of wars’. He went on: ‘See that ye be not troubled. For all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.’ That’s a relief: we might get our potholes fixed before we’re incinerated.

The town’s boosters intend to build glass and steel boxes for the cyberpeople, on the remaining flat farmland to the West. The likely effect is that Cheltenham and Gloucester will merge into one noisy technopolitan sprawl. What would Ivor Gurney and Gustav Holst, whose poetry and music celebrate peace, have thought of that?


This is a personal selection of interesting things in Cheltenham. No-one has paid to be mentioned – or not mentioned.

Cheltenham loves puzzles. Try and guess how I organised these highlights. There’s a slight twist to throw you off, but it might help to know that I was conceived in 1956. There’s a prize for the first correct answer. Contact me.

One River

There are lots of streams and brooks in Cheltenham but only one river. The Chelt is not the Danube or the Rhine or even the mighty Severn. It looks like a stream and mostly behaves like one. But people have drowned in its waters. It rises just to the east of Dowdeswell (which might well be renamed Dunkertonia) from springs on one side or other of the A40. The bare Cotswold hills dump water into the steep valley causing flash floods.

There are several sites telling you how to walk its course, either from the source to Wainlodes, where it joins the Severn, or in the other direction, from the outlet. People catch elvers there: apparently they are quick-frozen and air-freighted to Japan, where they command a high price.

I like rivers because they generally go where they want, and the Chelt crosses many of the town’s man-made barriers of class and ethnicity. It is culverted under the very centre of town (between the side of the Salvation Army in Bath Road and Bayshill Road) but otherwise links communities that would never meet. At some points on the river you find otters; in others, shopping trollies.

I sometimes walk the path from what some call ‘Little Venice’ at Bayshill to Gloucester Road and then on between the ‘notorious’ Moors estate and the slightly less-notorious Arle. NB: ‘notorious’ just means ‘worthy of note’. At either end, you see Cheltenham as it once was: a cluster of villages and market gardens.

One of my favourite bits is the ford in School Road, Charlton Kings, or it was until earlier this week, when I foolishly tried to cycle through it and ended up on my back with the Chelt trickling around me. My ribs! Never do this. Fords look harmless, but the green slime on the bottom is more slippery and invisible than black ice.

There’s a lovely Jacobethan house on the left, just before you reach the ford.

At the other end of the trail, in Arle, there’s a thatched cottage in Village Road that once belonged to the blacksmith.

I know no poems about the Chelt. Perhaps I’ll write one. It will be short.

Two Schools

There are lots of schools in Cheltenham. I’ve chosen two contrasting institutions. Cheltenham Ladies College was founded in 1853, when various bigwigs at the boys’ Cheltenham College decided girls needed something similar. Its most important head, or Principal, was Dorothea Beale, who arrived in 1858, when it had only 69 pupils and was broke.

She was a suffragist (not one of those insufferable suffragettes), went on to pioneer teacher training, and founded St Hilda’s College in Oxford (originally paired with Cheltenham’s teacher training college). She was a social radical too, and a friend of Gustav Holst, and stayed in post almost until her death in 1906.

Increasingly, CLC has become a qualifications mill for foreign students who want a British alma mater. It moved to its current site in 1873, has grown to 850 pupils and its palatial buildings and facilities now occupy swathes of south and west Cheltenham. Its buildings in St George’s Road sit on top of the original spring where the progenitor pigeons peacefully pecked.

Turn left into Bayshill Road and there’s a lot more grand architecture, although David Verey, in the standard Buildings of England series, calls the main building an ‘aesthetic disaster’. Its Victorian Gothic has little to do with the Baroque or neo-Classical that is Chelt- enham’s trademark.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, in Naunton Lane, there’s Naunton Park Primary School. It was built in 1907 as Naunton Park Boys, Girls and Infants Schools, catering for the whole range of ages: it only closed its senior department in 1984. It’s still in the original red-brick building, a pleasing assembly of old-fashioned classrooms and halls with a complex and no-doubt troublesome roof, and it is one of the few schools in Cheltenham that has stuck to the secular ethos of state education. Most of the others cling to the skirts of organised religion.

Disclosure: I have a family connection with the school and a soft spot for it. When I first came to Cheltenham, I wrote scripts for little productions, made models, painted scenery and helped dig a Tudor garden. I even made a little end-of- year film and gave it to the parents.

Does Naunton Park have any famous pupils? Not as many as either the boys’ and ladies’ colleges: but Richard O’Brien , creator of The Rocky Horror Show and The Crystal Maze, Michael ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Edwards, and Mike Summerbee, Manchester City and England footballer, are not negligible. Nor is my friend Cos, barber and local musician of renown.

Also-rans in this category: too many to mention.

Three Parks

Cheltenham’s parks may be the best thing about it, although they tend towards the manicured. Parks are for fun as well as trudging around in a trance-like state.

Montpellier Gardens, to the south of the town centre, was originally part of Henry Thompson’s Montpellier Spa, created in the first decade of the 19th century. He built a basic pump room, and used the land opposite, known as Trafalgar Field, as an ornamental garden for his customers. Later, after Thompson had gone bust, it was acquired by the local authority, which installed a classic bandstand and sports facilities.

It is pleasantly old-fashioned. My writing group sometimes meets there on a Sunday morning, when we rub shoulders with another gang of eccentrics known as ‘people who meet in the park’ or something similar. It was put about that they were fanatical anti-vaxxers, and some were. Mainly they are people who believe that talking in the open air on a Sunday morning, as opposed to sleeping off a hangover or gawping at the idiot box, is neither ‘weird’ nor some sort of crime.

There’s a children’s play area, an art gallery for local talent, and a cafe. The ever-changing crew of staff recently included a nice Russian woman who introduced me to the poetry of Afanasy Fet, a contemporary of Tolstoy of whom I was quite ignorant.

For much of the year this public open space is used for the much-ballyhooed festivals. Nice if you like that sort of thing.

Festivals are less frequent in Pittville Park, to the north of the town. It’s a glorious open space on a gentle hill, with walkways, two lakes (one with rowing boats), a children’s activity area, caged birds and Pittville Pump Room, created by John Forbes for Joseph Pitt in 1825-30.

This slightly heavy-handed neo-Greek hall is rather more beautiful on the inside than the outside. The council has handed it over – like all its sports and leisure facilities – to the Cheltenham Trust, which uses it for weddings and events. But Cheltenham still has philanthropists. One puts on excellent free concerts on Tuesday lunchtimes. The acoustics are perfect for the sort of events for which it was designed.

There’s a restaurant at the Pump Room and two cafes in the park. You have to pay to park at the venue. Don’t forget or you’ll get fined.

The third of my chosen parks is The Park, a name that recalls The Band, the Canadian outfit who helped Bob ‘Judas’ Dylan go electric, known as ‘the only band good enough to be called The Band’.

This space, south of Lansdown, is not a public park, although you can still walk round the gardens. It is the headquarters of the brobdingnagian University of Gloucestershire. Enter by Entrance 4 and wander round to the little ornamental lake (apparently in the shape of Africa) and a lovely pavilion building that no longer seems to have a use.

A man called Thomas Billings developed The Park in 1831, as the Gloucestershire Zoological, Botanical and Horticultural Gardens. There were going to be vultures, monkeys, elephants and bears, but the plan failed. Shame. Now it’s a human zoo, but people-watching is always a valuable pursuit.

Also-rans: Sandford Park, Imperial Gardens, Cox’s Meadow, King George V Park, Hester’s Way Park.

Five Places of Worship

Cheltenham has a lot of churches, living and dead.

My religious heritage is like that of St Joni Mitchell: ‘Papa’s faith is people, Mama she believes in cleaning.’ Nonetheless, I love sacred architecture, singing and poetry, and I believe in natural justice and the soul. So, while I don’t ‘go to church’, I do go to churches. Churches belong to the community. They should be open, as places of sanctuary, peace, gratitude and contemplation for everyone. Not all Cheltenham’s churches fit the bill. Despite that, I like these:

All Saints. A splendidly ornate and historic Victorian Gothic church of 1868, with a wonderful musical tradition. The young Gustav Holst played the organ: his father was choirmaster. Friendly, but they belong to something called The Society, an Anglo-Catholic sect that doesn’t allow women to conduct services.

St Mary’s (aka ‘The Minster’). The oldest building in Cheltenham, with some 12th century bits. Mostly 14th century. A lovely rose window, stained glass, historic monuments and bells. An electronic organ. Boo!

St Gregory’s. Cheltenham’s principal Roman Catholic Church. Designed by Joseph Hansom, brother of the architect who designed the Hansom cab. Completed 1861.

St Paul’s. A large galleried church of 1827, built economically because a wealthy local churchman noticed his servants didn’t have anywhere to worship. This has always been a poor part of town. The incumbents (who favour the ‘Alpha’ courses) don’t seem keen on churches.

Cheltenham Synagogue [below]. The town has had Jewish residents since the beginning. The community prospered in the 19th Century and again during the Second World War. A modest and intimate space, with a classical front in white stucco. Consecrated in 1879. The architect, Wiliam Hill Knight, went on to create Montpellier Walk (qv).

Also-rans: Christchurch, St Matthew’s, the Latter Day Saints, the Christian Scientists, the Spiritualists, and St Peter’s in Tewkesbury Road, a stunning round church that is now a youth club and bicycle repair workshop.

Seven Places for Fun

The Playhouse is Cheltenham’s community and amateur theatre. Originally a factory for turning the magic (and lucrative) spring water into bath salts, then the town public baths and swimming pool, it became a theatre in 1945 by sheer local enthusiasm and the support of such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and J. B. Priestley. A fascinating and quirky old building, mostly run by lovely volunteers. A plan to put a 1980s-style atrium inside has been kicked into the long grass.

Home & Botanic. There’s a surprising amount of dancing going on in Cheltenham, but for those who fancy a little light clubbing, try this. Billed on its Facebook page as an ‘elite nightclub’ it’s a big Regency end-terrace house with five small bars and dance-floors. It’s loud, buzzing and not absurdly expensive. I had a great time when I was dragged there by a lot of people half my age. Which is still quite old for clubbing.

The Everyman was built by the Victorian wizard Frank Macham in 1891. It has a grand proscenium arch, uncomfortable seating, especially in the cheaper circles, and touring shows, usually including actors from television sitcoms and soaps.

More challenging fare is to be found in the small studio theatre upstairs, now named after a politician, like so many other things in Cheltenham. Despite that, I like it.

The Bacon Theatre. The theatre and performance space for Dean Close School, with hard bench seating that makes you feel a bit like an anxious parent at an end of term concert. A varied programme of music and West End theatre relayed by satellite to the large screen. Also the home of Cheltenham Film Society, a successful local institution since 1945. Disclosure: I was on its committee for many years and now, Hallelujah, I am not. I still support it, though. It may be the biggest such society in the UK.

The Town Hall is an in-your-face Victorian ballroom of 1901, by F. W. Waller, who did the not dissimilar Lloyds Bank (qv). Commercially tricky almost from the start. Roller-skating did well in the 19th century. Now it survives on the odd orchestral concert, tribute bands (although the acoustics are unsympathetic to loud amplified music) and Indian weddings.

Cheltenham Town Football Club. Listed under entertainment, because is not exactly elite sport. It is expensive for what it is, especially the catering, although that may be changing. The crowd are taciturn and apathetic, but we like that. We enjoy the mumbling black humour of our fellow masochists, as ‘The Robins’ once again heroically underachieve.

The Frog & Fiddle. An entertainment venue run by a pub chain that specialises in the ‘party’ market: ie, pouring drink down the throats of students. There’s a sort of barn at the back for music and comedy. I’ve seen some great stuff there.

11 Places to Eat & Drink

There are hundreds of places to eat and drink in Cheltenham. But hospitality is a ‘people’ business; if the people change, the welcome changes. I favour places with a local proprietor.

Lucy’s. Coffee, lunch and fantastic cakes. Italian food made by Romanians. Nice staff, too. Beth, Kitty and Eliza are my favourites. James (who, Candice points out, is Chinese and not Romanian) is a whizz in the kitchen.

Karapincha. Tasty Sri Lankan food and a warm welcome. Try the Sri Lankan beer, if they have it: strong, quite expensive and very strange. Karapincha is a tea made from curry leaves: it’s great. Your hostess, also runs the launderette in ‘The Strand’, which is what we call the High Street just before it becomes London Road.

Andria’s. This is the best cafe in the slighly chi-chi area known as The Suffolks, although it is actually in Great Norwood Street, on the other side of the main road. Andria and Vlad make pleasing southern European cafe food from good ingredients. They are friendly (though he’s a bit gruff till you get to know him). The surroundings are distinctive and unpretentious. Vlad calls himself Yugo- slav, having been born before the politician-inspired nationalist struggles, and I applaud that. You have to pay in cash. I applaud that too.

Le Petit Coco. Authentic, straightforward French food in a cellar, reached by steep and narrow stairs. A bit pricey, perhaps, but worth it. Small, so you need to book.

Spencer’s. My favourite old-style ‘caff’ in the centre of town. A long menu of simple food. The staff are friendly and obliging. Also, it opens at 8:00, which is rare in Cheltenham, where so many places open late and close early. Movie and television people use Spencer’s when working in town. Their pictures are on the walls.

The Sandford Park Alehouse. I have informal club meetings here and I like it for a quiet drink. Lots of beer-snob ales and lagers, but also wine, etc. Like a lot of pubs, it is trying various themed evenings and events, so steer clear if you don’t like noisy quizzes. A marquee in the garden. (There are better places to eat.)

The Vine. Interesting old pub in glazed bricks in The Strand, specialising in Thai food. I was sceptical but it is good value and popular with the locals. Currently offering a bargain ‘happy hour’ early on Mondays to Fridays.

The Everest. Large and unpretentious curry house. Friendly and tolerant staff. Bargain buffet, Tuesdays and Thursdays. I had my last birthday party there [below].

The Kemble Brewery. An interesting survival: a pub in a back street from nowhere to nowhere. It is an institution with football supporters, as opposed to hooligans. Both sides mix happily before matches at Whaddon Road. Formerly somewhat grotty, it has been cleaned up and is more expensive and less colourful.

The Boston Tea Party. Yes, it’s part of a chain, but it works. The food (modern, eclectic cafe stuff, plus cake) is quick and tasty and most of the staff are brilliant: there’s a turnover. I use it frequently, not least because the library just along the road has no toilet. Why?

The Moon Under Water. A Wether- spoons, in a large shed close to the former Barratt’s Mill, where, in the days before proper drainage, the Chelt was diverted to sluice the streets.

One of many ‘Spoons’ pubs bearing the name invented by George Orwell for his ideal London pub in one of his essays. These pubs are nothing like George’s quiet, family-run ‘public house’: they’re about noise, cheap beer and microwaved instant meals. However, in Cheltenham, as in most British towns, they are the only places you can sit down to hot food late in the evening. They are also egalitarian, non-judgmental and inclusive. For example, Gloucestershire Humanists meet there on some Sunday mornings, politely denying the existence of God alongside people enjoying their breakfast lagers.

I like them because non-drinkers get ‘bottomless’ refills of hot drinks. At night, young people strut their stuff to head- banging ‘background’ music, often in eye- popping pulling outfits. Quite a spectacle.

13 Buildings

Cheltenham is known for its Regency buildings. It is worth learning something about the style: those columns and capitals and pediments have meanings. See my accompanying webpage.

Here are 13 notable structures, mostly old houses. Cheltenham is short on modern architecture, although a house around the corner from me was on GrandDesigns: it’s got a wall round it.

I’ve tried to make a logical walk out of them. If you want proper architectural ‘perambulations’, get the Gloucestershire: the Vale and the Forest of Dean volume of Buildings of England. Horribly expensive, and out of print. Sigh.

Royal Crescent (1806). Perfect in con- ception but now slightly shabby, It stands opposite the terrible bus station and the backside of the council offices. Could the authorities be any more disrespectful to visitors? Possibly only by closing the tourist information office. Oh, they’ve already done that.

Wynstay House (1830) [pictured]. In St James’s Square. One of the first purpose-built infant schools in the country and the oldest still standing. It had a single class room, 20m by 10m, holding 250 children from two to seven. That’s what it says here: 250. You can’t go in: it’s occupied by lawyers.

Queen’s Hotel (1838). This reminds some people of the grand buildings of imperial St Petersburg. Originally it was named after its proprietor, Richard Liddell, but he changed the name to cash in on the accession of Queen Victoria. It looks magnificent, the public rooms are smart, but it is old, with everything that that implies.

Lansdown Terrace (c.1830). My favourite of Cheltenham’s actual Grand Designs and rather unusual. Each house – and these were very much separate dwellings – has a classical portico, with a large glazed front room above it, with pairs of Ionic columns and a pediment.

Lansdown Crescent (from 1829)A huge convex terrace, originally planned as part of a gigantic circular development. More conventional than the Terrace, although that can’t be said of all the residents. As I was making my notes, one lunchtime, an exotic young woman scampered out of one of the houses, while a hirsute young man in a dressing gown shouted to her through a megaphone.

‘Are you his carer?’ I asked.

‘I used to be,’ she said, laughing and climbing into a taxi. ‘I wasn’t paid for it.’

Cheltenham College (from 1843). Lots of different buildings on the main site, familiar to fans of Lindsey Anderson’s If, a horribly funny film homage to his hated alma mater. The chapel is a smaller Victorian imitation of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. I like Thirlestaine House, on Bath Road. The central part, with its massive neo-Greek portico, was built by an amateur architect, J.R. Scott, in 1823. He brought accurate Greek style to Cheltenham; the professionals only caught on a couple of years later.

The Rotunda (1825, below). This elegant dome-shaped ballroom was a branch of Lloyds Bank when I first came to Cheltenham. Now it’s a branch of The Ivy chain, then a single late-night restaurant in Soho. It’s been done up, somewhat flashily, with a lot of the equine imagery favoured by those who own horses or, more realistically, aspire to. The original spa room, of 1817, was a low-ceilinged structure. The dome was added by J. Papworth to make a light, airy and impressive space for jollifications. Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav, said that one of her father’s forebears, a mediocre painter, once attended a fancy dress party there stark naked. He was probably meant to be Adam. Regency Cheltenham was wild.

Montpellier Walk (1840). Originally Montpellier Spa stood in green fields and the Walk was just a path. Its shops are enhanced by the famous Caryatids, armless Greek ladies in sexy classical frocks. These were based on the statues found on the Erectheion, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens. They were once thought to be enslaved women, punished because their town, Karyai, chose the wrong side in the Greco-Persian wars. Modern scholars of a feminist bent say they were worshippers of Artemis, goddess of wilderness, hunting, childbirth and chastity. Not much of the latter in Montpellier Walk most nights.

Rodney Lodge (1809), one of the first neo-classical buildings built in Cheltenham. It boasts a simple and effective Ionic portico. Two plain columns, the typical ‘scrolls’ or ‘volutes’ on the top, a plain ‘entablature’ (the lintel, effectively) on the top. It is home to a language school. We are a polyglot town.

Cheltenham General Hospital (1848). This was the last important building in the town in neo-Greek style. Giant fluted Ionic columns hold up a pediment. The rest of the hospital is a crumbling maze, as anyone who has tried to navigate it in a hurry will attest. NB: there is a minor injuries clinic, during the day. For anything serious, try Gloucester.

Holst Birthplace (1830s). Gustav Holst’s birthplace (which he left before he was old enough to make music) is in Clarence Road. It was a crumbling student dive before it was acquired by the council in 1974, the centenary of his birth, and turned into museum and archive by Imogen Holst, his devoted daughter. Handed over to a trust, it has been remodelled as a sort of folk museum, called Holst Victorian House, and there is not much Holst left. There are better social history museums. Holst was Cheltenham’s most important gift to the world, but the town’s powerbrokers seem embarrassed by him. As the Bible has it, ‘A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.’ The same is true of our composer. Not that ‘Gussie’ would have cared. He was supremely uninterested in personal glory.

The Doughnut (2003). One unmissable modern building: a ‘secret’ establishment you can see from space and could obliterate with a modest surface-to-surface missile from one of those big houses on Leckhampton Hill (try Ebay). It was built between 2000 and 2003 on a Private Finance Initiative basis that ended up costing £1.2bn, seven times the original estimate.

The ring-shaped design was by a Briton called Chris Johnson, working for Gensler, an American practice. The circular plan was supposed to make civil servants employed on secret work more open and collegiate. More likely, it was a ploy to stop the mission-creep inherent in public-sector projects: it is hard to stick ad-hoc extensions on to circular buildings during the design process. If so, it failed.

The Wikipedia page about GCHQ goes on about how difficult it is to get inside. I’ve visited: it’s like a run-down insurance company, with banks of ancient Dell computers. All you need to get in is a relative who works there: there’s an open day for families. I’m happy to say the person in question is now employed by an organisation that believes Nations should Speak Peace unto Nations.

Hetton Lawn (1862). This is a grand family house in Cudnall Street, Charlton Kings. Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematics lecturer, sometimes stayed there. His host, Henry Liddell, the Dean of Dodgson’s college, had it built for his parents. Liddell had lots of children, including a little girl called Alice. Dodgson, made up a story for her, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and got it published, using the pen-name Lewis Carroll. An ornate 6ft by 5ft mirror over the fireplace in the drawing room inspired him to write a sequel, in which Alice passes through it, into a world where everything is reversed. The book was called Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There and was published in 1871. The house went on sale in 2014 with an asking price of £1m. The new owners have added guest-rooms, etc. It is not open to the public. You can, however, see inside on Daily Mail online. You know how to google, don’t you?

17 Treasures

Random interesting stuff that I couldn’t fit elsewhere, including some favourite shops. They don’t know what I’ve said.

A piece of street art. On the side of a taxi office in Royal Well Place, there’s a piece by John D’Oh, a Bristolian in the Banksy vein, and no worse in my view.

It relates to the story of Geoff Prime, employed by GCHQ for many years as a translator while shipping loads of secret documents to East Germany. Like many of GCHQ’s drones, he had a second job. He drove taxis for an earlier firm on this site. It was only when he began interfering with young passengers, and was caught by the local police, that the ‘intelligence’ people took an interest, and even then they tried to cover it up.

Cotswold Strings. For a supposedly musical town, Cheltenham is short of resources for players, as opposed to instrument collectors. This shop is a treasure-trove for anything with strings, and Mike and Nathan are expert menders. They sell other instruments too. Mike and his wife Deb are legends in musical education in Cheltenham. They’ll help you out.

The Listening Stones. When GCHQ’s developers built the Doughnut they tidied up Hester’s Way Park, next door, which the locals call ‘Fishy Park’. They donated a series of monumental stones, inscribed with codes. Code-breakers, many of whom are enthusiastic amateurs, love them. One is beside the path that leads to the back entrance of ‘the plant’: it’s secured by a turnstile. When I tried to write about the stones, I rang GCHQ’s press office and nobody had a clue: such is the fate of public art. In King George V Park, nearby, there’s an ‘acoustic mirror’ artwork, sadly tagged by graffiti fans.

Cheltenham Spa Bowls Club. Hidden in plain sight, down on the Lower High Street, almost opposite the Premier Inn. Beautifully kept, welcoming and full of expert players, it is one of three bowls clubs in the town. My mother was a champion bowler. I hope to take it up when I get A Round Tuit.

Monty Smith in Bennington Street is where l like to buy my special clothes. Lovely stuff for men and women, expertly chosen by Jeni and Sukh. When I’m less flush, I try Primark, or John Lewis, which has good own-brand stock and nice staff.

The Daffodil. This is a lovely building: an art deco cinema, built in 1922. It closed in 1963 and was used as a second-hand furniture store. It became a restaurant in 1998. In 2008 it was redecorated by the Cirencester-based television fop and philanthropist Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and attempted to establish itself as a smart restaurant, but it went into receivership in 2016. New owners refitted it, then closed it in2022.It now seems to be a sort of wedding venue, with occasional public events. If you find it open, take a peek inside. It’s very pretty, but it has not been buzzing since the arrival of ITV in 1955.

Hatherley Miniature Railway. The Cheltenham Society of Model Engineers has been running since 1938. In 1955 it took over a patch of land in Hatherley Road, belonging to Sir George Dowty, and built a railway. The line is 700 ft long and beautifully constructed. The club welcomes new members and people who just want to watch. Cheltenham is full of old engineers from the aviation and electricity generation worlds, with lots of equipment in their sheds. If I wanted someone to make me a small nuclear weapon, I wouldn’t have to look far. NB: this is what we used to call a joke.

Eagle Tower. No-one likes it. Formerly Eagle Star House, it was built by the insurance company when it was a big local employer. Politicians nodded it through in the days of concrete-mania, pleading ‘job-creation’. Eagle Star subsequently cleared off. They considered knocking it down, but money talked and it stayed. Now it’s full of little cyberbusinesses wanting a Cheltenham address. Next door is a truncated sister, Montpellier House. During the lockdown acouple of penthouses were built on top, went on the market at upwards of £900,000, and sold. Not to me. The views are somewhat compromised by Eagle Tower itself, which I would demolish.

Beatrice von Tresckow’s original Cheltenham shop, opposite the Playhouse. This strange little house has a sort of minaret, wildly twisted ironwork and gorgeous iridescent tiles. At a push, I would call it Gaudi-esque. It was built by the fashion designer to reflect the bold, colourful style of her schmutter. The council’s aesthetes naturally tried to stop this polychromatic and dangerously cosmopolitan fantasy. (Beatrice is from a German family and was brought up in Kenya, India and Afghanistan.) Eventually, the fashionista won and the council was forced to lick its self-inflicted wounds (at our expense). Soon the monstrous carbuncle was winning awards and being lauded by … the people who had fought to stop it. Beatrice has moved her shop to Montpellier Walk. I like her women’s clothes. (To clarify: on women.)

The Hare and the Minotaur (1995) is in the Promenade, which was laid out in 1818 as a tree-lined avenue from the High Street to the Sherborne Spa, where the Queen’s Hotel now stands. Later a magnificent terrace was built on the West Side. Sophie Ryder’s sculpture is beneath the trees in the pedestrianised bit. It’s cast in bronze from clay and bits of scrap metal, and features a pair of half-human, half-animal figures. The female hare is supposedly modelled on Sophie’s body. (I’ve not seen it, so no comment. I have seen the hare.) The piece has always been divisive. You are allowed to touch it, and the minotaur’s prominent membrum virilis attracts considerable attention. As a result, it gets shiny, enraging art-snobs.

Brian Jones’s gravestone is in the municipal crematorium in Bouncers’ Lane. He was born in Cheltenham in 1952, attending Dean Close and the old Grammar, which was in the lower High Street. His parents were Welsh puritans, a jet engine builder and a music teacher. He was a good musician and a rebel with an eye (more than an eye) for the ladies. Fascinated by black American music, he moved to London in 1962 and formed the Rolling Stones. Then came fame, drink, drugs, an aristocratic femme fatale and rivalry with Mick Jagger. In 1969, a few weeks after being sacked from his own band, he drowned in his own swimming pool. The gravestone is plain, and close to what has been called ‘the finest Victorian cemetery chapel in England’. Fans from around the world leave peculiar tributes: beer bottles, cigarettes, drugs. It’s what he would have wanted, or so they think.

Tivoli Trading. Useful shops are scarce in Cheltenham. This is the best place for hardware. They seem to stock everything and the man in charge is obliging and full of advice. Tivoli itself is an attractive parade of shops, some more decorative than useful. At one time it was Cheltenham’s gay district. Now they all live in villages.

The Wishing Fish Clock. The Regent Arcade is a 1985 shopping mall featuring the sort of retail ‘outlets’ you find everywhere. Its one interesting feature is the Wishing Fish Clock, a kinetic sculpture designed by Stroud illustrator Kit Williams. He created the 1979 book Masquerade, which launched a national hunt for a buried sculpture of a hare. The clock features a goose laying golden eggs, mice, and a revolving wooden fish that blows bubbles. According to the mall’s website, it’s been switched off, ‘to avoid visitors congregating’. Visitors! Shocking!

Lloyds Bank. This banking hall was built in 1900 on the site of the old Assembly Rooms, by Waller & Son, a local firm of architects. It is a magnificently solid Baroque fortress on the outside, but light and airy within. Banks these days would rather do without buildings or staff, so how should they use these gigantic halls? After the American banking crashes of the 1920s – dramatised in It’s A Wonderful Life – the survivors put live music in their banking halls to make saving fun. My Dad took me to open my Lloyds account in Staple Hill in 1974, so I’ve got a stake in it. I’d like them to make an effort.

The Local Studies Archive at the Wilson Gallery. ‘The Wilson’ was remodelled during the lockdown as one of those ‘ace caff, with quite a nice museum attached’ places, beloved of arts bosses. The old Cheltenham Museum was full of local oddities, like a stuffed pike and the crockery our grans had. The new museum does have a nice archive room, full of interesting treasures in filing cabinets and drawers, including some of poor Edward Wilson’s equipment: snow shoes, skis and a sled. There’s lots of lovely print and typography, too, which has nothing much to do with Cheltenham, but Gloucestershire was a centre for the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century. The craftsmen were trained by William Morris, a socialist friend of Gustav Holst. The adagio from Holst’s Symphony No 2, ‘The Cotswolds’, is an elegy for Morris.

Williams Cycles is where I bought the only new means of transport I have ever owned – and where I get it patched up when I fall off. Cheltenham is both a good and terrible for cycling. It’s compact and mostly flat, and any trip in town is quicker than using the car and struggling to park. But the potholes are lethal, and drivers are oblivious. Williams Cycles has been around since 1904, they have great stock, and the staff are true Knights of the Order of the Spoked Wheel.

Glenfall House is a minor country house on a hill above Charlton Kings, to the East of the town. It was built in 1770, rebuilt at the turn of the 19th century, expanded in 1830 for a Lieutenant-Colonel, then ex- panded again for a member of the Mitchell & Butler brewing family in the 1920s. Later it was acquired by one of churches as a place for troubled priests and nuns. One of them haunts it. It was a venue, but now is a private house. Sad.

It is exquisite, especially the gardens. You look out over terraces to Leckhampton Hill and can just get a glimpse of the Devil’s Chimney, a local sight I have left out. Find it yourself, if you dare. In 2022, I held a party at Glenfall House [below] to celebrate completing, Consequences, my Cotswolds novel. It was the culmination of a 50-year ambition. I read Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘Crickley Hill’ to some of my friends as we looked towards it across the deceptive Chelt. See below.


Some interesting places around the Cotswolds. Find them, and ask the locals about them. Maps contain Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2023

The Cotswold Hills stretch south-west over 90 miles, from Stratford-upon-Avon to Bath. They have always been fought over. Even the name Is disputed. ‘Wold’, by fairly general consent, means ‘high ground’. ‘Cots-’ could be from an Old English word meaning ‘small house’ or ‘hut for animals’; or it could be someone’s name. It could be that ‘Cod’ was a Brittonic mother goddess called ‘Cuda’, who could have been worshipped in these parts in pre-Roman times. Why not? These soft rounded hills look feminine to me. When you are looking at places, geology and geography are where to start: rock, soil, water and forests. Everything we know about the Cotswolds flows down from prehistory.

The rock is oolitic limestone. ‘Oolitic’ means ‘egg-like’. Our stone is made of tiny grains that look like fish roe. It is not easily eroded. It varies in colour, like the honey with which it is often compared. Hence the warm hue of our houses and churches.

The earliest inhabitants we know about forsook hunter-gathering in about 3000BC for a new way of life, imported from the near East and central Europe: farming. They left ‘barrows’, burial mounds, all over the Cotswolds. There’s a good one at Belas Knap, near Winchcombe. Although they could smelt copper and lead, which melt easily, they could not make iron tools or ploughs to tackle the heavy, wet soil of the Severn Vale, to the West of the Cotswold ‘escarpment’ or ridge. So they farmed the hills.

The new technology needed to smelt iron required a new class of expert, whose skills were effectively magic. Those who could do it could now produce durable weapons and tools. They, or their owners, became priests, warlords and wealthy hereditary rulers: the god-kings we know from mythology.

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, new ideas were blossoming. Ancient Greek civilisation was built on trade. Mostly based on islands, they relied upon the sea for self defence and transport. The Romans, who arrived here in about AD47, were different. Their empire was centralised and somewhat brutal. They built straight roads, cleared the land either side, and built fortresses in stone, quarried by slave-labour and constructed by imported masons. Roman roads are everywhere in the Cotswolds, notably the 12-miles of the Fosse Way (the A429), and Ermin Street, which leads straight into Gloucester. When the Romans arrived they dispossessed the local Belgic tribe, the Dobunni, whose wooden capital was at Bagendon. They built a stone city: Cirencester.

By the time the Roman legions went home, 350 years later, they had become Christian and had built stone churches and magnificent villas, like the one at Chedworth, discovered in 1864 by a gamekeeper looking for a lost ferret. The Romanised British could not defend themselves against invaders from the north without the soldiers. They invited some Scandinavians in to help, but those adventurers decided to steal the country, and soon England was divided up between the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. We got the Saxons, who knew how to plough and quickly occupied the fertile land between the escarpment and the Severn. They used the Romans’ stoneworks to shore up their wooden structures. Indeed, they seem to have thought those imposing piles of masonry had been erected by giants. The Severnside village of Deerhurst, north of Gloucester, has a splendid Saxon church and tiny chapel.

After that, the history of the Cotswolds is ‘one damn thing after another’. The Norman conquerors shared it out among themselves and built churches and abbeys. They also introduced sheep farming. At first, they exported unprocessed wool, but then Edward III brought in weavers from Flanders and for the next 300 years or so the Cotswolds dominated the lucrative industry: that paid for the magnificent ‘wool churches’ in places like Fairford. By now, the Wars of the Roses had swept over the area, with crucial battles in places like Tewkesbury. Don’t miss the re-enactment, each July. It’s like ‘It’s a Royal Knockout’ with a straight face. 

The Tudors used Gloucestershire as a base for bashing Wales, and then there was a lot of Civil War action, including a long siege of Gloucester. After that came the start of the Industrial Revolution, particularly in the steep valleys south of Stroud where water powered mills were subsequently replaced by steam. At one time, we made a lot of pianos. And then a lot of industry went away. 

The Roman city of Gloucester became a great port and industrial centre. The Forest of Dean, to the west, was mined and provided wood. The Severn was a thoroughfare, a barrier and an inspiration, but a canal, once the broadest and deepest in the world, provided a safer passage for ships. 

Each map shows a Cotswold hub, about half an hour’s drive from Cheltenham. Twice that by bus. Everything inside the circle is less than half an hour from there. The named places are interesting, and worth finding. Let’s start with Stow-on-the-Wold: the first Cotswoldians came from the East.

When the Romans came, they displaced the Ancient Britons and built Cirencester nearby. They used slave labour to build roads, quarries, villas, forts and temples. The Saxons, who came next, lived in homes made of wood and mud. Later they made their presence more permanent.

The Roman city of Gloucester became a great port and industrial centre. The Forest of Dean, to the west, was mined and provided wood. The Severn was a thoroughfare, a barrier and an inspiration, but a canal, once the broadest and deepest in the world, provided a safer passage for ships.

Today the Cotswolds are still fought over. Property is ludicrously expensive, but it continues to attract oligarchs, plutocrats, footballers, actors, directors, financiers, PR people, influencers, slebsmoddaws and all manner of flotsam and jetsam.

As a result, villages once full of children and animals are silent, except at weekends, when they are as bustling and busy as Leicester Square. The peace and tranquility that people seek in the Cotswolds has been undermined by the very people paying for it. But all things must pass. Time is not an arrow: it’s circular. Soon, these invaders too will disappear, and the earth goddess Cuda will reassert herself. Just wait and see.


The orchis, trefoil, harebells nod all day,
High above Gloucester and the Severn plain.
Few come there, where the curlew ever and again

Cries faintly, and no traveller makes stay,
Since steep the road is,
And the villages
Hidden by hedges wonderful in late May.

From ‘Crickley Hill’ by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937).

Ivor Gurney was born in Gloucester in 1890, the son of a tailor and a seamstress. He showed early musical ability and went to the Royal College of Music in 1911, with the first wave of 20th-century British composers. His tutor declared him potentially ‘the biggest of them all’ but ‘unteachable’. In 1913, he had some sort of breakdown, but nonetheless enlisted to fight in World War I, and committed himself to poetry. Wounded, then gassed, he was sent to a military hospital and fell in love with a nurse.

In March 1918, when that relationship suddenly ended, he suffered another breakdown and was discharged from the army due to ‘deferred shellshock’. He returned to the Royal College, where he studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams, but he deteriorated. In 1922, his family had him declared insane. After initial confinement in Barnwood House hospital in Gloucester, he was moved to an asylum in Dartford, where he continued to write throughout the 1920s. He died of tuberculosis in 1937.

This poem was written in around August 1918, when he was a patient in a military hospital in Lancashire. It was written down by his friend Marion Scott, but did not make it into his 1919 volume, War’s Embers. It refers to the hill just south of Cheltenham. All his life Gurney craved the healing atmosphere of the Cotswolds, but he was confined far away from Gloucestershire. He would beg his few visitors to take him home, but he was never free to return.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is our other genius. He struggled with ill-health and the scorn of better-connected composers, but he kept going, buoyed up by friends, a happy marriage, the love of music and a deep indifference to fame and fortune.

Ivor has a modern abstract monument in Gloucester docks, locally known as ‘the CD rack’: see if you can find it. ‘Gussie’ has a realistic statue in Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham. Surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac, he looks across to war-torn Flanders, conducting with his left hand, although he was right-handed. His most famous piece, ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets, was made into a patriotic hymn: ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’, beloved of Princess Diana, among others. He saw himself, though, as ‘Uranus’, the Magician. Which he was.


This strange map was drawn and engraved by a man called William Hole as part of a book called Poly-Olbion, by Michael Drayton. Drayton was born in in Warwickshire in 1563, and was of more humble origins than William Shakespeare, born nearby a year earlier. He wrote poetry through the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I and into the era of the ill-fated Charles I. In 1598 he started Poly-Olbion, a vast and rambling poem about the natural features and folk-history of England and Wales. In it, the hills, rivers, plains, valleys and forests are characters, telling their own stories. In his ‘Fourteenth Song’, about Gloucestershire, the female Vale of Evesham falls in love with the male Cotswolds to produce the Isis river, which becomes the Thames. William Hole, birth date unknown, began engraving in about 1600. He was the first person in England to engrave music on copper plates. His maps for Poly-Olbion are more about Drayton’s stories than real geography, but he did his best. Originally in black ink, they were coloured later.

But, noble Muse, proceed immediatly to tell
How Evsham’s fertile Vale at first in liking fell
With Cotswold, that great King of Shepheards: whose proud site

When that faire Vale first saw, so nourisht her delight,
That him she onely lov’d: for wisely shee beheld
The beauties cleane throughout that on his surface dweld.