When the Cheltenham Festival rolls around, tens of thousands of people descend on Cheltenham and the wider Gloucestershire region. It goes without say that they’re in the area for the racing, desperate to watch the next great horse riding to Gold Cup glory or to be there to hear the Cheltenham Roar. Yet what to do when the racing is over?
Cheltenham itself is a lovely spa town, with Gloucestershire offering plenty of hidden treasures that people will delight in experiencing. It’s somewhere that it well worth visiting even when there isn’t any racing to get caught up in, though of course Cheltenham Racecourse has enough meetings during the year to ensure that rarely happens. Here’s a look at where to go and what to do.
Places Worth Visiting
Even when the Festival is up and running and as many as 70,000 people visit the racecourse every day, the heart of Cheltenham town centre remains relatively quiet. Early spring brings on a more gentle sunshine than in the summer, showing off the town’s understated beauty. There are many places worth a visit if you want to occupy yourself.
The Town Centre
The true beauty of Cheltenham lies in the 19th-century buildings that you can find wherever you turn. For a cheap but thoroughly enlightening thing to do you could do a lot worse than to have a slow wander around the town centre. Just ensure that your eyes are looking up at the buildings rather than downwards at the shops that fill them.
Head to the Montpellier district and the area unofficially known as The Suffolks. It was developed by the Earl Of Suffolk in the 1830s when a series of construction projects were carried out on farmland. Unsurprisingly, some of the houses are stunning and have large, impressive windows that look out onto wrought-iron balconies.
The rest of the Montpellier district offers Grecian pillars, sculptures and statues that add a delightful touch to the properties. The Rotunda building is close by. Having evolved from a spa that was established in 1809, it nowadays hosts The Ivy Restuarant and is often more than a little bit busy when the great and the good of the Festival goers come to town.
The horse racing isn’t the only Festival that Cheltenham plays host to. There’s a Jazz Festival in May, a Science Festival in June, a Music Festival at the end of June and the Literature Festival gets underway in October. All of them tend to be focussed on the Imperial Gardens area of the town, which is located just off the promenade behind the Town Hall.
Planted and landscaped for the wealthy people who came to use the spa, they’ve undergone some changes in recent years. A series of balustrade stone steps and the central fountain are both relatively new additions. The gardens took on their current look after the Second World War and around 25,000 plants are bedded every year to give it its glorious look.
Even the local pubs and hotels have a fair bit of character. The Queen’s Hotel was re-built in 1837 at a hefty price of £47,000. It fits in with the townhouses and buildings that have been converted into offices, though. The Regency facades offer imposing steps leading up to the front doors and ironwork that mostly dates from the era.
If that all sounds a little bit too dainty and nice for your liking then you might want to get along to Kingsholm Stadium. The home of Gloucester Rugby is worth a visit all on its own, but if you can time your trip well with a match featuring the Cherry & Whites then you’ll be in for a treat. Gloucestershire is well known for its rugby, so matches are often exciting.
The Shed is the part of the ground that the hardcore fans go to, should you wish to have a truly authentic experience. If you’d rather be a little bit more upmarket then you could book yourself a box and watch things play out from the posh seats. It’s a place that you’ll enjoy visiting and an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry.
The Severn Bore
There are many things that you’ll probably associate with Cheltenham and Gloucestershire, but the second-largest tidal range in the world probably wasn’t one of them. That’s what you’ll find yourself presented with if you pop along to have a look at the Severn Bore, however. It is a natural wonder that sees a wave work its way up the Severn Estuary.
Thrilling to look at in and of itself, the Severn Bore plays host to numerous extreme sport enthusiasts who want to be a daredevil and enjoy their time with surfboards, canoes and other things. It happens several times a year when the Atlantic Ocean enters the Bristol Channel and needs somewhere to go, using the 25 miles or so between Awre and Gloucester for the job.
Horse racing enthusiasts will know all about Cleeve Hill and its link to the history of the Cheltenham Festival. If you don’t include yourself in that number then do check it out elsewhere on this site. Nowadays it is the highest point in the Cotswolds, standing 330 metres above sea level and offering truly spectacular views.
It’s a bit of a hike to get up the hill, but once you’re there you’ll have a lovely picnic spot to take advantage of and you’ll be able to see for miles around. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, being the largest enclosed ‘wold’ in the entirety of the Cotswolds. If you squint really hard you might just be able to see some of the racing taking place, too.
Cotswold Farm Park
In the heart of the Cotswolds lies the appropriately named Cotswold Farm Park. It is a lovely day out for people of all ages, allowing guests to interact with animals and learn about the world of farming. It even gives you information about farming’s history, being educational as well as fun. It also presents the opportunity to meet some rare breeds, being a home of rare breed conservation.
Whilst obviously best enjoyed in the summer if you want to go and see the pigs and cattle, the indoor barns are available for use all year round. There’s a maze, a farm safari and tractor school on site, so plenty to keep even the oldest of kids amused. After you’ve wondered around the farm you might want to have a rest in the restaurant and try some of the farm-brewed beer.
Things To Do
The list of things to do in Cheltenham and the Gloucestershire area is virtually unending, so it’s worth pointing out that this list is far from exhaustive. Obviously there’s some crossover too; if you head to Cotswold Farm Park, for example, then we could have put ‘feed the Old Spot Pigs’ on the list. Do as much and you can to get a real sense of Gloucestershire whilst you’re there.
Visit The Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum
Given the number of artistic festivals that Cheltenham holds during the year, from jazz to literature via music and art, it’s no surprise that the town’s art gallery and museum is well worth a visit. It’s a great way of getting a bit of culture and experiencing what Gloucestershire as a region has to offer. The venue is set over four floors so there’s plenty to see.
This is also the type of place that constantly renews itself. As well as regularly hosting exhibitions of regular artists, international and national shows are brought in as often as possible to keep things fresh. There’s also a concentration on the local heroes and names that have made the area famous over the years, such as Edward Wilson who worked with Scott on his 1912 expedition.
Go To See A Show
If you’re in Cheltenham then you absolutely must try to make time to go and see a show. The Everyman Theatre saw its curtain rise for the first time in 1891, offering visitors a look at the spectacular auditorium designed by theatre impresario Frank Matcham. Minor updates and modernisations have been introduced over the years, but otherwise it looks much the same.
The theatre plays host to a wide range of productions throughout the year, meaning that you could go on five different nights and see five different types of show. From ballet to opera, drama to dance, the Everyman has it all. There’s a bar and restaurant on site, so you don’t even have to leave the venue to get yourself fed and watered.
Walk With A Hawk
If you find that your blood is pumping and adrenaline was raised by watching the horses thunder their way around Prestbury Park then why not go on a little adventure of your own? In the heart of the Cotswolds you’ll have the opportunity to do just that, with the Walks With Hawks experience being one of the most loved things to do in all of Gloucestershire.
There are many different birds of prey on display, so the experience is likely to be different for each person. You can encounter an owl, for example, or have a bird land on your arm and look you in the eye. There are packages aimed at every age and each personality type, so even if you’re something of a scaredy-cat there’ll almost certainly be something for you to enjoy.
Ride A Steam Train
Nothing sums up the experience open to you by riding a steam train quite like the fact that it takes place on the Friendly Line in the Cotswolds. It is a chance to imagine what it must have been like to travel the country at the early part of the 1900s, riding in what were then top-of-the-range diesel railcars. They offer panoramic views of the gorgeous countryside.
It doesn’t even matter which direction you head in, given that one way you’ll climb up into the Cotswolds and the other you’ll see the Malverns and Wales. The stations on route have modern facilities, so your trip doesn’t have to be all about the years gone by. If you get your timing right and book in advance then you can even travel on a fish and chips special!
Drink Organic Cider
No trip to Gloucestershire would be complete without a lovely glass of cider. Rather than just heading to the nearest pub, though, why not learn something about what it is that you’re drinking and how it’s made? That’s what you can do if you go to Gloucestershire’s largest cidery, which is open to the public for tours and tastings.
It’s not just about the organic cider, either. When you go to the shop afterwards you’ll certainly be able to buy yourself some, trying from the bottle or the barrel before you commit, but there’s also organic bread, cheese and bespoke chutneys on offer. If you’re particularly minded to do so then you’ll be able to buy yourself a glass to drink your cider out of.
Go For A Swim
Most if not all towns around the country have a public swimming baths that can be used, but the one in Cheltenham is just a little bit different. A trip to Sandford Parks Lido will see you presented with one of the largest outdoor pools anywhere in the United Kingdom. Surrounded by landscaped gardens, it is also one of the most beautiful.
There’s a 50-metre main pool for those of you that want to take on an Olympic-style challenge, and if you’ve got kids then you’ll be grateful that there’s a smaller children’s pool and another for paddling. They’re all heated, whilst there are volleyball, basketball and table tennis areas surround the pool for when you’ve decided that it’s time to dry off.
Imagine Living As A Classical Composer
Ask most people where Gustav Holst was born and they would almost certainly say something like Austria or Germany. In actual fact, the composer of such world as the orchestral suite The Planets was born in Cheltenham and you can go and visit his birthplace. It is a time capsule of life in the 19th century, complete with a working Victorian kitchen and scullery.
You can cast your eyes upon a Regency sitting room, which was a popular place thing to experience when Cheltenham was a busy spa town. The music room in the building contains the piano that Holst used to compose the planets, as well as a guide to Holst’s life and times. There are activities for kids to get involved in, so everyone should enjoy the experience.