A town called Alice: Cheltenham’s old England glow and lively Jewish community

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A town called Alice: Cheltenham’s old England glow and lively Jewish community

Lucy Daltroff visits Cheltenham, the town that is home to the races and a Jewish community

Estate agents often talk about location, size and amenities, but the particulars of one house sold in a Cheltenham suburb referred instead to an elaborate mirror on the landing. The property was once owned by Dr Henry Liddell, and his friend Lewis Carrol used to visit. It was this very mirror, or looking glass, that later became the inspiration for Carroll’s second story, written for Henry’s daughter Alice.

This old tale is no surprise, as Cheltenham has got an ‘old England’ glow to it, with its Regency architecture squares and well-laid-out streets. The town is just two hours’ drive from London and an excellent base from which to discover the pretty villages and attractive scenery of the Cotswolds. A good way to see it from afar is to climb up Cleeve Hill and take in the panoramic views. The less adventurous may get more out of visiting The Promenade, a wide and semi-pedestrianised street with many upscale high street shops.

Alfred Tennyson was once a resident, which may account for why the oldest literary festival is held in Cheltenham every year. It was the first of many festivals that now take place – a wide-ranging list that encompasses jazz, science and performing arts.

On the sporting calendar, the most famous is the Cheltenham Festival, which heralds the start of spring (whatever the weather!). The 28 races that make up the festival are the most hotly contested of the entire horse racing calendar, with around 500 horses competing for more than £6.12 million of prize money.

The week of Cheltenham races – which this year begin on 15 March – climaxes with the Gold Cup on Friday, while other highlights include the Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, the Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle on  the Thursday. It is 11 years since dentist Sam Waley-Cohen won with his horse Long Run, which also carried him to third place in 2012. The grandson of a baronet, Waley-Cohen was the first amateur jockey in 30 years to win the Gold Cup. His father, Robert, is the grandson of the president of the United Synagogue.

The interior of Cheltenham Synagogue, home to a small traditional community

Pittville Pump Room is the essence of the town. Cheltenham was just a sleepy place until the discovery of a spring in 1716, after which it became Britain’s most popular spa, enhanced further by the visit of George III and his queen in 1788.

Composer Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874. The family were musical and the house in which they lived is now a small but atmospheric museum dedicated to his life and work. A film shown on the upstairs landing gives a comprehensive biography, including information on his
love of India, while downstairs is the very piano on which he composed his most famous work, The Planets.

Near the centre of town, Synagogue Lane leads to a handsome Regency building completed in 1839 and home to a small traditional Orthodox Jewish community. I was shown around by chairman Jenny Silverston and her husband Alan, who explained that the building is Grade II listed, which makes it unique in Gloucestershire. They regularly welcome guests, ranging from local school children studying Judaism as part of the national curriculum, to visitors from all over the world. Weekly Friday night services are held as well as a long list of social events. I loved the wall panel containing the prayer for the Royal Family with Queen Victoria as the named monarch, but Jenny explained that it predates this, as during renovation the name George II was revealed underneath.


Pittville Pump Room

Cheltenham also has a growing Liberal community. A merger with surrounding neighbourhoods means membership has swelled to 175. Although they do not have a permanent building, Danny Rich is their part-time rabbi. There is also a cheder for 20 children and a lively social calendar.

Cheltenham Synagogue

Twenty minutes’ drive away is the recently restored Sudeley Castle – which opens on 7 March. The castle is the last resting place of Katherine Parr – the wife who survived Henry VIII – and her tomb is in the church. Katherine is the only English monarch to be buried on private land; after Henry’s death she married her fourth and final husband, Thomas, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley.

The castle is surrounded by 10 award-winning gardens, some with wicker sculptures depicting the dress and readings habits of the time. Quite unexpectedly, the grounds contain one of the largest public collections of rare pheasants. One, the Edward’s pheasant, has bred particularly well at Studley, boosting the captive population of this endangered group of birds.



Where to stay

In town

Queen’s Hotel

Regency-style Queens Hotel has 84 boutique-style bedrooms and Victoria’s restaurant on site. Originally opened on 21 July 1838, the same year as Queen Victoria’s coronation, the hotel was named in her honour. The Palladian façade faces one of Cheltenham’s most beautiful Georgian streets, and a variety of parks, including Sandford Park, Pittville Park and Imperial Gardens, are just a short walk away.

Rooms from £117 per night inclusive of breakfast.


Out of town

Ellenborough Park

A stunning 15th century manor house in glorious parkland, Ellenborough Park is just a few miles outside Cheltenham and right at the gateway to the Cotswolds. It features original flagstone flooring, wooden beams, vast open fireplaces that speak to its rich history and 61 luxury guest rooms with furnishings designed by Nina Campbell. Guests can take afternoon tea in the Great Hall, choose from a rich menu of sumptuous dishes in The Restaurant, or dine al fresco in the Cedar Pavilion Tent and in the hotel’s quirky dining carriages – fittingly reflecting the equestrian influence of neighbouring Cheltenham. Dog-friendly rooms make it the perfect countryside retreat for all.

Rooms from £299 per night inclusive of breakfast.


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