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We had decided to move to Bath Spa for some very good reasons. It was closer to most of our friends who lived within an easy drive from there, it offered more potential for our cultural interests and, even more importantly, it is the home of Barf Rugby - a team I have followed since I was a callow youth being schooled in the heart of Somerset.
We made many trips down there over a period of months and discovered there were lots of other people with the same aspirations, the result being that properties are over priced and those within our budget were not a patch on our nice little cottage and garden in Bridgnorth. We eventually widened our horizons and looked at property in Cheltenham Spa which is only just over an hour by train and even less if driving, from Bath. It is a lovely Regency city offering even more cultural potential and is also situated in a central position for getting to Gloucester, Worcester and the Wasps Ricoh stadium to watch Barf Rugby away games!!
Just over an hours drive from Bridgnorth when the M5 is not jammed up, it involved less driving to visit potential properties. There seemed to be far more acceptable properties on the market and we eventually found a couple of flats with access to sittie outie spaces on the rare occasions the English weather allowed. The first one we both agreed suited us, a modern extension of a large Victorian house and although it was smallish and only had a small wooden deck outside, it was just off the Lansdown Road with a bus into the city centre every 10 minutes and the same rent we were paying in Bridgnorth.
The second flat was in Lansdown Road within walking distance of the city centre in the Regency property shown in the photograph above. More expensive but the rooms were huge and it had a nice balcony facing South we could sit out on with a big communal garden. The managing agent told us there was an eclectic mix of tenants in the other flats including a few spooks who worked in GCHQ out on the Gloucester Road! The clincher for Sue was room for a dishwasher in the kitchen plus the elegant ballroom of a lounge so we said yes on the spot and paid the agency fee to hold it. We hated to leave our Bridgnorth cottage and having to give notice to our landlord David but we arranged to move in before we went on holiday in three weeks.
Late in September we employed MD Removals of Wolverhampton to move us from Bridgnorth, Shropshire to Cheltenham in Gloucestershire 50 miles South. Moving house is supposed to be the most stressful time of your life but Dimitri and Andre, who were about as unlike a Greek or Frenchman as Lenny Henry, told us to relax and let them take the strain!
We had collected the keys to our new home the previous day and deposited a car load of stuff there. On our return we had reloaded the car with more, such was our worry that the removal van was not big enough. We had elected to pack everything ourselves and Andre assured us that this was an easy move for them with what we had done and there would be plenty of room in the van.
Sure enough we need not have worried and by early afternoon we were ensconced in our new flat surrounded by packing cases. The whole move was relatively stress free thanks to MD Removals for completing a very professional and efficient operation.
The next morning we explored the little village until it began to rain so we adjourned to a bar and met Joan and Mo, local expats, who gave us the lowdown on the local walks and best eateries. The rain continued for the rest of the day and we needed a complete change of clothes after we made it back to the hotel.
We had the seafood special platter in the restaurant that night with a bottle of Cava as it was Sue's birthday and the main reason for this trip. Breakfast at the hotel was plentiful and included a cooked breakfast buffet but it was always cold so spoilt the enjoyment. Cold baked beans and squeaky bacon are the pits!
The next day was set fair and we climbed up to an old mine near the top of a mountain following a well made road with an easy gradient which was relatively easy. I had pulled a calf muscle a couple of weeks earlier and the house move had not helped so I sort of hobbled up and down. Being a glutton for punishment we walked over the mountain to Port de Pollença next day and that really knackered my leg so we found ourselves a cafe next to the bus stop and spent the afternoon there consuming a couple of litres of Sangria and a few Tapas before catching the bus back.
Sure enough a raucous band of expat English and Welsh pensioners turned up for the game on Saturday. The English were in the majority and the bar owner supported England and Wales in the proportion of optimising his income! He served me a plate of the best Gambas I have eaten in a long time and Sue was equally pleased with her grilled Sole. The England Rugby Team were, as expected, dominant for most of the game and after an hour the Welsh 22 looked like the aftermath of a medieval battle with two stretchered off and one managing to walk with an injured shoulder. How we managed to lose that game is still a mystery but you would have to blame the coach for his substitutions. We were eight points ahead at that stage but managed to lose by three points after Captain Robshaw made the wrong decision to go for try instead of a simple penalty kick for a draw. Robshaw has previous in these sort of decisions.
Even if Ford had missed the penalty kick we would have had a second chance at a try as the restart would have resulted in England possession.
The Welsh supporters went crazy as even they thought they could not win the game but they did and I wished I was Welsh as their team were stupendous!
Pollença as opposed to the Port was a little Majorcan treasure where we went on the Sunday after that crushing defeat. Sunday was market day and it was mobbed by locals and tourists. The town was originally settled by the Romans but it was the Catalans who founded the present town in the 13th century and the Cathedral in the centre was built by the Knights Templar. We climbed the 365 steps up to the Calvary Chapel where you have a great view of the surrounding countryside and sat and listened to a really good Flamenco guitarist.
On our last day in Majorca we caught the bus to Port de Pollença. During the Spanish Civil War a group of German aircraftmen called the Condor Legion were based here and the military base still exists, now used for fire fighting amphibious aircraft. These were much in evidence during our visit practising scooping up water from the bay and making a great deal of noise in the process. We observed this activity from a bar at the SisPins Hotel where we sat and drank two small beers each and were charged €21.70, over twice to going price in other beach hotels! We then experienced a violent thunderstorm and discovered that the bus shelter leaked like a sieve! Fortunately we had come prepared with our waterproofs but there were a lot of shivering tourists getting very wet around us!
Our return flight was delayed but by and large Ryanair did the business and the UK weather was warm and sunny on our return with Majorca forecast to have torrential rain over the next few days so we timed it just right.
We lost no time in taking advantage of our new location and booked at the Everyman Theatre the following week for 'Before the Party', a play by Rodney Ackland starring Tom Conti.
Cheltenham Spa, where we now live, is a leafy Regency town with some interesting and attractive buildings, parks and gardens. The Regency period in the UK is considered to be the years between 1811 and 1820 when George III went slightly mad and his son ruled as The Prince Regent. He eventually became George IV when his father died in 1820. The period was known for its appreciation of the fine arts and architecture, for example the Brighton Pavilion, Regent Street in London and Bath Spa but Cheltenham is the most complete Regency town of them all. It had an estimated population in 2014 of just over 116,000.
Having lived in Edinburgh for 20 years, we feel at home here and, just like Edinburgh, it is a festival town, the principle one being the National Hunt Gold Cup horse race which has the second highest prize money after the Grand National at Aintree. This Cheltenham Festival originated in 1860 and is held in March when the Irish come over in their tens of thousands, filling the pubs and the pockets of the townsfolk apart from betting a quarter of a billion pounds on the horses! Whoever it was who decided to hold a horse race on St Patricks Day knew a thing or two about the Irish!
The town also has a Jazz Festival in April/May a Science festival in June, a classical music festival in July and finally a literature festival in October which has just finished. It has two thriving theatres, the town hall for orchestral concerts and Pittville Pump Rooms for chamber concerts. Of course if we need our batteries charging in a real city, the number 64 bus runs into Gloucester 8 miles distant every 10 minutes past our front door! The same bus takes us into Cheltenham town centre in 5 minutes or we can walk.
Gustav Holst was born here in 1874. He completed his Planets Suite in 1916 for which he is most remembered, in particular the central melody from "Jupiter" which was eventually used for the hymn "I vow to thee my country".
It is now used by the IRB entitled "The World in Union" and for the 2015 Rugby World Cup we were treated to a Paloma Faith version which would have had Holst turning in his grave! There was even a petition started to try and get ITV to stop using it! I am personally in favour of using the original hymn as the English national anthem, the present dirge being unsuitable and is really the UK anthem, not the English and quite disrespectful to the Scots, not that I mind that at a Calcutta Cup game!
The photograph on the right is of the council offices on the promenade. The statue in the foreground is of Edward Wilson who was another famous son of Cheltenham and was part of Captain Scotts ill fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
Cheltenham nestles just under the lee of the Cotswold Hills within easy reach of Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water, not too far away from my Great Grandfathers birthplace at Great Rissington where we visited in August.
A short walk down the road from our flat is the railway station where you can catch a train into Bristol Temple Meads which takes about 40 minutes or Bath Spa in an hour. We also have a National Express coach service to Heathrow which gets you there in two hours putting an end to the hassle of driving and expense of parking for our next trip abroad.
Local pubs abound. The best we have found so far is the Jolly Brewmaster in Painswick Road. This is a real pub pub with several great beers and ciders on handpump. Apart from the occasional BBQ in the back garden they do not serve food either. It has funny opening hours, doesn't open until 2pm but there were a few locals drinking there just after when we first found it. We took the Harpers there one afternoon and by 5pm it was heaving.
If you walk along Cheltenhams promenade you will come across this rather unusual bronze sculpture. It is by Gloucestershire artist Sophie Ryder and was created in 1995 as part of an exhibition in the local Art Gallery. Sophie is known for her creations of mythical creatures with part human features and is famously known for a work entitled "Lady Hare". The exhibition was so popular with the public that a campaign was mounted to acquire one of Sophies works and, "The Hare and the Minotaur" was acquired by public subscription in 1998. Someone once painted the Minotaurs testicles green much to the consternation of the Cheltenham ladies!
When our friend Sally Harper first saw the sculpture she jumped up and down in excitement, such is the effect it has on people?
On one bright sunny Sunday we explored the Pittville area of Cheltenham. It gets its name from Joseph Pitt (1759 - 1842), MP for Cricklade and a Gloucestershire solicitor who developed the area in the 1820's. Pitt decided it would be a place of desirable residences to compete with the then established Montpellier Spa with restrictions on manufacture, trade and business so none of your riff-raff! His original plan was for 500 - 600 houses but only just over 200 were eventually built.
The surrounding parkland was only open to owners and occupiers of the estate and servants were only permitted to walk there if accompanied by their employers or children. Visitors and non-residents could subscribe to take the waters or use the rides, drives and walks for the six month season which for a family in 1830 cost £ 2-2 shillings, around £170 in todays money so still none of 'yer riff-raff then!
By 1888 the whole operation was deemed uncommercial so Cheltenham Council bought the pump room and 44 acres of gardens but visitors continued to pay an admission charge to the gardens until 1954. In 1890 Wymans Brook running across in front of the pump room was dammed to create the upper lake and during WW2 the area between the lake and the pump room was used by the US Army as a storage depot and covered with Nissen huts. By the time they left the pump room was in an advanced state of disrepair and under threat of demolition but was eventually restored and reopened to the public in 1960.
It is now used extensively as a venue for exhibitions, concerts and dinners and has a stunning interior whilst the surrounding Pittville Park is a splendid recreation amenity with boat hire on the lower lake, childrens play areas and lovely gardens. There are also tennis courts, a pitch and putt course and a skateboard park. There are two cafes and you can even fish in the lake in the season.
At the top of the hill the whole of Cheltenham is laid out before you with the Cotswolds stretching away to the North and away to the left the dark outline of the Malvern Hills.
Walking back towards the South you arrive at one of the numerous hill forts built by the Dubonii tribe from about 900BC and a large quarry where the quarrymen left a pile of stones now known as the Devils Chimney. Qurrying began in 1617 and continued until 1926. Stone was transported down an inclined plane railway whose path we followed back to our car. Earlier this year a local wag had rearranged some stones in the shape of a male appendage as can be seen from the photograph above left but we saw no evidence of it on this walk!
The World Cup Final ended as predicted with New Zealand beating Australia 34-17, well deserved and ably refereed by Welshman Nigel Owens, one of the best. Unfortunately my Barf boys were again beaten, this time at home to Quinns 28-38 so it is back to the drawing board at the Rec.
On Sunday we joined 20 others in two mini buses to attend the Cliffords celebration lunch where we enjoyed some fine cuisine; Cornish Red Mullet, Sea Bass and Monkfish with a delicate Carrot, Orange and Saffron sauce for starters tempted our taste buds followed by Roasted Guineafowl with a Wild Mushroom Risotto that really had the juices flowing. To finish the meal we were treated to a Blackberry Mousse with Pear and Blackberry Sorbet's followed by Petit Fours with the coffee.
Unfortunately we were sat next to Declan who is well known to be "ab/cd" as we do say in Somerset. At our barge warming ten years ago he was photographed kissing Jeremy and fondling the lovely Anna's breasts!
Peter Allsop gave us a rendition of a song he had written for the occasion then the South Petherton Choir sang another of Peters songs based on the Wurzels "Twice Daily" but with the words adapted to reflect the Cliffords 50 years together. By this time after prodigious quantities of wine, Jeremy was in "bollocks" mode and stumbled through a speech culminating in the presentation of a bronze medal to Ann embossed with the words "Well Done" which he reckoned she deserved for putting up with him for so long!
The celebrations continued in the evening at the Clifford residence with more drinking and singing including a performance of a song Peter had written about Pethertonians and a verse about me which he must have written that day as it was the first time we had met.
The hill is known as Cleeve Common and most of it is a golf course but you would have to be fairly hardy to want to play it as it is also the highest hill in the Cotswolds at 330m above sea level with no protection from the wind and rain coming in over the Welsh mountains over the winter months.
A large car park is provided in a disused quarry at the end of the tarmac road and we set off first along the Winchcombe Way along the Eastern side of the common. The weather was overcast with a strong wind from the South West and 'er indoors was quickly into moaning mode!
It is Gloucestershires largest area of common (1000 acres) but is not actually a common at all being privately owned. It is also an area of special scientific interest as there is very little unimproved limestone grassland left on the Cotswolds. Prior to 1935, such grassland accounted for over 40% of the Cotswolds: today the figure is only 1.5%.
On joining the Cotswold Way we were met by a little Japanese guy who asked us to complete a survey questionnaire on the reasons we were walking and what maps and other aids we use. I had downloaded the local OS map onto my smartphone and had intended to use it that day but my battery had gone flat so it was on charge.
The Ordnance Survey have come on by leaps and bounds in the last few years and each time you buy a paper map you can download a digital version for use on your laptop or smartphone. Also, for the princely sum of £17.95 you can subscribe for a year to access all OS maps in the UK on-line.
For that you can view and print OS maps on your computer, tablet or smartphone web browser. Create and share your own walking, cycling and running routes and import or export routes to any GPS device. In addition you can get over 400,000 routes from OS Maps users, Good Pub Guide, Country Walking and Trail Magazine with information on local pubs, cafés, hotels and more.
There are great views now over Cheltenham and the Severn Valley as you walk along the top of the near vertical scarp face of the hill looking down at Bishops Cleeve below and the dark outline of the Malverns in the distance. Here we came on a Kestrel hovering level with us and only a few yards away then suddenly dropping like a stone to the bottom of the cliff to collect his prey.
You pass through an iron age fort with its double line of defence ditches arranged in a semi-circle as there was no need to defend the steep scarp face with glorious views across Cheltenham to Leckhampton Hill, the subject of our previous walk along the Cotswold Way.
Our next treat was a play by Terence Rattigan at the Playhouse Theatre which was not really my cup of tea. This was our first visit to this theatre and I was struck by the playing of the national anthem prior to the curtain up, something that is unusual these days and perhaps part of the Cheltenham experience!
The following day we went off down to Brissle (Bristol) on the train. We had watched the John Wilson Orchestra play Gershwin at the Proms on the TV and had tried to book one of his concerts at Birmingham Symphony Hall before we left Bridgnorth but it was a sell out. After moving down to Cheltenham we were within commuting distance of Bristol and were able to get a couple of the few seats left but right up in the rear balcony at Colston Hall.
John Wilson is a Geordie who specialises in big band jazz and orchestral arrangements of film music and Broadway songs. He tours with his huge orchestra which includes two concert grand piano's and a full jazz band in addition to all the regular instruments of a classical orchestra. Here is a video of their 2012 proms concert featuring Broadway hits.
This concert was entitled Gershwin in Hollywood and included much of Gershwins film music including the "Brissle Premial" of Gershwins New York Rhapsody also known as his second rhapsody for piano and orchestra which is rarely played. Here it is played by Christina Ortiz with the London Symphony.
The concert also featured singer soloists Louise Dearman and Matt Ford and for me the highlight of the show was Louise singing ‘Someone to watch over me’ which she sang unaccompanied right through until the orchestra came in at the end. Lovely voice and here is a video of her singing from a 2013 DVD release.
Crosscountry Trains conveyed us on schedule in about 40 minutes from Cheltenham Spa to Bristol Temple Meads for the very reasonable off peak return fare of £9 each from where it is a 20 minute walk to the centre where we indulged in a pre-theatre meal at a Lebanese restaurant in Small Street, the Mezze Palace where Sue tucked into a grilled Sea Bass and I chose grilled prawns, both with a spicy sauce washed down with a citrusy Lebanese dry white wine. Just the job but I can not deny that my focus was affected from a rear seat of the balcony in the Colston Hall!
Our theatre going continued with another visit to the Everyman to see the West End smash hit comedy, although more of a political satire, by Moira Buffini, entitled Handbagged. The tour finishes in Barf on 30th November but if you ever get a chance to see it in the future you should as it is hilarious.
It relates to conversations which might have happened between Mrs Thatcher and the Queen as it was suspected that the two of them did not exactly see eye to eye. Susie Blake of Mrs Browns Boys fame played the elder Queen and Kate Fahy was a really believable older Maggie. The younger Queen and Maggie were played by Emma Handy and Sanchia McCormack while Asif Khan and Richard Teverson played every male person that ever came into contact with the ladies from a palace footman to the "dead sheep". Asif also gave a completely unbelievable version of Nancy Regan, beard and all!
The audience clapped quite often when Maggie gave us one of her lectures. Well we are in Cheltenham don't yer know!
That same week us culture vultures found ourselves in Cheltenham Town Hall for a concert by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra featuring the violin soloist Nicola Benedetti.
The venue is supposed to have some of the best acoustics of anywhere but the sound volume of such a large orchestra in an enclosed space which is much smaller than a normal concert hall caused my hearing aids to whistle along with them to the extent that Sue could hear the whistle sitting next to me!
The concert began with Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture, a stern test for the most accomplished ensemble and one that this orchestra completed to perfection. It was also a good warm up for the violinists who then accompanied the lovely Nicola in the Violin Concerto in A minor by Alexander Glazunov.
This was the first time I had heard the piece and it seemed a stern test for the soloist. It is divided into four movements but there is no pause between them and each one leads seamlessly into the other. Just before the final movement there is a cadenza that gives the soloist free reign to improvise and boy did she show us her virtuosity here. The audience, however, did not seem to appreciate the music as much as I did, judging from the conversation around me and the applause was not enough to convince Nicola to give us an encore. As both pieces were quite short, the interval came after only 40 minutes.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Elgar's Enigma Variations, played with much enthusiasm and great feeling in the case of the Nimrod variation but, once again, despite, this time, enthusiastic applause, no encore and we found ourselves out on the street after an hour and a half which included a 15 minute interval. We felt short changed!
Benedetti is back next July for the Cheltenham Music Festival with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as is Evelyn Glennie and John Wilson but he is doing his Gershwin in Hollywood which we have just seen at Colston Hall. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Chamber Choir are also on the bill which should be interesting.
At the end of November we were supposed to start Winter but the weather remained remarkably mild but click here for the latest chapter.
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