Saturday, February 17, 2018
Travel

England's Cheltenham stylish again

CHELTENHAM, England

On a chilly Saturday evening, a smartly dressed crowd gathered at a bar spilling out onto the terrace at No. 131 the Promenade, a boutique hotel in the center of this Cotswolds town. The mix of locals and tourists sipped drinks and nibbled on fried Spanish almonds, while eagerly waiting for a table at the property's hot restaurant (also called No. 131), which features locally sourced fare. • It was hard to believe from the vibrant scene last spring that just a few years ago this 18th century townhouse sat empty and dilapidated. But then, in a situation that's reflective of the city itself, there was a renewal, and buzz ensued.

About two hours west of London, Cheltenham, with a population of 110,000, is one of the biggest communities in the Cotswolds, a popular vacation spot for the British. And while much of the region is notable for sprawling meadows dotted with daffodils and storybook villages with cozy stone houses, Cheltenham feels more like a sophisticated minimetropolis.

Although its origins are medieval, the town became famous after the discovery of mineral waters in 1716, which attracted a stream of travelers including King George III and Jane Austen.

Then for much of the 19th century, it was known for the Regency architecture, characterized by wide streets lined with horse chestnut trees and elegant townhouses with stucco facades and wrought-iron balconies.

Although that appearance is still intact, Cheltenham's reputation as a spa haven faded in the last century and, apart from a nearby racetrack, it seemed to have lost its cachet. Other Cotswolds towns such as Gloucester became the hot ones to visit.

That has changed now with stylish new hotels, restaurants, art spaces and festivals infusing fresh vigor into the area.

Cheltenham's renaissance is partly credited to the husband and wife, Sam, 37, and Georgie Pearman, 42, who own No. 131. The couple said they moved to the Cotswolds from London more than eight years ago hoping to live at a slower, more fulfilling pace.

They found that outlet by starting a hospitality group that they named the Lucky Onion. Their first venture, about nine years ago, was a pub near the outskirts of downtown called the Tavern, a bright two-story space with exposed brick walls, wood floor boards and blue banquettes, serving seasonal and creative local food.

There are five Lucky Onion hotels and restaurants, but the showpiece is the chic No. 131, which opened in late 2013 on Imperial Square.

The couple spent nearly three years on the refurbishment, which blends past and present. Touches include antique radiators and cast iron bathtubs from the late 19th century in the 11 rooms, mixed with sleek velvet couches and modern artworks by British names like David Hockney in communal spaces.

The hotel's bilevel restaurant and its bar, Crazy Eights, is packed every weekend. Alan Gleeson, who was the head chef at the Michelin-recognized Cotswolds pub the Wild Rabbit, runs the kitchen.

"Where possible, a farm-to-fork approach is present across all of our menus," Gleeson said.

Another happening spot in Cheltenham is the 61-room Montpellier Chapter, in a Regency-era townhouse that's a five-minute walk from No. 131. The hotel does double duty as an art gallery: There are 160 contemporary paintings, prints and sculptures from established and up-and-coming names on display, like the multicolored glass block sculpture in the garden, which notable British artist Peter Fillingham constructed from 1.9 tons of material including ancient sandstone.

Indeed, the arts are a driving force behind Cheltenham's resurgence. The Wilson, an art gallery and museum, for example, reopened in late 2013 after being closed for more than two years for a $10 million expansion to a three-level space that's 20 times its original one-room size.

The arts scene extends to Cheltenham's several festivals, including ones for science, jazz and literature. Most have existed for a while but are enjoying newfound fame. The Literature Festival, for example, started in 1949 as a modest effort but is now a 10-day extravaganza that has drawn marquee names like Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel.

Not all of Cheltenham's festivals have a long history. Anna Saunders, 50, a longtime local resident and poet, founded one for poetry in 2011 to showcase the genre in a fun way. The lineup has included a children's workshop and hip-hop poetry.

Saunders has seen the festival, this year in May, grow from a four-day affair to a two-week celebration.

"I wanted to get across that poetry isn't just about traditional readings," she said. "With Cheltenham's growing appetite for culture, people seem to be really receptive to that."

     
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