Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cheltenham in the Cotswolds

Looking for a quick getaway to the English countryside, Keenan and I found ourselves in the lovely town of Cheltenham on the foot of Cotswolds. We couldn't have picked a better weekend to visit "Britain’s most complete regency town"; the sun was brilliantly shining and autumn colours reign supreme in this elegant and sophisticated town. Strolling along the tree-lined Promenade whilst admiring the gorgeous white-painted facades of mansion villas adorned with wrought iron balconies, we made our way to the ritzy neighbourhood of Montpellier Gardens for The Times Literary Festival, one of four major festivals as part of the 'Cheltenham Festivals.' 

The Literary Festival is a ten-day celebration with over 400 events featuring award-winning authors, poets, journalists, food critics, and politicians. We were lucky to see former BBC war reporter Martin Bell read from his latest book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, a collection of witty poems based on his life and experiences where he mocks everything from Britney Spears, American baseball, women named Hope, Charity, and Faith, and the Kindles. Bell was not only hilarious, he also confessed that he was  completely smitten by Angelina Jolie whom he recently interviewed on her role as the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. His new book instantly sold out at the Waterstone tent, but we were still able to get his autograph on an official Cheltenham Literary Festival notecard. 

Coinciding with The Literary Festival was The Showcase Races, the first of eight fixtures at the world famous Cheltenham Racecourse, leading up to the most prestigious of all events in steeplechasing held in March, also confusingly named The Festival. This beautiful racecourse, set against a natural backdrop of the rolling Cotswolds hills, is conveniently located just a mile away from the town centre along Evesham Road near the the historic Pittville Pump Room. 


The atmosphere at The Showcase was far more low-key than the Royal Ascot, trading in whimsical fascinators and dresses in favour of warm wool coats and sturdy boots, but the spirit of the races reign supreme.  To feel the full excitement of the event, it is worth bringing some cash and head to the "bookie" to place bets on your favorite horse. Invest in a racecard to review the form (performance at previous races) of each horse and bring binoculars to follow all the action as the Cheltenham Racecourse is quite large. Some races were more exciting than others, especially towards the final jump when three or more horses are head-to-head. We even witnessed a jockey fall off his horse on the final jump, but the white horse still managed to finish at a competitive fifth place without his jockey. It was a great day out watching one of Britain's greatest sporting spectacles. 

The next day we took advantage of the weather and went for a long "hike" south of town to Leckhampton Hill in the "Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty." Walking pass beautiful Regency-style villas set back in the woods on Bath Road, this part of Cheltenham reminded me a lot of the Berkeley Hills in my native California. Just beautiful. The views from Leckhampton Hill overlooking Cheltenham were also amazing. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Brecon Beacons in Wales.

Roaming around the park, we eventually found Leckhampton Hill's famous landmark, the Devil's Chiminey, a peculiar limestone rock formation that resembled a twisted chimney. Legend holds that the Devil's Chimney is the chimney of the Devil's dwelling deep beneath the ground. After our leisurely hike, we went for a traditional Sunday roast at local pub called the Norwood Arm before heading back to London. A bit sad that our short weekend in Glouceshire came to an end but at least we know that the Cotswolds is just a short train ride away.

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