Photos taken October 2008
Once upon a time there were railway stations at Lansdown, Malvern Road, the Lower High Street, Charlton Kings and Leckhampton, with an additional mini-station at Hunting Butts by the racecourse. Now there’s just the one, Lansdown. It’s not called Lansdown station any more, it’s been promoted to Cheltenham Spa station. And as Cheltenham’s only remaining station, it’s bloody inconvenient in being beyond reasonable walking distance from the town. But given that it was recently jeopardised by a threat to build a new combined Cheltenham and Gloucester station on greenbelt land between the two towns which is not convenient for anybody and would ludicrously make rail passengers dependent on road transport to get there, I suppose we ought to be grateful for it.
Queen Victoria doesn’t seem to have been all that grateful for it, according to a report in the Illustrated London News of 6th October 1849 of her exceedingly brief visit. They even printed an engraving of the happy scene as the royal train trundled through the hordes of cheering admirers.
The same spot 150 years later …
The Queen was on her way back from her famous tour of the Scottish Highlands, and made a number of stops en route. The ILN reported:
ARRIVAL AT CHELTENHAM
Cheltenham was the next important station through which the Royal party passed; and here the whole population of the place appeared to be on the railway, the embankments for more than a mile being densely crowded with spectators. There was no stoppage at this place, but, through the kindness of her Majesty, the train was allowed to proceed at a very moderate speed for some distance.
She was obliged to stop at Gloucester, however, where “the break of gauge rendered it necessary for her Majesty to alight from the carriage she had previously occupied”. This is because of the incompatibility of the railway tracks used by rival companies at that time. Gloucester was the meeting point of the Bristol and Gloucester Railway which ran on Brunel’s superior broad-gauge rails with the Gloucester and Birmingham Railway which used the cheaper narrow-gauge system. Anyone wanting to travel through Gloucester had to change trains because the broad-gauge trains couldn’t run on the narrower tracks. Within a few years economy prevailed over comfort, and now the whole UK rail network uses narrow-gauge.
Cheltenham station was first opened on 24th June 1840. But not without protest.
It seems churlish to criticise the Revd Francis Close when 170 years after his time the town is still burgeoning on his benevolence, but it has to be said the man was an evangelical wingnut. One of the many spoilsport measures he lobbied for was to keep Cheltenham unsullied by the railways. He tried to stop the railway being built, and after losing that fight he did manage to ban trains from stopping at Cheltenham on a Sunday. That byelaw was overturned a long time ago, though you wouldn’t know it from the current Sunday timetable.
Relatively little has changed since the 1840s. The original footbridge over the tracks has been replaced, and many of the old outbuildings and engine sheds have been demolished, but Cheltenham station has held on to a lot of its original features. The iron pillars with their decorative brackets are an attractive relic, now painted in this rather jolly pink, purple and white. It wasn’t an aesthetic choice, these colours are the corporate branding of First Great Western, the train company which runs the station. These brackets are old, but they’re not the original ones from the 1840 station. Some of the originals do survive … I’ll try to get a photo next time I’m passing that way.
In the background of the picture you can also see some of the station’s old gas lamps, many of which still survive (no longer gas powered, of course).
The main station building itself is a lovely Regency specimen designed by Samuel Whitfield Daukes, an esteemed architect responsible for many of Cheltenham’s fine villas. It originally had a spectacular stone portico at the front supported on a hefty row of Doric columns. Regrettably the powers in charge of the station in 1961 had it removed and replaced with the present boring wooden canopy. Eejits.
Only one half-column of the old portico survives, much weathered and chipped.
A final note on the station. It is one of the only instances of the town being known as Cheltenham Spa. Apparently the G.W.R. railway executives of yesteryear felt it conveyed a bit of glamour and the name has stuck to this day, much to the confusion of many rail passengers who don’t realise that the town isn’t actually called that.