Beckingsale’s Passage = Normal Terrace
Normal Terrace is my all-time favourite Cheltenham street name. And before you ask, no, there’s no corresponding Abnormal Terrace or Freak Mews.
So how does a street get such a strange name? Well, I’m afraid the answer is quite ordinary. The lane runs through from the High Street to near the front of Gloucestershire University’s Francis Close campus in Swindon Road. Back in 1849, long before it was a university, the campus was a teacher training college known as the Church of England Normal College. Now you might still be wondering why the heck it was called Normal College. But that, believe it or not, was then the normal name for a teacher-training college. It referred to the fact that its students were trained to teach within an established set of educational standards, known as “norms”.
The street name Normal Terrace came into use some time around 1874, but the lane was originally called Beckingsale’s Passage. The old name lingered for a long time even after the new one was introduced, as you can see on the map above, which dates from 1921.
Arguably the oldest part of Normal Terrace is its entrance onto the High Street, because there has always been a gap in the terrace here. Originally it just led into the back gardens of High Street buildings before the lane itself was formed. There were also a couple of cottages at its northern end, but nothing connecting the two until the 1830s. The first indication I can find of its existence as a lane is the 1834 map, where it goes right through to Swindon Road, but unnamed.
The southern entrance is through a shop which has for many years been Hardings electrical shop, a wonderful old-fashioned emporium which will be forever ingrained in the town’s social history.
High Street shop front of Harding’s Electronic Components, with the southern end of Normal Terrace going right through the building via a lopsided doorway.
And a short way down the passage it opens up onto one of the most delightfully unspoiled pockets of working-class 19th century Cheltenham, just yards from the busy High Street.
This mini-courtyard features a decorated old iron pillar holding the corner of the building up, and the original flagstone pavement. I’m not sure what it was originally built for, but it’s some kind of small commercial building. It still has an old wooden trapdoor over a cellar … right in front of a door, which must surely have precipitated a mishap or two over the last 170 years.
And the next thing you get to is this cottage. The back part is an extension on a much older building, but its roof garden is one of the summer highlights of Normal Terrace. This winter photo doesn’t do it justice, but all credit to the residents for the care they put into making it such a gorgeous spectacle in summer.
It would appear that Normal Terrace has been built only on its west side, for the most part. The east side appears to have had stretches of open ground along it separating it from the backs of houses in St Paul’s Street South (a notorious slum area in Victorian times, regenerated in the 1930s).
The west side however has several short terraces of cottages. These shown below were already built by 1834, though others are from the 1860s (thanks Polly, for the comment below). Notice the “speckled” chequerwork pattern of the brick, interspersing the red bricks with yellow ones. This pattern is a regular feature among Cheltenham’s “artisan” houses. The one on the right still has its original railings. Though quite what the point was of fencing in a front yard that’s barely big enough for a person to squeeze into …
So much for Normal Terrace. You may be wondering how it came by its original name, Beckingsale’s Passage. It took the name from a grocer’s shop in the High Street, and it was certainly called that by 1847. Beckingsale’s was a well known shop in its day, even featured in George Rowe’s illustrated guide to the town, and purveyor of the “celebrated Royal Cheltenham sausages”.
Just to confuse matters, there was another Beckingsale’s in the High Street from 1864 onwards, but that one was opposite the Plough Hotel and traded as a shirt manufacturer offering “outfits for India and the Colonies”, with not a sausage in sight.
Just in case you still don’t believe the lane is really called that …
All photos taken January 2009