1820 map showing Chester Walk (just legible above and to the right of the churchyard) and its wider environs when the town was in its infancy. Clarence Street was then merely a stump occupied by a terrace called Bedford Buildings, leading up to the Royal Crescent via Crescent Place. The Promenade was newly formed and marked as Sherborne Rides and Walks. At the bottom of the map is the High Street, complete with grammar school, and to the right is St George’s Place. The letter ‘g’ half way up St George’s Place shows the location of Chester House, after which Chester Walk was probably named.
Chester Walk today is a little lane running round the back of the library (here it is on a Victorian sign on the library wall), though actually the library has occupied only a small part of its long history.
Cheltenham Library was built in 1887, requiring the demolition of a chunk of the Bedford Buildings terrace shown on the map above.
At the time the library was built there was a dense row of houses all the way along both sides of Chester Walk. A contemporary photograph taken during the laying of the library’s foundation stone shows the north side of Chester Walk having a slightly tatty terrace of two storey cottages with a taller three storey terrace beyond it. Behind this cluster of housing was a mews yard, which later became a bakery, the premises of Worth’s Food Works. In 1901 it was taken over by Cheltine Food, another local food company specialising in the diets of invalids and diabetics. The company continued to trade there until 1973.
It’s likely that Chester Walk started out some considerable time ago as an unnamed pathway to the parish church, and took its moniker from a house built about 1800 which stood in St George’s Place facing its entrance. The house was called Chester House and was most likely named after a prominent local family, of whom the Revd John Chester was headmaster of the nearby grammar school from 1763-80. From 1816 it was the home of one of Cheltenham’s most celebrated Regency rakes, Colonel Berkeley (1786-1857) and the house became a major social hub of the era. He set up home there with his mistress, a teenage actress called Maria Foote, and led a colourful life, generous in his support of the arts and taking full advantage of the licentious and bohemian spirit of the Regency period, as well as being active in local politics and serving as a magistrate. His relationship with Maria Foote only lasted eight years but he paid her off with a generous allowance of £1000 a year and she eventually married into the peerage. Sadly Chester House was lost during Cheltenham’s post-war demolition mania and its site used as a small car park, though more recently it has had a Regency-replica terrace built in its place which is much less of an eyesore.
Until the early 1800s there was very little going on here, just a lane through a field. Development started on the south side of the Walk, initially overlooking mostly gardens on the north side and a little chunk of arable land called Football Close. How the latter got its name is unknown, but it was called that at least as far back as 1605.
The corner facing onto St George’s Place (on the north side opposite the library) was occupied by the Horse and Groom tavern from its earliest days, and the building is one of Cheltenham’s few surviving 18th century pubs – although it’s no longer a pub. It closed some time around 1970 and was for many years afterwards occupied by a print and photocopying shop, while the upper floor was the studio of art restorer Nigel Cole. The name of the pub is immortalised on an engraved stone plaque on the front corner, although this section of the pub is a later extension dating from about 1870, and built on the site of what had been a small garden.
The first reference to Chester Walk by name is in 1812, which is probably when the first cottages on the south side were built, disapprovingly referred to by a town surveyor at that time as ‘a nest of houses now erecting by a gentleman in Chester Walk’. The north side was occupied only by a single house, right next to the churchyard, whose site is now recognisable only by a change in the ground level.
It seems that around that time there was also a Chester Passage, as there’s a reference in the Paving Commissioners’ minutes in 1817 to the removal of some posts there. Perhaps it was an alleyway between the old cottages.
The mews complex (or Cheltine Food site as it was during its last incarnation) was demolished in 1987 and made into a couple of scruffy car parks. At the front of the bigger car park the Music Library was built, as shown below. I have mixed feelings about the Music Library … being a musician I find it a great asset to the town but its plasticky 1980s design is a strangely incongruous thing to dump into this ancient churchyard lane.
The photo below is taken from in front of the Music Library. These two cottages of c.1812 were once part of a terrace, some of whose lower remains are still detectable by their surviving doorways. They’ve been in this condition for as long as I can remember … certainly when I was living in St George’s Place in 1992 in a tiny bedsit I used to walk past them on a daily basis and wish I could have one of them so I could do it up and live in it. As it is, they have remained homes for buddleias.
And behind the Music Library … the Cheltine Food site, now a large empty expanse of shabby car park overlooked by the backs of houses in St George’s Place.
These houses on the left look old but actually only the right hand two are original, dating from the 1790s. The terrace included the home (from 1795 to 1820) of Dr Edward Jenner who discovered vaccination, an important part of Cheltenham’s heritage until some dunderheaded eejits on the planning committee in 1969 allowed Jenner’s house and its neighbour to be demolished. So lamented was this stupid decision that a replica was built in 1994, part of a positive general trend towards reconstructing Cheltenham’s neoclassical streescape. Sadly this initiative seems to have foundered in the last few years, with the council once again happy to let developers slap up tasteless postmodern tat everywhere. But at least this cluster here shows that sensitive modern development can be done.
Below is the one remaining unspoiled view, looking back towards Chester Walk from the churchyard, where it bends round into Well Walk. The corner building here still has its lovely 19th century shopfront and has housed a Thai restaurant for a number of years now. But before the second world war it was a pawnbroker’s shop. In the background is the tower of the library. See how tiny those two uninhabited cottages look, sandwiched between the tall Regency endhouse and the back of the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.
If you look carefully at the grassy area you’ll see that the ground level ramps up at the back. This marks the site of an old house (shown as far back as the 1806 map) known as the Manor House – although it wasn’t a manor house at all – which was demolished for churchyard expansion. Notice also the “dragon and onion” street lamp on the left just inside the churchyard. This is one of a handful which still survive in the town, though the bases of a few more can also be found if you look out for them. The lamps were designed in the 1890s by the very aesthetic-minded borough engineer, Joseph Hall, and are quite exquisitely dramatic in style and detail.
1806 map (oriented with south-west at the top). The area was much less built up here than it was on the 1820 map above. Well Walk went streaming away across the empty fields and Chester Walk was a simple link lane to St George’s Place and almost unbuilt. Clarence Street didn’t exist and in its place was the Great House, built in 1730 for Lady Stapleton and formerly the heart of 18th century Cheltenham social life … it stood on the site now occupied by St Matthew’s church. In St George’s Place, the short terrace with the semicircle in front was where Dr Jenner lived. The semicircle was a carriage-turning area. Dr Jenner bought the plot of land behind the semicircle to use as a private garden, to supplement the small one already at the back of his house. Later in the 19th century the gardens were built on, forming a cul-de-sac called Jenner Walk. (See the article Jenner Walk, Jenner Gardens for more on the fascinating history of that area.)
1921 map, with all its amazing detail. The backside of the library was by this time the main occupant of the lane, but the older buildings are pretty tightly packed in too! By this time the house on the opposite corner facing Well Walk had been demolished and its site taken up by expansion of the churchyard. But the Cheltine Food site was still alive and kicking, on the site of the current Music Library and the car park. Below the churchyard you might also notice the old terrace around the curve of Clarence Street. A whole swathe of these (including the entire east side of Well Walk) were demolished in the 1960s to accommodate the vast bulk and saggy brutalism of the former Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society offices, whose bland backside even swallowed up the lower part of Church Lane … one of Cheltenham’s only medieval streets! Those few years were truly a nightmare of developmental insanity.
All photos taken December 2008