An easily overlooked footpath between Sandford Park and the town centre, Vernon Place is among Cheltenham’s oldest lanes – one of the few predating the Regency development of the town. It served as a path to the town’s principle mill which has occupied the same site on the River Chelt since Domesday and probably earlier, and although the mill is disused and the lane half-forgotten, it still serves the same function today. It doesn’t have a lot of features in it these days; there were residential dwellings there at one time but very few are left, and much of it is too narrow for cars. So it just serves as a pedestrian walkway from Sandford Park to the top end of Bath Road, following closely along the outline of the ancient millpond which can be heard tumbling over the weir below.
1921 map. The area shown here as ‘Recreation Ground’ is what we now know as Sandford Park, which was laid out in 1927. The River Chelt runs parallel with the High Street (top right) and then does a bit of wild meandering before disappearing into a culvert under Bath Road, which is the wide road with the tramway on the left. Notice how the tramway doesn’t connect up with the High Street, but veers off to the left into Bath Street. This is a clue to a historic change in the road layout, because originally the top section of Bath Road didn’t exist. Imagine a T-junction formed by Bath Street and Vernon Place, with no direct connection to the High Street! Difficult to get your head round that idea today, but that’s how it was from the time the Bath Road was created in 1813 up until 1854 when a link was finally bashed through into the High Street, enabling the delightful 90° bend in the inner ring road that we know and love today.
This is the pretty end of Vernon Place, viewed from the footpath in Sandford Park – though actually Vernon Place proper starts on the other side of the white house on the right. Straight ahead is the historic building known as Barrett’s Mill – undergoing renovation work when this picture was taken. To the right of the green railings, just out of view, is the River Chelt sliding along beside the path and under a bridge (where the brick balustrade is) to come out into the millpond and weir on the other side. For years I wondered why Cheltenham Borough Council always paint municipal railings in a lurid shade of green; however I’ve since learned that, whatever the reason, there’s a historic authenticity to it. Much of the town’s fancy ironwork was painted green during the Regency period, as well as the classic black that everybody these days assumes is authentic. Notice also the fine old cast iron bollard, currently sporting a new black and white paint job.
Barrett’s Mill is a topic worthy of its own article (coming soon). There have been several mills in Cheltenham but this one has always been the most important, as indicated by its naming on early maps (1806, 1820) as Cheltenham Mill. In earlier times it was known as Cambray Mill. No doubt it has been rebuilt many times, and the current building appears to date from the early 19th century. The current name refers to one of its owners, William Humphris Barrett, who was the miller there in the early decades of the 19th century and whose family had held the mill since at least 1763. Barrett was an influential figure in the town during the early Regency years and so his name has stuck, not only to the mill itself but in the tiny lane leading to it from the High Street, preserved in misspelled form as Barratt’s Mill Lane.
1806 map, with a few extra annotations, showing Cheltenham Mill (Barrett’s Mill) and Vernon Place, the curvy lane running past Vernon House. The orientation is roughly the opposite way up from the 1921 map above, so it’s a bit confusing. But it does show how the Bath Road once didn’t connect up to the High Street at all – and how Vernon Place and Bath Street (where ‘Mr King MC’ is written) were once part of the same street. The only development in Vernon Place was Vernon House and its adjoining Vernon Cottage, plus a house called Cambray Lodge on the corner facing onto Bath Road.
In days of yore the mill served a function not only for grinding corn but also for municipal street cleaning. It was ‘the custom which hath ever been used beyond the memory of man’ for the River Chelt to flow straight down the High Street, which could only be crossed by means of stepping stones in a few strategic places. The river was channelled from the millpond in controlled amounts down the street where it served as the town’s main communal laundry facility. Then on certain days of the week the miller would open a sluice to give the whole High Street a good flushing. If this wasn’t done, the street soon became stinky and clogged up with mud and worse. The reluctance of successive generations of millers to fulfil this obligation is evidenced in repeated court orders from the Middle Ages onward, presumably because the loss of water left them short of milling whoomph. For example, in 1560 the miller Richard Pate (now there’s a name familiar in the town even today) was ordered to “allow the water to flow at his mill through a board with three holes continually and once in the week the whole stream, so that the common stream may be used according to the ancient custom’ (Hart, p.64). Shortly afterwards, in 1567, the tenant miller Edward Barthiam was threatened with a fine of 100 shillings and subjected to weekly inspections by the bailiff in an attempt to force him to keep the millpond sufficiently topped up to serve the town’s water needs. These legal conflicts continued with successive millers right up until the time the Chelt was diverted away from the High Street in about 1787, and then flared up all over again in the early years of the 19th century when the Town Commissioners attempted, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to force the recalcitrant Mr Barrett to resume the practice of street flushing.
The millpond viewed through a gap in the trees in Vernon Place
Although the river no longer runs into the streets the millpond itself has remained pretty much unchanged over successive centuries. Vernon Place echoes with the sound of rushing water between the trees, as it must have done for centuries, as it curves its way along the River Chelt and around the edge of the millpond. Its sound in the narrow walled lane is very atmospheric.
The name Vernon Place is most likely borrowed from Vernon House and its neighbour Vernon Cottage, which are both shown on the 1806 map above. They were built at right angles to one another forming an L-shape, with Vernon House sideways on to the lane. Vernon House still survives today, and this is it.
This fine old house must have been built before 1806, possibly even in the late 18th century. It still has a very pretty fanlight above the front door, which is round the side away from the lane. Initially, as you can see on the 1806 map above, Vernon House and its adjoining companion were the only buildings in the street, and the sideways orientation would have provided an idyllic view across the fields back then. Vernon Cottage has apparently not survived, as its site is occupied by late Victorian housing. If you stand in front of the Victorian houses you can see where their roofline cuts across a window on the back of Vernon House. Where the name Vernon came from is not clear, but they may have been named after an early resident or visitor. The 1841 census shows Vernon House in use as some kind of lodging house for servants. It lists ten female servants living there, as young as 15 years old, presided over by a matron.
By 1820 a few more houses had been built in Vernon Place and by 1834 there was a row of five tiny cottages – or perhaps they were workshops – right up against the river bank. The 1921 map above shows these still in situ, though they are now gone and the site occupied by a newer (but sensitively designed) building. A group of three Victorian cottages fronted onto the lane on the north side with a tiny alleyway leading onto a courtyard at the back with more small dwellings and workshops. Some of these still survive, but only one of the cottages fronting onto the lane is still there, now a rather bizarrely proportioned specimen in the absence of its neighbours.
The one surviving Victorian cottage on the north side. The garage is most likely built into the ground floor remnant of the adjoining cottage. This is the very narrow part of the lane at its top end. Here also are two more bollards … but of the somewhat less attractive plain-metal-tube-filled-with-concrete-and-painted-yellow type. The wall on the left is where the frontages of the five cottages or workshops used to be – so it would have been very cosy along here.
And here we have the less salubrious end of Vernon Place, where it comes out onto the Bath Road (where the red car is). On the opposite side (where the blue car is waiting) is Bath Street. This view shows the original streetscape quite nicely, because Bath Street and Vernon Place once flowed from one to the other, and their houses were all numbered as part of the same street. Up until 1854 the Bath Road ended here and there was no link with the High Street, so Bath Street was then the main road, enabling genteel persons to access the fashionable area of Cambray without being bothered by the riff-raff in the High Street. Most of the buildings visible in Bath Street are quite old, surviving from the early 1800s.
There are a few historic bits and bobs to see at this end of Vernon Place … on one side there is a set of original railings while on the other side the antique kerbstones remain. Unfortunately the building on the left has for many years been a lively nightclub, and so chucking out time often becomes chucking up time in Vernon Place. But as hedonism and excess is part of what Regency Cheltenham was built for, maybe ’twas ever thus.