St Paul’s Road, on the corner of Brunswick Street. The Engineers Arms pub (above) stood here for over 100 years, its bay-windowed frontage surrounded by trees and its beer garden secluded behind high Victorian walls. This monstrous piece of shite is going up in its place.
How the pound signs must have lit up in the developers’ eyes when they got their chance to slap a cheapie block of flats up on this key corner site. But it’s turned out to be a bit of a white (and brown) elephant, standing abandoned and unfinished for some while. It has already had paint thrown over it, such is the contempt and disgust it inspires among local residents.
OK, so St Paul’s is not one of Cheltenham’s nicest places (I know, I used to live there) but it has always kept an authentically earthy 19th century character. That character has taken a hell of a bashing in the last decade, as amongst other things it’s lost its wedge-shaped Victorian malt house, countless tucked-away historic outbuildings (oh so tempting to cram a new house in those spaces) and its imposing old two-tone brick hospital and workhouse. It’s gained a rash of cheap hamster-cage houses, a block of plasticky student flats and a massive parking problem. The southern side now looks out over the butt end of an offensively ugly hotel and multi-storey car park, two unsightly zits which sprang up on the face of the 2006 Brewery redevelopment. Let’s face it, all the crappiest ideas that get shat out the arse end of town planning end up here. And I really think the selfish idiots who dump bad developments on areas where they don’t have to live should give St Paul’s a break now.
If I’d known the Engineers pub was under threat of redevelopment I’d have taken some more photographs of it. As it is, I never expected anyone would want to demolish it, and the side view along St Paul’s Road (at the top of the post) taken towards the end of 2003, when the pub had been derelict for more than a year, is the only one I have. Three months later, it looked like this:
The demolition was a pointless waste. The Engineers was a curious and characterful building. In some ways it looked like a typical residential house of the late 19th century, with bay windows top and bottom and a sloping roofline. But it had a ‘false entrance’, a blocky portal butting up to the pavement which formed a passage to the pub itself, which was set back within its gardens and almost totally obscured by trees.
The pub first opened as the Engineers Arms alehouse in or before 1891, possibly equipped with its own brewery and possibly incorporating parts of an older house, and it was run by the Cheltenham Original Brewery. The landlord back then was Benjamin Ratcliffe, who had handed over to Annie Matilda Walter by 1903, and then through the First World War and the 1920s it was run by Sidney and Emily Tibbles.
It’s always a bad sign when pubs start changing their names. In the 90s the Engineers Arms became the New Engineers for a few years, then briefly flailed as the New Ale House before whimpering out of business in 2002.
The tall Victorian brick wall with its old cast iron name plate was lost. So were all the trees. When it was demolished a network of large cellars was exposed underneath.
Cellars under the Engineers Arms pub site, early 2004
This shaft into the cellars was in the driveway into the pub’s courtyard. The hole is roughly 10 or 12ft deep and the passage below extends under the pavement. Photographed in 2004.
It’s interesting in view of a local rumour about underground passageways going under St Paul’s church, almost exactly on the opposite side of the road. Urban myths about subterranean passageways are common in most towns and there’s never been any real evidence that one exists here, but these things often have some basis in reality. The hidden cellars extended some way under the road towards the church. Maybe they add weight to the idea that there was a brewery on site, or maybe they belonged to the house which occupied the site before …
The Engineers itself replaced a Regency-era house, Hamilton Cottage. Don’t be fooled by the word “cottage” … it was a large and prestigious house and dated from the period when it was fashionable to call such things cottages. Hamilton Cottage is depicted very clearly (my label) on the 1820 map, which even details the layout of its extensive gardens.
It was probably built some time after 1806 and pre-dates St Paul’s church and much of the rest of St Paul’s, and was originally surrounded on three sides by fields. It was described in 1820 as being in “a retired airy part of town” – not a description you’d recognise today.
1820 map, showing Hamilton Cottage (the Engineers pub site) in a then almost empty St Paul’s Road, before the church was built. The only street in existence was the southern part of Brunswick Street, originally called Rutland Street. The small terraced houses here were built between 1806 and 1810. Also present but undeveloped is the line of St Paul’s Lane, and the turnpike road to Swindon. The house marked with a ‘g’ at the bottom of the map is 18th century Woodbine Cottage, later known as North Lodge and then Dunalley Lodge, which still survives today, sideways on to the road and well hemmed in by Victorian terraces so you’d hardly know it was there.
I don’t know when or why Hamilton Cottage bit the dust, but a Hamilton reference survives in the name of a Victorian terrace across the street, now part of St Paul’s Road but it still bears its old Hamilton Place nameplate.
Photographed December 2008
And at the end of 2008, almost five years after the pub was obliterated, the site is still a mess. Boarded over with hardboard and plastic sheeting, and with bricks missing from around its unfinished windows, the new occupant of this site is a crass intrusion. Look how out of proportion it is to the Victorian terrace on the other side. The Engineers pub had a garden at the front and a courtyard at the back, but this clumsy slab butts right up to the boundary on all sides to squeeze as many units as possible into the available space. Its height is disproportionate and the styling cheap and thoughtless, flat-pack architecture from the bargain bin, and all the style of a Kit-Kat with the chocolate picked off. The front lower corner is built of bricks which don’t match the others, forming a discoloured patch. It isn’t even built yet and already it looks as though a generation of dog wee has soaked up into it. What an insult to the beautiful 1820s Greek Revival architecture it faces across the road. And to St Paul’s residents, who now have to walk past this shameless bulk on a daily basis. And in fact they have to walk on the other side of the road, because the pavement is swallowed up by a Portaloo and corrugated iron sheets, and pedestrians take their lives into their hands trying to get past it.
For gawd’s sake get shot of this junk and all its sorry ilk. Cheltenham deserves better.
With thanks to the Gloucestershire Pubs site for information about the pub history.