Bennington Street

5 12 2010

Ah, poor old Bennington Street. One of the closest streets to the town centre – indeed it is the town’s original dead centre – it has been through a bit of a change of fortunes over the years. Now blighted with fag-butts, grime and litter, parts of its terraced housing clumsily demolished and left as scruffy makeshift car parks, this street was once the pride of Regency Cheltenham.

Bennington Street can count itself among the oldest streets in Cheltenham, as it appears, as an unnamed lane, on the 1806 map (which is essentially Cheltenham’s earliest meaningful street map). At that time there was nothing in it; it was simply a lane across the fields between the High Street and the Hon. Miss Katharine Monson’s big house on St. Margaret’s Road. Miss Monson’s house later became the office of the Black and White Coach station, before being blitzed to oblivion in a 1940 bombing raid, and the site remains today a very shabby public car park on the traffic-infested ringroad. However, in Miss Monson’s time, the late 18th and early 19th century, she would have had a lovely view across open fields to the back of the High Street. The map below, made in 1820, shows the beginning of development around the area of Bennington Street, but still very few buildings in the street itself, which was still without a name.

Bennington Street is shown here as a thin straight line between Margaret Street, now St. Margaret’s Road, and the High Street (this map has south at the top instead of north). If you look closely at where the big capital W is (that’s just part of the grid system of the map) the chunk of field is marked ‘New Market Place’, with the market being built there in the subsequent couple of years. Apart from that, the street is mostly occupied by gardens and plots belonging to properties in adjacent streets. On the left hand side is Rose and Crown Passage, which once led to the back of a pub of the same name, and on the right is Counsellor’s Alley which is now called Oxford Passage.

During the first half of the 19th century, the northern end of what is now Bennington Street was occupied by the town’s main market place, moved away from its traditional site in the High Street to avoid offending genteel visitors with stray scraps of smelly vegetables and the noise of rough types plying their wares. The market was formed into a tidy square – or rectangle – with stalls arranged round it in an orderly manner. The High Street end became the site of a beautiful Regency shopping area called the Arcade, built in 1822. All of this was paid for by Lord Sherborne, who was one of Cheltenham’s main landowners at the time. In the entranceway was a stone known as the Centre Stone, which was deemed to be the central point in the town, from which distances could be measured and cab fares calculated. James Hodsdon in his wondrous gazetteer suggests there may have been an older market cross on the site previously. The most striking thing about the Arcade was its entrance, which took the form of three Moghul-style Gothic arches, as shown in this 1820s print:

Yes, this really is Cheltenham High Street, at the entrance to Bennington Street. That lady with the fancy bonnet is walking past the place where the grotty street sign (at the top of this article) is today. Unfortunately the Arcade was a short-lived venture and the beautiful archway was demolished in 1867. Here is the same spot today, with a substitute Centre Stone moulded onto a Victorian building.

I believe the F. Hinds building was built over part of the entrance to Bennington Street, making it narrower than it originally was, and that the grey-fronted Stagecoach building shown in this photo is the same one shown on the right hand side of the engraving (i.e. it was originally the corner building, and the Hinds one was tacked on later). I could be wrong, but it looks that way from the position of the windows and chimneys. The F. Hinds building has curve-topped plate-glass windows typical of the mid-Victorian period, so it was probably built around 1868 just after the archway was demolished, occupying the site of the right-hand span of the arch. Thus the Centre Stone, which most shoppers walk past every day without ever noticing, still marks the central point of Cheltenham.

It was this period in the late 1860s which saw the development of Bennington Street into what it is today … both sides being built up with a terrace of houses, shops and workshops. The development seems to have been initiated by a bloke called Charles James Chesshyre, and although the houses don’t all match exactly, they are pretty much of the same style and time period, suggesting a coordinated effort. It was most likely at this time that the street acquired a name for the first time – although where “Bennington” comes from is lost in the footnotes of history.

Most of the houses in the street were occupied by tradespeople, often with a shop or workshop at ground level and a living area on top. The picture above shows a house on the west side of the street which still retains a well kept (if somewhat patched) set of workshop doors. Much of Bennington Street is still occupied by business premises of much the same kind that would have occupied it 140 years ago. Other interesting features or relics of earlier times are fairly sparse now, but coalhole fans might appreciate this nice example of a Hayward Brothers No.3 coalplate, still with its glass lenses intact.

It was common in the 19th century for individual terraces of houses within a street to be given their own separate name. Although these names have mostly fallen out of usage in Cheltenham, Bennington Street has a lingering survivor: a row of six houses at its northern end called St. Margaret’s Parade, which still bear a nameplate. Unfortunately the end of terrace house is currently derelict.

Appropriately for Cheltenham’s most central street, Bennington Street is also the centre for its alternative spirituality. Notably because it contains the town’s Spiritualist Church. You certainly can’t miss it; the red brick frontage with arched doors and windows is wilfully nonconformist among the Victorian terraces.

Perhaps less well known is the street’s association with one of the 20th century’s most influential occultists, William G. Gray, whose books on ritual magic and the Qabalah have influenced a generation of pagans and Wiccans and who associated in his time with Dion Fortune, Aleister Crowley and Gareth Knight. Gray spent most of his life at 14 Bennington Street.

On the left of this picture can be seen what was the street’s only pub, the Central Inn at number 17, which seems to have closed around the time of WW2 but still has a bit of a pubby look to it even today. In 1881 it was being run by Charles England who was also offering his services as a house plumber. William G. Gray probably never advertised himself as a magician: his official occupation was chiropodist. Gray’s house, number 14, shown here with the orangey-red frontage, is now a cake shop. It was in this house that he wrote his books Magical Ritual Methods and The Ladder of Lights which are still in print today. Although it’s not obvious from the street, the house has a basement in which Gray set up his magical temple, while using the main shop floor for his chiropody practice. He lived here with his wife Bobbie from just after the war until his death in 1992.

It’s appropriate that this house should have been occupied by a writer, because it was formerly a printer’s premises. Bennington Street has a long association with printing and book production. Prior to Gray’s occupation, his house was a print shop occupied by Walter Hayman in the 1891 census. By 1901 Walter had moved his premises along the street and another lithographic print shop had set up in number 14. In fact there were three print shops in the street at that time, at numbers 14, 22 and 23, with a bookbinder’s premises a few doors further down. Numbers 13 and 15 have also been used as printers’ premises over the years. A century later, there is still a printer in Bennington Street carrying on this old tradition, while Hayman’s name can still be seen on an old workshop building in nearby Oxford Passage.

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A Cheltenham Christmas

27 12 2009

What’s the best thing about Christmas in Cheltenham? Not the lights, not the shops. For me it’s this:

The Promenade on Christmas Day, blissfully deserted right the way up to the Queen’s Hotel.

It’s not just because I’m a reclusive curmudgeon that I like Cheltenham best when it’s deserted. It’s actually a very magical experience to hear the natural sounds of the town which are normally drowned out by traffic and bustle. Stand by a manhole cover in the Promenade in the empty stillness and hear the muffled rushing of the River Chelt passing unseen beneath the pavement.

The municipal offices, or rather the terrace of 1822-3 known as Harward’s Buildings, photographed on Christmas Day and almost unrecognisable in the absence of parked cars!

The High Street with not a soul in sight.

Deflated Santa, Lower High Street

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The joy of drainpipes

29 09 2009

A selection of rainwater funnelling arrangements from among Cheltenham’s finest.

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Alma House, Rodney Road. This genteel Regency receptacle of 1835 vintage is on the side of the building, overlooking Imperial Lane. It’s decorated with three elegant blobs and an innovative bit-of-pipe-sticking-out-the-wall.

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Another fine specimen of early 19th century drainage ironware. This one is at the back of shop premises in the High Street, and viewed from Vernon Place (with a big zoom lens).

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Meanwhile, down at ground level … this is one of Cheltenham’s finest Regency terraces, Columbia Place in Winchcombe Street. The beautiful frontage is of course drainpipe-free, but go down a little lane at the side and the ugly truth is revealed. From a simple hole in the wall, a cracked iron funnel takes the water through several sections of mismatched leaky iron pipe bolted to the wall and into a drain several yards down the lane. Ingenious.

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Lansdown Terrace Lane and another “bendy” with a Victorian top. I particularly like the way it looks like it’s disgorging its load into a tub of geraniums.

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No prizes for guessing the date of these elegant and decorative specimens on St Philip and St James’s church in Grafton Road.

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Normanhurst, Gothic house on the corner of Eldorado Road. A wonderful carved imp sits at the gable juncture between two jack-in-the-greens and a bit of wobbly hand-beaten lead pipe. Built in 1882, this may be Cheltenham’s most eccentric and beautiful drainpipe.

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Well, if you’re not using that 1840s arch-topped window you may as well find a practical use for it. House in Queen’s Retreat.

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Here in Wellington Lane we have the “oh sod it, let’s channel the water all the way round the front of the building and then dump the whole lot on the garage roof” solution.

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And here among the old mews buildings of Tivoli Walk is a splendid example of the totally non-functional drainpipe.





Windows on Cheltenham: with signs

22 01 2009

Part two of an occasional series.

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Normal Terrace

11 01 2009

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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Just in case you still don’t believe the lane is really called that …

All photos taken January 2009