Photos taken December 2008
The name Northfield is an old one in Cheltenham. It was in use in medieval times as the name of a field to the north of the town (surprise surprise). However it fell out of use for many centuries, and I don’t know whether the old Northfeld recorded in 1372 is the same place as the Northfield of the Regency period. However, it’s the Regency one we’re concerned with here. It was a large field occupying the area now covered by North Place car park plus a chunk the other side of Monson Avenue, bounded by the rectangle of roads which are now known as St Margaret’s Road, Dunalley Street, Clarence Square and North Place. Expansion of the town and the development of the Pittville estate from the 1820s made Northfield somewhat less northerly and field-like.
The 1806 map shows Northfield as exactly that … an open field, well to the north of the town, with a smattering of development at the town end. This development was mostly the work of Cheltenham’s lady builder, the Hon. Katherine Monson, who built herself a nice little villa in one corner during the late 18th century and then in 1805 treated herself to a much bigger one further along the field. Both are clearly marked on the map, along with the little lane to Keyts Cottage which is the early precursor to present day Monson Avenue. The cluster of buildings next to “Hyett’s now Pitts” (probably home of Mr Pittville himself, Joseph Pitt) is Byrches Farm where the actress Sarah Siddons lived briefly. She described it in 1803 as “a little cottage … some distance from the town, perfectly retired, surrounded by hills and fields and groves”.
A similar picture is shown on the 1820 map (below) except that this one shows a footpath running diagonally across the field from Byrches Farm. This footpath is what shortly afterwards became Northfield Passage. Miss Monson was busy by this time building St Margaret’s Terrace next to her own house, with the foundations laid out and the first house already built. All the clay for bricks was dug out of Northfield itself and fired on site. Present day St Margaret’s Road is given here as Margaret Street. (These maps all have different orientations, sorry if they’re a pain to get your head round.)
Northfield Passage was soon joined by Northfield Terrace (on 1834 map below as North Field Terrace), an adjacent street of 1820s terraced houses whose back garden walls butt onto the passage (see top photo) and it also acquired a few cottages of its own, and a timber yard in the corner. By this time the Pittville development was well underway; Byrches Farm was gone and the clean lines of Clarence Square laid down in its place, defying the old field boundaries. St Margaret’s Terrace (which still survives today) was complete but Katherine Monson had legged it to France in the wake of the 1828 credit crunch, which left her inextricably in debt.
Neither of Miss Monson’s mansions are still there. Monson Villa, the little one, vanished decades ago and its site is now squatted on by a hideous featureless NCP multi-storey car park built in 2007. Its similarly unattractive predecessor was a nondescript pub attached to the back of the Whitbread brewery tower block. The brutally bland car park is a wasted opportunity to construct something decent in this much abused area of town. Katherine’s second house was known as St Margaret’s Cottage (it being a fashion at that time to use the name ‘cottage’ for grand houses) and later St Margaret’s Villa, and became etched in Cheltenham’s public consciousness as the ticket office of the former Black & White Coach Station. Lamentably, a stray bomb cast out by a German aeroplane in 1940 on its way back from bombing elsewhere made a direct hit on this glorious house. The site has been derelict since the early 1980s, and is used as a large but rather scruffy car park.
Northfield Passage is today what it was then, a long passageway connecting North Place with Monson Avenue in a straight line. It’s pedestrian only, being too narrow for cars, and has a few old cottages (and one or two newer ones) along its north side. The 1841 census lists about five dwellings in the passage, occupied by a hair dresser, a postman, a servant, a butcher and a shoemaker. In the top photo is the remainder of a demolished building incorporated into garden walls. Below is a beautifully unspoilt survivor.
The south side has always been undeveloped, and the timber yard is long gone.
The name Northfield also crops up in Charlton Kings, where again it can trace its origins to medieval times.