“My first impression of Gloucester,” writes H.V. Morton in his 1927 In Search of England, “was that of a city full of small, comely maidens between the fortunate ages of fifteen and twenty-five.” He goes on to explain that although not all of those maidens are pretty, the others do still have nice legs. Thank goodness for that, Henry.
Alas, my own first impression was somewhat different. Arriving into the city via the train station, I was met by a busy road, with a rather beaten up post-war town centre looming somewhere off in the distance. I made quick progress towards Gloucestershire Archives, the main focus of my visit.
I’ll probably write about my time at the Archives another day, but the two days I spent there, sifting through letters and other ephemera relating to the artist and architect Charles Paget Wade were useful and enlightening.
It’s funny visiting somewhere like Gloucester for the first time. I knew nothing about the city, and had no preconceptions whatsoever. But the times I wasn’t buried in paper were spent exploring a neat little place with plenty of gems, some more hidden than others. And it is a little place – a little city, certainly. Gloucester does indeed have its cathedral, and is thus a city.
I was happy to find a good number of pubs, many of which have roots easily spanning five hundred years or more. And peppered throughout are old churches and other medieval buildings. The layout of the streets even has this feeling too, along with charming names, like The Oxebode, Ladybellegate Street, and Black Dog Lane.
It was easy, therefore, to pace around, scarf stuffed tightly into my jacket from the bitter January wind, and pretend I was a man such as Morton, or indeed any visitor to the city from any point in the past few centuries. I followed my nose, looking down side streets and narrow passages that led to diverse places I would have no time to explore. But the more accessible highlights are all around to stumble on as you wend your way around.
Seeking shelter and ale, I first found myself in a Samuel Smith’s pub, Robert Raikes’ House, all wood panelling and portraits of royalty over the centuries. The pub had a sense of space one doesn’t often find – it is uncluttered, and is subdivided into several rooms. It was also empty when I visited – just the barman, myself, and one regular, propped up at the bar.
Deciding that, with such a small amount of time to explore, a mini pub crawl was in order, I headed to Cafe Renee – thankfully more of a pub than a French bistro. Here, I found people, and a low-ceilinged establishment with a decent atmosphere and a well-stocked bar. A feature had been made of a well sunk into the middle of the room, and I heard mention of a cellar bar, only open on weekends, which is where the real action takes place.
I finally wound up at the New Inn. Morton stayed here in the 20s, and so did Lady Jane Grey, along with countless other tourists, pilgrims, heroes and villains in between. The building – buildings, really, all scattered medievally around an inner courtyard – maintains some of its character, but is now a little lifeless and run down, the hotel perhaps surviving on its storied past and the rather ancient appearance it has upon first approach. Nothing can take away from the New Inn’s presence as you come in off Northgate Street, feeling as though you’ve stepped through time in only a few short steps.
I came to the New Inn seeking shelter from the cold air and a filling dinner. I found this in the “Pilgrim’s Feast” on the restaurant’s adequate menu and, feeling somewhat pilgrim-like myself, I tucked into a frighteningly huge plateful of meat. I think there were cuts from three? Four animals? I lost count when I realised there were more than one from a single animal, even, and counted my blessings that it was all perfectly edible, and even the salad garnish was tasty.
Bloated from life-threatening amounts of meat and enough ale for one evening, I re-emerged onto Gloucester’s streets and headed for my own hotel, quietly wishing that I could ascend the steps at the New Inn and take lodgings overlooking the galleried courtyard rather than my own sterile Ibis. Next time, perhaps.
One thing that struck me, yet again, on my walk to bed, was how quiet and empty this so-called city seemed. And of those I did see, a surprising proportion looked a little less than friendly. I marched on, eyes to the floor, trying to shake thoughts of the conversation I had overheard in the Archives about the unfortunate juxtaposition of the needle drop-off point next to the library, or the sticker in the gents advertising support for sufferers of domestic abuse. On a rare look up, my eyes locked onto a lurid red poster from the local constabulary, announcing a knife amnesty to take place over the following fortnight.
I was quite pleased to find my bed for the night and to get out of the cold Gloucestershire wind.
The next morning, I made time to visit Gloucester’s crown jewel, the cathedral. But not before a delicious hotel breakfast – perhaps ill-advised, given how I still felt rather full from my meat feast the night before.
Opting for the bus on account of my heavy bag and the relentless winter wind, I was pleased to find that for £2, Stagecoach will whisk you to the city centre not just in warm comfort – faux leather seats, even – but with free wifi as well. Less excitingly, as is so often the case with city centre bus terminals, we passengers were subsequently disgorged into a rather grim little square flanked by supermarkets, off licences and a confusing ring road system.
I was glad to be back amongst the side-streets and alleyways though, passing ancient architecture and cute little shops, and reflected that when the sun is out, and the streets are thronged with not just tourists but the less seedy of the city’s population, Gloucester must be a truly charming place to visit. I made a mental note of this fact at about the same time I was considering how surprisingly tucked away the cathedral is.
Other cathedral cities I’ve visited – such as York, or quake-damaged Christchurch – have evolved, or been built, so that the vast church is front and centre, with all roads leading to its great edifice. Not so with Gloucester – or at least not any more. I expected, after first glimpsing its tower from the train, to be able to stumble blindly towards it from any direction along the city streets. But in reality I had to follow signs most of the way until suddenly, on the other side of a car park, it appeared, soaring majestically skywards.
It is a staggering sight. The clean, pale walls appear to surge up from the surrounding earth, and its mass seems immense. I was so happy to have time to discover what lay inside, and the interior just blew me away. I found myself merely nibbling at the visual feast that lay all around me – the stupidly high ceilings, intricate detailing of tombs, and just the sheer scale of it all. Around the sides, and the cloisters, I rejoiced in the incredible craftsmanship of the fan vaults. The corridors stretched on so far into the distance and, flanked by stained glass and flagstone floor, felt like another world.
The cathedral was fairly quiet – I was glad to see it at a time when there were few other visitors around. Hearing my heals clicking down those stone hallways was rather magical. But there was still a gentle hum of activity in the main body of the church, with various visitor services staff doing the rounds, and florists busy at work dressing this alcove or that. I passed a tall, finely dressed man of the cloth and thought briefly how marvellous it must feel to call this priceless gem his office.
After a few more hours at the Archives, I had just a bit more time to explore Gloucester. And so what else would I expect to find this far inland but a historic dockyard? And what a lovely area it is. Again, the sky was glowering and the wind howling, but the sight of the warehouses and wharves surrounding the site, a mixture of old and new, was reminiscent almost of Liverpool or Salford. A really unexpected treat. I sheltered at Tucci’s cafe, scoffing a jacket potato and latte as shoppers scuttled on past the rain-speckled window.
And so my time at Gloucester came to a close. I’d achieved some of what I hoped to at the Archives, knee-deep in correspondence with Charles Paget Wade. And I’d just scratched the surface a very interesting little city. I’m sure I’ll be back – perhaps when the weather’s a bit nicer.