A day trip to Cheltenham

So Cheltenham, then. A day at the races – almost.

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A couple of years ago I visited Gloucester to research a book I was writing. Almost exactly two years on, I visited neighbouring Cheltenham last weekend, but for different reasons.

As I mentioned in my last post, my good buddy John Tucker was attending his first comic convention – True Believers – and I just had to be involved somehow. Purely selfish reasons, naturally, although I knew the look on his face would be worth it, and it turned out to tickle his wife pink in the process, too.

I have fond memories of living with John (no, I do!), and integral to that was the frequent sight of stacks of paper, pens everywhere, and then every now and again a published zine or mini-comic that he’d hand-folded and stapled himself. I think I might have even traipsed around Manchester watering holes dropping off copies with him on at least one occasion.

Several years on, he’s now got several properly printed publications ready, a nice website, and the stones to take a stall at a comic con to get his name out there. Not only that, but he came up with a fantastic novelty gimmick for the day where he’d sell a portrait done while-u-wait, involving a roulette wheel which would dictate the method of death he would incorporate into the picture.

This instantly took me back to the long evenings he’d spend hunched over his laptop and tablet on Chatroulette drawing doodles for strangers. John tells the story better in his excellent round-up of his day, but it was extremely cool to see this natural progression at his first con.

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All I can really add to the story is that it was an absolute hoot to show up at the day, to contemplate John and his craft among the bigger picture of something like a comic festival, and just to catch up with him and Lauren.

The comic festival was a little of what I expected, and also a little more than what I’d expected. Mostly it was just a really cool, inclusive, friendly place where people could sell their craft, dress up like their heroes, hang out with like-minded folk, and feel a part of something.  I will say I hadn’t anticipated the level of cosplay – both in terms of quality and numbers of participants.

As I later explained to John, I won’t be following him around the country going to every single one of his public appearances like a mouth-breathing groupie, but the hands of fate had massaged my neck muscles lovingly the morning I decided to look into the trip, and I discovered that Great Western Railway were offering ridiculously cheap fares.

I couldn’t not go.

Anyway, beyond the comic con itself, I quite enjoy the odd day trip to a random town, and I knew Cheltenham had a few things to see that were up my street. Plus it would be interesting to me to compare Gloucester and Cheltenham, albeit while remembering that to visit both towns anew in February should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

No-one looks good in grey.

Still, bundled up against the cold, I did enjoy my wander around. There are some very pretty streets, some lovely examples of Cotswold-stone architecture, a few nice churches, and a really fantastic museum. There’s also a great variety of eateries and drinkeries.

As can be seen above, the colour palette was restricted to sandstone-yellow and winter-grey, but still rather appealing.

Wikipedia has curiously little to say about Cheltenham’s medieval history – there appears to be one remaining building from the era, and then the history books skip five hundred years until someone decided it would be a good idea to set it up as a spa town.

The town centre itself was about as you’d expect from any town centre on a rainy Saturday morning, but I will say Cheltenham has a thoroughly decent selection of shops.

Fortunately, it also has a well-thought-out selection of public gardens, from those near the centre, to Pittville Park a little further out.

Back in the town centre, I needed some indoor amusement. The Wilson, the name given to Cheltenham’s municipal museum (and visitor centre and gallery and so on), is a gem.

I’m so glad I took the time to have a look around as, not only did I find much to entertain and inspire me, but it was also an almost derelict sanctuary on such a rainy Saturday afternoon as this one. I pretty much had the place to myself, for better or worse.

Within minutes I was entranced by a mid-19th-century Dutch painting of a dockside by Cornelis Springer. The kinds of paintings that grab me are the hyper-real, the almost photographic document of a place or a person.

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This painting was of such exquisite detail that I spent several minutes scanning its surface for clues and characters and stories. There were numerous examples of all of these.

But the overall thing that got me with this one was the fine detail of the brush strokes.

The painting, above, is probably 150cm x 100cm, and yet when stood almost nose-to-canvas I could make out not just the fine rope hung from a pulley on a warehouse building, but the rope’s shadow, barely a hair’s width – a tiny stroke. Elsewhere were the outlines of individual bricks, or a man’s pipe. You can expect this level of detail on a canvas 4-5 times larger, but on this scale the detail is almost microscopic. It was wonderful.

As I learned, the Wilson also holds an important and vast collection of Arts and Crafts artefacts, and I was so pleased to find a current exhibition of the stuff. My day job is in the conservation of an Arts and Crafts-inspired suburb, and so I find this stuff very interesting and inspiring.

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I saw lots that inspired me, mostly the use of marquetry in wooden furniture, and adding splendid detail to everyday objects like door handles and tables, some really fine stuff by CR Ashbee, and the likes of that shown above which tried to encapsulate the whole ethos. (I didn’t take many photographs of the objects themselves as it was hard to reproduce the fine detail.)

The 1920 inscription above, by Joseph Cribb, screamed to me passages from Parker and Unwin’s The Art of Building a Home, along with other ideals stemming from the Arts and Crafts movement.

I also lingered a little too long by the above radio, probably a metre tall, dreaming of having it sat in the corner of a beautiful room, and imagining the warm tones it must emit.

I had a fantastic time in Cheltenham. I came away with a few new obsessions, and things and people to look up. The trip there and back was a breeze – also meant I could play some PSP and 2DS, even – and catching up with John without his prior knowledge was priceless.