In the heart of the beautiful spa town of Cheltenham you'll find this beautiful neo-Classical hotel where even the wallpaper has a tale to tell. Toby Keel paid a visit.
It’s sometimes all too easy to miss the critical moments when whim, chance and fancy divert the course of our lives. Take my first week at university, back in the days when there were only four television channels and you could still buy petrol with lead in it. It was then that I made a whimsical decision – based entirely on the length of a queue at the freshers’ fair – which prompted me to study Spanish instead of Italian. And it was a friend from that course – who I’d never otherwise have met – who flagged up a job opportunity overseas, which led directly to me meeting my wife. And without that chance decision to ignore the queue, none of it would have happened.
I’d like to think that it was a similar whim which took George III to Cheltenham back in the 18th century. At the time it was little more than a muddy Gloucestershire village, but the king – no doubt wanting to avoid the thousands of curious eyes of Bath – decided to head there to take the recently-discovered spa waters for a few weeks. There are many other places he might have gone instead, but that chance decision catapulted Cheltenham to fashionable status and wealth at a time when English architecture was arguably at its apogee.
Over the next 30 or 40 years the town was built up into one of the most beautiful town centres in the nation – and the Queens Hotel is a wonderful example of that legacy. Funnily enough the hotel’s existence owes even more to chance than most of the town: originally the site was home to the Sherborne Spa, but in 1837 by unlucky chance the waters dried up at that particular spot. You can imagine the effect on business.
The spa was knocked down and the Queens opened up on the same spot the following year, and has ever since remained one of the smartest places to stay in town. Arthur Conan Doyle stayed here when visiting, while Glenn Miller and Bob Hope propped up the hotel bar during the Second World War when the place doubled as an American Services Club for US troops stationed nearby.
The splendour of this neo-classical building is striking outside and in: grand pillars stand guard outside, while inside there are beautiful floors, elegant fittings and ceilings so high that giraffes would be happily accommodated, if only they could fit through the revolving door entrance. Even the wallpaper is special: the covering which decorates the magnificent central staircase is 175 years old, designed by A. W. Pugin, and also graces the Houses of Parliament.
The rooms themselves strike a very nice balance between early-Victorian charm and modern comfort: our deluxe room had a four-poster bed (complete with canopy and curtains) which added an element of cosiness as well as regal splendour in a very spacious room.
More modern was the bathroom, flawlessly-finished with a brilliant waterfall showerhead in a swish glass cubicle, though we were without a bathtub – presumably, as so often, a victim of architects having to shoehorn en-suites into listed buildings.
That compromise felt a small price to pay for enjoying the splendid spaces of the Queens, grand enough to feel special while still small enough (at 87 rooms) to feel friendly and personal – a feeling helped by staff who were unfailingly wonderful, particularly with out two small children. Both the hotel and Cheltenham itself might only owe their existence to whim and chance stretching back a couple of centuries, but its a happy accident: if you’re after a charming place to stay in this charming town, the Queens comes warmly recommended.
Food and drink
Cheltenham is blessed with some great places to eat, from top-end – Lumiere on Clarence Street is particularly swish if you’re looking for somewhere to celebrate a special occasion – to lovely cafes and bakeries. The hotel’s Napier restaurant (named after General Sir Charles Napier, who lived across the square and hosted dinners here) holds its own, however. We didn’t have time for the renowned afternoon tea but in the evening there was a decent, reasonably-priced menu (main courses around £18) and infectiously-cheerful service which gave the dining room a real buzz.
A fish platter starter for two was the highlight of our meal, though the children’s burgers – a house specialty, for big kids and small – were superbly juicy and full of flavour. Our main courses of pork two ways (belly and loin) was decent without being a standout star, while the locally-sourced steak was tender and well-cooked.
That said, breakfast was probably even more memorable. Served in the splendid orangery, both the buffet items and the cooked-to-order dishes were spot-on – the pancakes were truly superb, while the selection of juices and smoothies was so extraordinary that we just had to include a picture.
Things to do
Immediately opposite the hotel is Imperial Gardens, with its statue of Gustav Holst – the composer of The Planets was born in Cheltenham, and his birthplace is now a museum. The Queens is about a five-minute stroll down the Promenade from the centre of town – the smart boutique shops are the first you’ll come across, with the usual town centre high street names further along.
The town also has other attractions depending on when you visit – the nearby racecourse, for example. Then there’s the world-famous Cheltenham Literary Festival, the first of its kind and an event which established a format now copied around the world – there are also jazz, science and music festivals throughout the year. But don’t be worried about visiting outside these times: truth be told, we were very happy wandering among the pretty streets and soaking in the atmosphere of this town of real character.
- The juice and smoothies at breakfast – each served in a little glass bottle, with all sorts of flavours and presented in a brilliant rainbow
- The Cotswolds on your doorstep. Some of the most beautiful villages in Britain are with a few minutes drive. Bourton-on-the-Water is about 25 minutes away, with Stow-on-the-Wold and the Slaughters just beyond.
- The Montpellier District houses much of the town’s loveliest Georgian architecture – Montpellier Gardens is more or less just behind the hotel, and is surrounded by picturesque streets lined with cafes and shops.
Standard rates start at £125 for a superior room at the Queens Hotel, deluxe rooms from £150 and suites from £225. That’s based on two sharing, and includes breakfast. The hotel is also part of the Sofitel chain’s ‘MGallery’, meaning that it participates in the various loyalty programmes. Book via the website at www.queenshotelcheltenham.co.uk.
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