Happy new year! Today’s my first day back since the Christmas and New Year break, so apologies for the late good wishes.
I was reflecting over Christmas about travel: so many of our staff and students leave Cheltenham for the holiday period, and many of them do so on the railways. These ruminations may have been influenced by one of my Christmas gifts from a friend: a copy of Bradshaw’s 1863 Railway Handbook.
Some of you might be aware of this little book already, since it’s the basis of Michael Portillo’s BBC TV series Great British Railway Journeys. The entry for Cheltenham reads in part as follows:
Cheltenham takes its name from the river Chelt, and is celebrated for its medicinal waters. It has been for the last sixty years one of the most elegant and fashionable watering places in England. The town is built on a flat marshy soil, on the borders of a rich and fertile valley, and the surrounding Leckhampton hills protect it from the cold winds. The season for drinking the waters is from May to October. The climate in winter is generally mild, though in July and August is felt to be oppressive.
You can decide for yourself whether Bradhsaw’s climatology remains accurate! Bradshaw lists stations in the order in which they appear on the routes of his day: Cheltenham, for instance, appears at the end of a branch line from Swindon – largely the same route through the Stroud valley taken by the trains to London Paddington today.
The railway first came to Cheltenham in 1836, when the Cheltenham Spa station we still know today was first opened. But a little further digging reveals that in Bradshaw’s day there were in fact two stations in Cheltenham: Cheltenham Spa St James was opened in 1847 where Waitrose stands today, and became the terminus of that Swindon branch line. By 1912, meanwhile, there were three further stations: one on Malvern Road, another at the racecourse and a third (short-lived) halt on the High Street itself. A further station ferried passengers to the village of Leckhampton, on the outskirts of the town. Before the onset of British Rail, these stations were served by different companies; by the 1960s all but Cheltenham Spa were again closed.
This history speaks of the kinds of fashion to which Bradshaw refers in his text, but also to the rise and fall of industry, and changing railway use and passenger behaviour. That is, there is a history behind each of these openings and closings, all to be explored as the result of an idle thought at Christmas.
In that spirit, then, here’s to a studious – and enlightening – 2014!