Cheltenham Blog

Another Cheltenham blog? Not really.  The Critical Cheltenham website is focused on Restaurant, Cafe, Tea Room, Bar and Cultural reviews. So, our blog entries are a little extra on top. Stay tuned to this blog for additional info.  Because there’s so much going on here, longer reads on aspects of food, drink and culture in Cheltenham appear here.

These days many blogs are written to chase Search Engine scores. We don’t do this. Therefore you’ll just find properly considered articles on the Cheltenham food and culture scene. Restaurants, wine, cafes, bars and cultural or sporting events are what we’re about.  So, most of all we’re here to share information and take a critical look at Cheltenham and find the best.

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Please get in touch info@criticalcheltenham.com if you have a comment or would like to see a particular article written. Maybe you’d like to contribute a guest blog article or have an opposite view on something.

November Cheltenham Restaurants Cafes News

Cheltenham Restaurants: What’s Opened, What’s Closed, What’s Good.

November was the month that your Cheltenham restaurants reviewer got a bit bored with with burgers. But only a little. First up, Five Guys opened. No review as such, as we avoid international restaurant chains. For an indulgent burger experience, once in a while, it’s hard to beat.

That said, the fine folks at Bhoomi have opened Holee Cow. This new burger operation in Clarence Street, in the last few days. We thought, on a quick visit after it opened, that it has a lot of promise. The service was in ‘learning’ mode though. We’ll give them time to settle down before reviewing properly. The menu is short and to the point and the puns are good.

Cheltenham’s first Korean restaurant, Ginger and Garlic, opened on the High Street. Head there fore a bimbambap and kimchee fix. And it has karaoke booths!

At the other end of the High Street, in Grosvenor Street, we liked the look of new Indian takeaway, Delhi Heights. This, too (it’s hard to keep up) opened in the last few days.

Coffee, Coffee Shops and, er Chelmsford

The big cafe opening this month was The Find, in Regent Street. On two floors, good coffee, unfeasibly large cakes, food OK. This place has a lot of ambition and the design work is terrific. You should visit.

In other Coffee News, Cheltenham will lose its Costa crown to Chelmsford, when that City opens its 13th branch. Cheltenham currently holds the title with 11. Sigh. The shame.

Speaking of ambition, The Coconut Tree, Cheltenham’s restaurant of the moment has recently opened a branch in Oxford. Bristol coming any day now too.

Following Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, the company announced that it would close its two stores in Cheltenham and Scotland. The Cheltenham store, including cafe, closes tomorrow. Read our original review here to see what you missed. It’s a shame as Whole Foods added something to the Cheltenham food scene (and the butchery was excellent). Sadly a Cheltenham location never really added up for this group.

 

Cheltenham Restaurants Opening Soon

The Ivy Montpellier Brasserie opens on the 13th December, reservations now open. It’s trading on the celeb image of the original London restaurant, but let us not forget that there are over 20 around the UK now. This venerable brand is rolling out. There’s one in Guildford for heaven’s sake. Anyway let’s hope the Cheltenham restaurant has bags of charm. It will be interesting to see what they make of the Rotunda in Montpellier.  Could be good – the hoardings are now off!

Also in Montpellier, Giggling Squid seem to have gone quiet about their opening date. John Lewis have announced that they won’t open until Autumn 2018. May we have our pavement back soon?

The Old Courthouse (where Jamie Oliver’s, er, pukka Cheltenham gaff was) is set to open ‘early 2018’, although new owners Brunning and Price have published some sample menus  so you can get an indication of what we’re in for.

Industry conversation is all about costs at the moment. Food prices are rising, Chefs share tips on where to find the cheapest butter via social media and cheaper cuts of meat are finding their way onto every menu. Staff costs are rising too. Managers grumble about the cost of agency chefs, as some chefs find that the way to a better work/life balance is to work that way. I would say that there’s something of a Cheltenham restaurants bubble at the moment, like bitcoin. On the other hand, business seems pretty good.  The other gossip at the moment is about a recent ‘hands in the till’ bust locally, but we can’t say too much more for obvious reasons.

With winter nights coming on, we’re thinking its time to visit some of those smaller,  cosy Cheltenham restaurants that we like so much again – Petit Coco and East India Cafe come to mind.

November 27th, 2017|

Cheltenham Restaurant News Roundup October

A few things in the Cheltenham restaurant cafe scene that we’ve noticed.

The Willow Tree in the High Street has closes its cafe operation. It now trades as a craft shop and venue. Not far away, O’Hara’s Coffee House opens for business in St George’s Place. Gridiron closed its doors. It’s never a pleasure to report a restaurant closure but the writing seemed to be on the wall. Meanwhile, over at The Railway, they’ve made the radical move from sausage menu to Thai ‘street food’.

In addition to everything else Five Guys Cheltenham has opened.

The November Michelin announcements causes a few ripples in Gloucestershire. Lords of the Manor and 5 North Street in Winchcombe lose their stars. In Cheltenham, The Tavern loses its ‘Bib’. For what it’s worth, we think that Purslane deserves more respect from Michelin.

There has been a remarkable sequence of new openings in the Cheltenham restaurant cafe scene. Consequently, there’s a real premium on chefs and front of house staff. We know of more than one restaurant in Cheltenham that is essentially in free fall with no head chef and ridiculous staff turnover rates. Brexit and the weak pound has already had an impact on overseas employee. The restaurant industry will be a rocky ride for those businesses that don’t look after their best people.

Giggling Squid, the Brighton Thai-based tapas (eh?) restaurant is slated for opening early next year. They have a site ready in Montpellier, not far from the new Ivy location. Opening February/March, we hear.

The Find Cheltenham Restaurant Cafe

A few much talked about new openings are taking shape. The Ivy announces that it will open in December.  Specifically it will be called ‘The Ivy Montpellier Brasserie’. The Find, a new coffee house venture in Regent Street (not far from excellent Coffee Dispensary) is at the vacancy advertising stage. So, surely opening soon, even if ‘opening in Autumn’ is as much they say at present. Furthermore an interesting aspect of The Find is that it will have office spaces bookable on the top floor.

Not a restaurant cafe, but foodies will have a keen eye on the John Lewis opening date. Local press say that it will open in 6 months time. Rumours are that it will be even longer.

Seems like busy times in Cheltenham will continue.

Best things recently

The best thing we ate recently was a brioche feuilletée from Baker and Graze, which we think is hitting great form. We have the most fun at Coconut Tree, with its great atmosphere. The top bargain in town is surely the Champignon Sauvage set lunch (they retained their two Michelin stars). Best coffee, in a competitive field, is from Scandinavian Coffee Pod. Best breakfast is from The Curiosity Cafe, but that goes without saying really. Our favourite cake is a brownie from the Chapel Arts centre, which is a great tip for a quiet coffee in civilised surroundings.

Remember we base all of our Cheltenham restaurant cafe comments on paying our way. Most noteworthy, we don’t take advertising. Furthermore we don’t write because of freebies. We like to hear from you with suggestions, comments or gossip – please get in touch.

October 21st, 2017|

Five Guys Cheltenham – What to Expect

Wow – Hillary Clinton in Cheltenham on Sunday, Five Guys opens on Monday. …what’s going on?

Five Guys

Five Guys is an American chain. Our U.S. Correspondent (USC) rates them – “a lot of people have copied them, but I don’t think anyone quite manages it. They’re good burgers.”

We nipped over to Five Guys, Oxford to preview what Cheltenham will be offering. First impression is that it’s busy venue, it’s in-your-face red and white and there are a lot more than just five guys working there. The menu is short – burgers, dogs, sandwiches, fries and drinks.

Burgers come in standard or ‘little’ versions of hamburger, cheeseburger, bacon burger and cheeseburger. This is a little piece of America so the little burgers are pretty big and fries are generous. A Bacon Cheeseburger is £8.95, the ‘little’ version £6.95. Burger entry point is a ‘Little Hamburger’ (£4.75). All the options include free toppings (lettuce, pickles, tomato, onion, mushrooms, jalapeno and sauces etc).

How Five Guys Works

You order, you pay and you pick up with your numbered ticket. They’ll offer you water, which is nice. One of the USPs is that the fries are cooked in peanut oil, so there are boxes of monkey nuts (peanuts) for you to help yourself from if you’re peckish. Fries come salty or cajun.

Milkshakes (£4.85) are great, according to our USC – “because the ‘mix-ins’ are cool”. And – horror! – you can add in bacon to your shake. “It’s about sweet and salty”, says the USC, “Just go with it.”

So the order arrives in a ghetto grocery bag*… you take a seat and unfoil the burger.

Our verdict was that it was indeed a very good burger – up to Byron standards, (but a little cheaper). The fries were great.  OK, So it’s a pretty oily/greasy experience by Blighty standards, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You don’t get a taste that big by going low fat (my little cheeseburger was 550 calories).

Five Guys Cheltenham is at The Brewery, Henrietta St, Cheltenham GL50 4FA not far from Cosy Club.
*you need to watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1eU2O3dgW_8

October 14th, 2017|

Cheltenham Farmers Market

Cheltenham Farmers Market

Cheltenham Farmers Market is held on the second and fourth Friday of every month (Cheltenham Economic Development please note; the runaway success of Stroud’s market has, in part, been based on the fact that it takes place every week: as a punter, you know where you are) on the pedestrianised bit of the Prom, sandwiched between Waterstone’s and Cavendish House. It’s a good thing to support (a healthy Cheltenham restaurants culture should go hand in hand with a healthy local food culture) and you’ll usually find fruit and veg, plants, herbs, meat, cakes, sweets, preserves, bread, cheese and so on. You’ll also find occasional other guests stars, from pies to a Cheltenham’s gin brand (known as ‘Trust Fund Gin’ in our house).

As usual, it pays to shop early, the market runs from 9am to 2pm or so but the best stuff tends to go early

Here’s a quick run through some of the stands you’ll see at Cheltenham Farmers Market, with a few comments on things we like and which you might like too. No particular order, although let’s begin with a winner:

Madgett’s, based in Chepstow, sell free-range chickens and ducks from the Forest of Dean. This is one of the first stands that I head for. Quality is great (this is where I get my Christmas turkey from) and they supply some of the best Cheltenham restaurants such as Curry Corner. Keep an eye on the stand for occasional additional products, such as wild boar and duck sausages. Recently, for example, Madgett’s had Cumbria grouse at £12 a brace, oven ready.

Adey’s Farm from near Berkeley is pretty good too. They raise and sell organic Angus beef, lamb and pork.

Frocester Fayre is a reliable source of meat – I like their faggots (MATRON!) and pies

Smarts Cheeses produce great organic, vegetarian Gloucester cheeses – you can buy minis too. Single and Double Gloucester cheeses and you’ll sometimes see Harefield, which is what you might call a Gloucester Parmesan, a one year aged Single Gloucester cheese with a salty sharp tang. If you prefer a brie/Camembert style, head over to the St Eadburgha stand (Gorsehill Abbey Cheeses, near Broadway), a popular and tasty soft cheese – another organic, too.I like the bloke from Churches Bakery, he’s genuinely passionate about his bread and reckons he has made over 2.8 million cakes in his time.

I’m a bit wary of chocolate from Farmers’ Markets, but Elizabeth James Confectionary make a good chocolate lollipop, a good way to finish off a dinner party.

For vegetables, Primrose Vale are good, as are Roots vegetables – prices are pretty fair.

What else? I usually buy from Endive, which is a prepared salad bar – plenty of great looking salads, broad bean, feta, supergreen salads, hummus… that kind of thing.Everything seems extremely fresh and the owner has the most heartwarming smile too. Usually next door is Oxford Deli and I’ll get a couple of their beautifully spiced veggie samosas to counteract all the healthy stuff.

Cheltenham Farmers Market

If Whitehouse farmhouse plants are there, I’ll check them out.

Lakehouse brewery make a good unfiltered beer in the Malverns and I also liked Beard and Sabre Cider (Cirencester) . The Cotswolds isn’t that well known for cider (the rest of Gloucestershire is) but my two favourites recently have been Apple Smuggler, a CAMRA approved cider by Beard and Sabre at Cheltenham Farmers Market and I was blown away by Pearson’s Cider from Moreton in Marsh, but sadly you’ll have to hunt her out elsewhere.

September 3rd, 2017|

Sober Parrot

The Sober Parrot?  A New Venue for Cheltenham

If you’re missing the (closed) Number 7 Wine Bar in St James’s Square (not far from The Fire Station pub/restaurant) – and it was pretty highly rated – prepare to welcome The Sober Parrot. There’s a lot going on in this just off-centre-corner of towns, with Cheltenham restaurants such as the Bottle of Sauce and galleries such as Chapel Arts opening up.

The Sober Parrot will be Cheltenham’s first alcohol-free late night entertainment venue, a community enterprise from The Nelson Trust Hub Project, a local charity. To understand the idea behind The Sober Parrot, you need to understand the Nelson Trust, which was founded in 1985 in Stroud, as a residence for people recovering from addiction. Its admirable list of achievements since has included the Women’s Centre in Gloucester and the Hub Bistro. Along the way they’ve picked up support from Russell Brand and the Duchess of Cambridge. The Sober P is the latest venture.

Sober Parrot

The new venue, which is expected to open later in August, will host live music and events. It’s a great idea and the concept contributes perfectly to the Nelson Trust’s objective of finding space for addicts to recover.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the unsocial hours, pressure and graft involved in the hospitality industry doesn’t lead to drug and alcohol issues. And there’s a cruel irony that Cheltenham restaurants and hotels, with their need for low pay, low skill staff are often the way back into work for those in recovery from addiction. The Sober Parrot idea works on two levels – by firstly offering a alcohol free venue, but secondly by a staffing policy that helps people in recovery from addiction to gain life skills, train and gather the experience to help them return to long term, paid employment.

And, just in case we’ve made all that sound rather worthy hopefully it will, above all, work on the straightforward level of being a welcome addition to the Cheltenham venue scene. Entertainment is more than just alcohol, as the fundraisers say.

If you’d like to get involved from the very start there’s a Just Giving page here:

June 27th, 2017|

Politics and Cheltenham Restaurants – Election Special!

Cheltenham restaurants are places where politics might be discussed over lunch, but chances are your host is right of centre. In fact the hospitality trade is a pretty c(C)onservative sector of industry. As noted by George Orwell, the grander hotels and restaurants have long had a parasitic relationship with big money and a vested interest enthusiasm for wealthy excess.

In the apex of all that is London, the City and the West End, but the ripple effect spreads out to Cotswolds and Cheltenham restaurants. Basically the hospitality thrives – or it thinks it does – on low taxation, free enterprise, deregulation. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of a £10 an hour minimum wage sent a slight shudder through an industry that has been built on low wages, low skills and long hours, even if that is slowly changing.

Cheltenham Restaurants food

The 2017 – should have been – about a bigger issue this time though… and that’s Brexit. Set out to write Cheltenham restaurant reviews and chances are that 25% of the staff you’ll encounter at any cafe or restaurant are workers from outside the UK. A British Hospitality Association (BHA) survey estimates that 75% of UK waiters/waitresses; 25% of chefs and 37% of housekeeping staff are from the EU. The report highlights a looming recruitment crisis.

The issue isn’t just about European workers. Last year, a shortage of curry chefs emerged – around 600 UK curry houses shut in an 18 month period. This has driven up curry chef wages. It may not be a coincidence that the Cheltenham restaurants list these days feature more and more upmarket curry houses with higher prices. A smart move.

If you think about it, Cheltenham has benefitted from enormously from the overseas contribution to its restaurant scene, from Kibou to East India Cafe – maybe it’s something we take for granted.

The BHA has called on the government to work with the hospitality and tourism industry on a ten-year planned approach so that businesses can have time to adapt.

The independent Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford estimates that 96% of the EU nationals who work in hospitality would not be able to enter the UK under the existing immigration rules for non-EU nationals. It’s a serious issue and one which isn’t covered by reassurances that Britain will be able to – post Brexit – attract the ‘brightest and the best’ – in some cases, what the industry needs is simply the hardest working, the people prepared to clean down a kitchen at 1am, to work split shifts in Cheltenham restaurants or prep food through a Bank Holiday weekend. Pret a Manger, which opens in Cheltenham soon, recently said that only one in fifty of its job applicants was from the UK, whilst EU nationals make up 65% of its workers.

Another issue is housing and staff accommodation – those picturesque Cotswold hotel restaurants and smart Cheltenham restaurants need to draw staff from somewhere.

The Conservatives haven’t said much specific about immigration post-Brexit yet. Kamal Ahmed, reporting for the BBC described the Home Office as being “desperate for data” on the impact of limits on European migration.

Hard or soft Brexit will have a huge impact on the future of the UK restaurant trade.

June 7th, 2017|

The Ivy Cheltenham – What’s That About?

Ivy Cheltenham

 

The Ivy Cheltenham? What’s That About?

The Ivy Cheltenham? In case that sounds surreal, we take a look at The Ivy, why it’s going to join the Cheltenham Restaurants scene and what we can expect.

You have to keep up to speed in the fast moving world of Cheltenham restaurant reviews. It looks as if The Ivy Cheltenham will actually be a thing. Cheltenham Borough Council has received a licensing application from Troia Restaurants. Director is Richard Caring, a heavyweight in the hospitality industry, chum of ‘Sir’ Philip Green (of BHS Pension Fund fame) and the main man behind the Ivy Collection, which includes restaurants – or brands – such as Le Caprice, The Ivy, Scott’s, J. Sheeky and various other London success stories.

The location in question is the Rotunda building in Montpellier, already a busy area for Cheltenham restaurants – ground zero for Cheltenham Restaurant Reviews.

The Ivy – and Le Caprice, especially, built their reputation on good food, service and a high celeb count. But this is, obviously, no relocation to Cheltenham and what we will actually be getting is a new outpost of a format called The Ivy Grills and Brasseries. The celeb count here will have to draw from the slightly more limited gene-pool of locals such as Dom Joly and, er, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Ivy Cheltenham logo

The brand has already opened a couple of restaurants in the Home Counties and Bristol, with openings forthcoming in Bath, Edinburgh and Exeter. Assuming that they follow the formula, the Cheltenham restaurant will be called The Ivy Cheltenham Brasserie (or, conceivably, The Ivy Montpellier Brasserie) and will be open breakfast ’til late, seven days a week.
The original Ivy style was to keep some tables unreserved at a dining bar, plus bookable tables which I’d guess will be followed in the Cheltenham operation.

In terms of the menu – this is not a pretentious fine dining establishment, despite the aura surrounding its name. The original restaurant actually built its reputation on good service and no-nonsense classics, famously its Shepherd’s Pie. That seems to be the formula for the new Brasseries, which list soups, gravlax and bang bang chicken as starters and risotto, roast pollock or chicken breast as mains in its midweek lunch set menu (£21 for three courses). Things get a bit more pricy a la carte for dinner, of course with Shepherd’s Pie £13.50 through to fillet steaks pushing £30 quid, plus sides. That’s assuming, as seems likely, Ivy Cheltenham offers a similar menu. By the way, if £13.50 for Shepherd’s Pie seems steep to you, it could be worse – The Ivy in London charges £19.50, plus a £2 cover charge although to be fair, you’re paying for more than just a Shepherd’s Pie. At least it’s more affordable to be in the Cheltenham restaurant reviews business.

The Ivy Grills and Brasseries tend to look great inside – banquette seating, skilful lighting and smartly turned out staff. We can expect the same at this addition to the list of Cheltenham restaurants. And work starts this summer, so we could see them open by the Autumn.

May 23rd, 2017|

Who does what in a typical Cheltenham restaurant kitchen?

Cheltenham Restaurant Chef

 

Who does what in a typical Cheltenham restaurant kitchen?

Writing Cheltenham restaurant reviews is, ahem, all very well, but respect is due. Working in a restaurant is tough.

Yet, as a customer, sometimes you even forget there’s kitchen on the other side of that wall.

Cheltenham restaurants cover everything from one man bands to larger hotel and national chain kitchens. If the kitchen is of a reasonable size, you’ll find a larger team. Amazingly they’ll be organised more or less according to a scheme drawn up by a chap called Escoffier in Victorian times. He, in turn, based his organisation of the kitchen in the Savoy Hotel in London on a ‘chef and brigade’ model that had been in use in the European military (an army marches on its stomach) for centuries.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why chefs all seem to have French job titles, even in humble Cheltenham restaurants, you can trace all that back to Mr Escoffier. And if you’ve ever made a comment along the lines of “it must be like a military operation in the kitchen”, you’re closer to the truth than you think.

These days it would be most unusual to find the number of chefs – and specialisation of roles – that used to be the case. But you’ll still hear the French job titles, even if things are simplified these days.

Cheltenham restaurant chef

Roles in a modern Cheltenham restaurant kitchen.

Executive Chef
Taking the military analogy further; the Executive Chef (or ‘Chef de Cuisine’ or Head Chef) is the General. ‘Executive Chef’ is sometimes used as a flattering title to cheer up a Head Chef, but a true Executive Chef is basically a top level manager. Not much cooking involved.

Head Chef (aka Chef de Cuisine)
Head chefs run the kitchen – from staff to suppliers to menus. In smaller restaurants they cook everything, in larger places they oversee a brigade.

Sous Chef (‘Under Chef’)
The sous-chef de cuisine is second in command and, translated, the name literally means ‘under chef’. Basically, the role is be number two to the Head Chef. so more cooking, less admin. The relationship is vital to a successful kitchen – a good Head Chef will aim to make the Sous Chef as competent as possible, if only so that he or she can enjoy a day off.

Chef de Partie (aka Line Chef)
Historically, in large restaurant and hotel kitchens, you’d have Chefs de Partie running specific sections – meat, poultry, fish etc. Top of the tree was the ‘Sauté Chef’ because they were responsible for sauces and gravies – a highly respected role in the kitchen.

Pastry chefs (patissiers) are the equivalent of wingers in rugby: a mile away from the hard work in the scrum but useful to have around. They’re the butt of jokes because they necessarily have to work away from the heat of the kitchen and because patisserie is not often a team sport. That said a good pudding can make a meal, so they’ll only take so much grief.

Commis Chef
A commis is a junior kitchen employee often learning his or her trade, maybe just out of catering college.

Kitchen Porter (aka KPs)
These guys (usually they’re guys) are another breed apart. They shift stuff, they clean everything (the ceiling if necessary) and maybe help out with vegetable prep. KPs often don’t have any formal culinary training.  They are invariably the most interesting characters working in Cheltenham restaurants, often with interesting personal habits.

Dishwasher
Essential, unpleasant work – this is a job that chooses you, rather than the other way round.  Unlike in sit-coms dishwashers are never people who haven’t been able to pay their bill.

In writing Cheltenham restaurant reviews we’re enormously respectful of the hard work involved in being a chef or working in a kitchen. These heroes work when everyone else wants to play and are busiest when everyone else is on a public holiday. There’s a macho culture in kitchens that means that you don’t call in sick unless you’re basically dead – and your rare day off can disappear in a moment if the boss calls you in. You work with extreme temperatures, with sharp knives, with mandolines – you get cut burnt and bruised due to accidents caused by tiredness. Meanwhile, relationships suffer, and your relatives expect you to cook at every family occasion. The no reason to suppose that life in a Cheltenham restaurant is different to anywhere else.

Thankfully some enlightened employers are changing the culture by investigating a 4 day week (some high end restaurants are reducing their opening hours to improve the work/life balance of staff). A recent study by Unite found that about half of chefs work over 48 hours a week, with 14% working more than 60 hours. Better employers are reducing tolerance of abuse in the kitchen and creating career paths – but there’s no way around the fact that the work is tough and pressurised with physical and emotional casualties. If you’re a regular diner, you could take a positive step by supporting http://www.hospitalityaction.org.uk

It’s worth noting how many staff in restaurant kitchens are migrants workers. They prop up the industry. A report Labour Migration in the Hospitality Sector,  commissioned by the British Hospitality Association points out that the hospitality sector is “highly reliant” on EU national workers, with up to 24 per cent of the sector’s workforce made up of EU migrants. I recently met a Tory MP who attempted to be jolly about Brexit by saying that we could attract ‘the brightest and the best’ migrant workers. The assembled restaurateurs looked at each other and shrugged… “It’s not the brightest and the best that we need for some of our jobs” was the response.

May 7th, 2017|

Cheltenham Busking

Fresh: Art Fair - Cosmopolitans by P J Crook (detail)

 

Cheltenham Busking – Street Economics

Cheltenham has quite a few buskers, concentrated around High Street and the Prom. Obviously it’s hard to know how many there are, but over 370 people care enough to join a Cheltenham Buskers Facebook group. We set out to find what you can expect to earn, which are the most lucrative tunes and what reaction buskers get from passers-by.

We’re talking about Cheltenham’s everyday buskers, not the assorted performers (from steel panners to tin flute players) who line the streets every 20 yards during Race Week. And we’re not here to take the piss – people busk for different reasons: to get by, for the love of music, to express themselves and we’re not about to knock that. Having said that, not all instruments are born equal and sometimes you ask yourself: when does practice become busking?

It seems takings for an hour can fluctuate wildly between nothing and, say, twenty quid. A technically difficult Eric Johnson guitar number can earn you 50p off a fat bloke with a Pink Floyd T-shirt, but he’ll probably want a long conversation about the time he saw Steve Vai in return. Give them Wonderwall on a sunny day and you’ll up your hourly rate significantly.

So we took to the streets to see who was doing what on a typical day.

Busker A: Wait, Is that Alex Turner?

Cheltenham Busking

N’ah, trick of the light. Still, interesting guitar and nice touch to play a rockabilly tinged track outside M&S. This guy knows his demographic.

Busker B: Trumpet Man

Man, this bloke is loud. Favours, er, trumpetable options from the Beatles or similar, but you wonder how suitable the trumpet is as an instrument for busking. Draws some pretty heavy looks from the Farmers Market stall holders if he plays outside Cavendish House on Market Friday. The trumpet revival starts here.

Busker C: ‘Hits from the Shows’

West End songs in a light opera style, plus the odd bit of Elton, from this Cavendish House regular. It’s a popular but flawed busking pitch, the width allows people to pass by on the other side. This guy’s voice carries. You can hear him even as you go up the escalator to the first floor of Waterstone’s opposite, through some freak of acoustics in the building.  Has a repertoire (Les Mis, etc) and a degree of boyish charm that pulls in cash from the 45+ female demographic.

Busker D: Plinky Plink

This chap has two distinct styles. He’s enough of a Cheltenham busking regular to be known in our house by style i) which is a kind of a plinky Irish jig thing. Personally, we reckon he should sing/play chords more – he’s got a good voice.

Busker E: Pavement Poet

Pavement Poet

Busking doesn’t only have to be music, after all. ‘The Written Word is not Dead’ is this West Country based poet‘s subtitle as he chalks up some street wisdom. It’s interesting to watch people react – many of whom stop and take time to read short poems. The PP brightens people’s day and hopefully he gets no grief from the local Cheltenham establishment – Swindon Borough Council, on the other hand, attempted to ban him.

Cheltenham is said to be more relaxed about busking than many other places. Busk for long enough in Cheltenham and you’ll get to know people, maybe even pick up a bit of a following and a few coins from the same passers by – regulars, no less.

Cheltenham Borough Council has a policy on busking that is simultaneously both apparently thought through and also seemingly random and also apparently random. The basic approach shows a bit of a light hand – a licence is not needed and there is a voluntary code of conduct. It covers volume by saying that ‘noise’ should not be so loud that it can be heard at a distance of 50 metres’. It covers the state’s fear of repetitive beats by saying that ‘drumming should only be a minor part of the act’. There’s a one hour per location time limit and obviously sensible clauses on obstruction and blurring the line between a genuine performance and appeals for money through ‘sympathy’. And Cheltenham busking should ‘not make public telephones unusable’ (through volume), which is rather quaint.

Busking is one sign of a healthy town culture – any town needs more than just restaurants, cafes and cinemas to have a heart. If a council is cool enough not to seek to ban it, there’s still hope (see Swindon for the grim alternative). You can play your part by stumping up a few quid rather than just walking by – it takes guts to perform.

April 16th, 2017|

Fresh: Art Fair Cheltenham Exhibition May 2017

Fresh: Art Fair - Cosmopolitans by P J Crook (detail)

Fresh Art Fair and the Visual Arts in Cheltenham

Fresh Art Fair is another boost for the visual arts in this old town.  After all, until fairly recently, the art-hungry local had to forage amongst the finds displayed in a traditional museum, a situation much improved by the arrival of The Wilson, with its new galleries.

In terms of buying art, things in Cheltenham weren’t much better, with options on the scale between some often rather stern Cotswold gallery owners or a trip to the art department of BHS. There’s a gallery that only seems to sell works by Ronnie Wood or Bob Dylan. There are the, let’s be elitist for a moment, to me, hilarious offerings in Cavendish House – the sub Vettriano 21st century equivalent of a female tennis player scratching her bum. And I suppose morale wasn’t helped when the Banksy that graced Fairview Road for a few minutes was defaced and then destroyed. That, Cheltenham, is why you can’t have nice things.

Anyway, cheer up. Spirits were lifted recently by the arrival of Chapel Arts, which, we thought, does a fine job of presenting some art that you might like to buy in a friendly, unfussy environment.  And an honourable mention for the Montpellier Gardens Gallery.

We’re here to talk about Fresh Art Fair: which is, we hope, another step in the right direction. Not to be confused with Fresh Air (the terrific biennial sculpture exhibition at Quenington), this Fresh Art Fair is a contemporary art event coming to Cheltenham for the first time in 2017.

Fresh Art Fair – The Basics

Event: FRESH: Art Fair
Venue: Centaur, Cheltenham Racecourse
Dates: 12 – 14 May, 2017
What to see: Selling exhibition of 5,000 paintings, prints, ceramics, photography and sculptures by 400 artists, via 45 galleries.
Cost: Admission – Friday (free), Saturday & Sunday (£6). There’s a £10 private view on Thursday.
Art – ‘from a few hundred pounds to quite a few thousand’
Tip: 2 for 1 advance tickets online.
Website: http://www.freshartfair.net

Fresh: Art Fair artists represented include the name-droppable Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, Sophie Ryder (she of the Cheltenham Hare and Minotaur) and Barbara Rae. And you’ll also have the opportunity to spot new, up and coming artists.

Fresh Art Fair - Protection factor 97 Steven Lindsay

Aside from all the viewing and buying, the event includes sessions where artists will paint live; artists and experts (we love the distinction made between the two) will talk and Bonhams will value.

The ambition is that Fresh Art Fair will attract 10,000 people and become annual. The organisers (Eleanor and Anthony Wardle) have plans to replicate the formula elsewhere. “Cheltenham will be the birthplace of a new national art fair brand” says Anthony Wardle.

The header image is a detail from Cosmopolitans by P J Crook MBE. Main body image Protection Factor 97 by Steven Lindsay
March 21st, 2017|