It has to be said that many folk in Norwich would struggle to accurately point out to where they think Cheltenham lies on a map of the United Kingdom, and possibly vice versa. Not only are the two towns separated by a distance of just over 180 miles, but to drive from one to the other involves an heroic cross-country route that even my sat-nav argued over, and that was before an accident on the M6 further muddied the spa waters.
The accommodation had been booked at Ellenborough Park, a magnificent former manor house, built of local stone and in parts dating back to the 15th century. Formerly known as Southam House, it has since been extended and refurbished, and commands panoramic views over Cheltenham racecourse. I would be staying here, on a bed and breakfast basis, for the Thursday and Friday night, and attending the races on the Friday. This left me with time after the drive down on the Thursday to explore the town of Cheltenham.
I decided to make an early start. The AA Route Planner estimated a four-hour journey time, and a route that would take me past Birmingham before dropping down on the M5 toward the West Country. Unfortunately, it soon became clear from the gantry messaging on the A14 that the route past Coventry was affected by severe delays due to an accident, and so it was a slightly longer, but much more picturesque route that eventually saw me taking the A429 through the Cotswold towns of Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold before arriving in Cheltenham in the early afternoon.
By parking on the London Road close to Sandwell Park not only was I spared any parking charges, but I was also able to take the comfortable stroll into the town centre, admiring the many Regency style houses en route. It would have been very easy simply to stop off in the town centre and spend all my time exploring the shops - there are two malls in addition to the main High Street, but apart from a necessity stop in Office to purchase a new pair of shoes (in my rush to leave I had forgotten to pack anything other than my battered driving casuals), I refrained from all other retailing opportunities and concentrated instead on the Montpellier and Lansdown areas where the most impressive Regency terraces were to be found. This also allowed time to search out the historic Cheltenham Ladies College buildings, St Mary's Church and the Royal Crescent and Promenade.
The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum
Other sights worth seeking out in the town include the famous Neptune fountain, and the statue of Edward Wilson, the Cheltenham-born Antarctic explorer, and colleague of Captain Scott. A slightly more quirky piece of sculpture is Sophie Ryder's 'Minotaur and Hare' in Cheltenham Promenade, cast in 1995 and aquired by public subscription in 1998.
Statue of Edward Wilson
Sophie Ryder's 'Minotaur and Hare'
There are still Big Issue sellers and Poundland stores, but the Regency grandeur still remains, though you may have to leave the High Street and head for the Lansdown district to see evidence of the real money and the multi-million pound mansions. The multitude of expensive women's bicycles (complete with shiny bells and wicker baskets) show how the influence of the Ladies College pervades the town with the air of an aspirational Tinder box.
Cheltenham Ladies College (main entrance)
Those who know me are familiar with my usual choice of overnight resting places. Sometimes I don't even make it as far as a hotel, saving money instead by pulling over at the side of the road and sleeping in my van. Otherwise, careful trawling through websites like Hotels.com will throw up somewhere both suitable and within budget. Not that I haven't ever sampled a better class of accommodation - only a few weeks ago I was put up in a veritable hanger of a room following my son's wedding in Surrey, and during a brief spell as an area manager for a large chain of chemist shops we would be treated to various corporate 'jollys', staying in middle-management business hotels complete with Bronnley toiletries and Corby trouser presses. Ellenborough Park, though, was an entirely different ball game.
Even as I drove up the twisting drive to the car park it struck me that it was probably a while since another Toyota Aygos had pulled up here. The preferred set of wheels appeared to be Range Rover, Mercedes, Porsche or Bentley. As soon as I had carried my suitcase, briefcase and shoulder bag into reception my entire luggage was immediately whisked off to my room by the porter, leaving me unable to even provide a credit card with which to set up my room account. My Tesco Mastercard was secreted within my O'Neill black fabric wallet, which in turn was tucked away, backpacker style, in one of the secret security pockets of my Eastpak manbag. It should of course, as any gentleman would have you know, have been in the breast pocket of my sports jacket, in the company of crisp five pound notes with which to administer gratuities at each appropriate opportunity.
However, please let the record show that all the staff at Ellenborough Park were, without exception, incredibly welcoming and accommodating towards me. Not once was I made to feel any awkwardness, nor did I have to ride the clumsy embarrassment of expectant palms. From the initial guided tour to their genuine concordance upon my checking out, the friendliness and concern for my well-being was absolutely tip-top and second to none.
I did not get to use the spa or the fitness room during my stay. The outdoor swimming pool was heated and ready for use, and was only a couple of paces from the terrace of my ground floor room. However it did not get to experience the launch of my bulky form, 'Home Alone' style, via the Auckland Bomb. To be honest, after my drive down from Norwich and an afternoon of exploration I was more than happy to luxuriate in the enormous free-standing bath, nestle into the softness of the fluffy dressing gown, and enjoy some crap TV on a gargantuan high-definition television set that resided behind the leaded windows of a full-height dresser.
Breakfast was served in the paneled splendour of the Beaufort Dining Room, and was a most satisfactory affair - a chance to peruse the complimentary newspaper, and run through the form for the day's racing whilst enjoying fresh coffee, croissants, toast and cereals, and all topped off with a Cotswold Special - a cooked breakfast to end all cooked breakfasts, a gorgeous mélange of black puddings, sausages, bacon and eggs. Sorry to be a tad tacky on this one, but this was my chance to stoke up for the day ahead, and with local fare this good, why not?
Thank you to everyone who together made me feel so welcome at Ellenborough Park. I would love to return at some stage, to use the fitness and spa facilities, and to take full advantage of the boot room and its regimental array of waxed jackets and boots lined up ready for an Autumnal yomp into the surrounding Cotswold Hills. I felt thoroughly spoiled. Somehow, the Travelodge will never feel quite the same ever again.
Another first for me. As well as the hotel accommodation, the prize from Essilor Crizal included hospitality passes for a day's racing, with lunch in the ominously named Final Fence Restaurant, steeplechasing's equivalent of golf's 19th hole?
The Open is a three day meeting held in November, and my passes were for the Countryside Day, the first day of the meet. There were six races on the card, starting with the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at 1.05pm. The lunch was to be served at 12.30 but, as I wanted to get close to all the action and the atmosphere, I decided to forego the hospitality in the interest of learning as much as I could about the racing. Besides, whilst I was quite happy to eat on my own at the hotel, I felt slightly out of my comfort zone entering the world of corporate hospitality without a wing man. Besides, there was loads of other shizz going on that I really didn't want to miss.
Ellenborough Park, viewed from Cheltenham Racecourse
Not quite knowing what to expect, I spent the morning watching the paddock parade of stallions organised by the Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Beautiful creatures, although at upwards of £2000 a pop, their stud services don't come cheap.
After the stallions came the lively knockabout double-act of Charlotte Dujardin and AP McCoy, as Charlotte gave AP a dressage lesson with two of her horses, whilst providing an entertaining commentary and scoring points at AP's expense. To be fair, when one considers the completely different skill sets involved in horse racing compared with dressage, it certainly illustrated just how good a horseman the Irish jockey really is. Later in the day we are able to catch AP again, whilst signing copies of his autobiography.
And as if this wasn't enough excitement before the racing proper got under way, we had Princess Anne standing just above us on the balcony of the new Princess Royal Stand performing the official opening ceremony.
And so to the races themselves. Adopting a prudent policy of sticking to a maximum of £10 to win on each of the six races on the card, I started badly when the favourite La Vaticane ridden by Tom Scudamore (son of champion jockey Peter Scudamore) only managed to come in fourth, although the unforgettable sight of fifteen horses charging up the hill on the final lap towards the winning post was so much more exciting than it ever looks on television.
I did better in the second race when Jonjo O'Neil's horse More of That came in at short odds of 7-4, but cancelled out my losses on the first race. Backing the favourite again, this time Penglai Pavillion, in the 2.15 proved to be a mistake when it came in third out of four runners, and my choice of Loose Chips (picked because of The Son's job in highways maintenance) at 14-1 was at best fanciful.
So, after being entertained by the beagle hounds and the riders of the local hunts with a parade between the second and third races, and given a slightly one-sided commentary by a member of The Countryside Alliance, I needed to pull something out of the last two races to avoid going home nursing a £40 loss on the day.
Fortunately, A Hare Breath, once again chosen for its name rather than for being favourite (brother in law loves taking photographs of hares), beat a field of twenty runners and came in at 6-1, and I resisted the urge to be reckless and stake all my winnings on the last race. Which in one way was a shame, as my horse Knock House actually won as joint favourite with odds of 9-2. If only I'd had the courage of my conviction to stake my entire balance of £70. As it was, I sensibly stuck down a tenner, collected £45 in winnings, and added it to the £60 I won in the race before, leaving me just over £100 up on the day.
So, after another lovely evening at Ellenborough Park, and a second night sleeping soundly in my cossetting Hypnos bed, I checked out on the Saturday morning and bid farewell to Cheltenham and the Cotswolds for the time being.
It was time to drive back up to London to meet up with my daughter in Kilburn, and buy her dinner at the North London Tavern with my winnings. Thank you once again to Ellenborough Park, Essilor Crizal, and The Daily Telegraph, for my prize, and to The Jockey Club for a lovely day's racing at Cheltenham.
To check out Ellenborough Park for a Cotswold break, go to their website at http://www.ellenboroughpark.com/
For details of this Winter's racing calendar at Cheltenham go to http://cheltenham.thejockeyclub.co.uk/
For information of other things to see and do in Cheltenham, check out http://www.visitcheltenham.com/