Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Municipal picturesque

Cheltenham is a town of parks and gardens. Among the best known of these is Pittville Gardens (centrepiece of the Regency Pittville estate: squares, terraces, and vast detached villas), with swathes of lawn, mature trees, and a delightful ornamental lake. What a lot of visitors don’t realise is that this greenery continues on the other side of the main road that runs nearby, where there’s a large stretch of parkland around a bigger lake where people walk, exercise their dogs, or sit admiring the trees. Another activity possible here was to hire a rowing boat and row up and down the lake.

Boats need a boathouse and this wooden building, put up in the 1890s, was designed for this role, although nowadays it seems to be devoted mainly to the provision of socially distanced tea, coffee, and snacks.* It’s a simple structure of wooden frame and cladding with a practical, generously overhanging roof. The structure is reinforced or decorated with a further array of outside timbers, painted black, so that from a distance (the other side of the lake, say) it looks a bit like a ‘black and white’ cottage of the kind common in the Vale of Evesham just a few miles to the north.

It’s a bit of a sham, and a bit of a folly, but one devoted to a practical purpose and fitting for its site. And fitting for the town’s history in a way, because if it had been around in the early-19th century, knowledgeable visitors to this once fashionable inland resort would have seen it as picturesque in the sense of something added to create a landscape that looked good, just like a well composed landscape painting. Perhaps the local council had similar thoughts when they built the boathouse in the 1890s. The vessel Martha in the foreground, by the way, has been sliced in two and turned into a sheltering bench seat – a small and inviting bit of picturesque detail from a more recent era. Here’s to the varieties of municipal picturesque!

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