Days Out England

Neo-Classical Neon: Light Up Cheltenham Tour

Light Up Cheltenham
Written by Kirstie Pelling

February’s Light Up Cheltenham festival celebrates the town’s classical Regency heritage by throwing a rainbow at it when darkness falls. You can book a guided tour of over 30 lit up buildings, ride an illuminated big wheel, or just wander, and wonder what famous visitors like King George lll would have made of it all. Looking for some fun, accessible and uniquely Cheltenham things to do at half term? This sponsored post should add a splash of colour to your plans ….

Light Up Cheltenham -Things to do in Cheltenham
Light Up Cheltenham -Things to do in Cheltenham

Escaping the February-ness of winter

February in the UK isn’t traditionally known for its sense of fun. Half term provides families with a short break in the bleakness; then like Moomins, we all go back to hibernating till spring. But the Gloucestershire town of Cheltenham refuses to be curtailed by winter. For the last three years it has reinvented the dark night as a place to show off its Regency heritage. And not in a way you’d expect. Gone are the demure colours of this famous spa town; instead there are purples and pinks and luminous greens, as gels and bulbs work together to make Cheltenham zing.

No 131 Cheltenham
No 131 Cheltenham in full-on pink Image by The Family Adventure Project

A short break from elegance

For the rest of the year, the town centre is all about white facades and understated classical elegance. Take, for example, Montpellier Walk; its upmarket boutiques are seemingly held up by columns of ‘armless ladies,’ that date from the 1800’s and mirror the models at The Acropolis.

However Light Up Cheltenham, run by Cheltenham BID, is designed to bring out the fun side of a town famed for having the most complete Regency architectural heritage in England. And liven up a quiet month in the gap between Christmas and the hugely popular Cheltenham Festival in March.

Observation wheel- Light Up Cheltenham
Observation wheel is bridge between Christmas and the races.

An easy walk at dusk

Light Up Cheltenham provides an excuse to get outside at dusk on a walk that costs nothing. Although if you are feeling generous there are strategically placed buckets raising money for nominated charities – on the night of our visit Queens Hotel is raising cash for MND Association and is decked out in the charity’s colours. The recommended route is an easy stroll, best enjoyed during the slow bleed of dusk into darkness.

Cheltenham Ferris Wheel
Cheltenham dusk behind the Ferris Wheel

Following the Light Up Cheltenham map

There’s a simple map to follow, available from different places on the route, or you can book a Blue Badge tour guide, who will flesh out the history of the town for you while leading you around the main landmarks – like the ornate fountain of Neptune, now painted a vibrant purple.

Your guide will explain why each building is special, (Neptune allegedly nods to the Trevi Fountain in Rome,) and will give you the facts behind the ornate facades. You’ll learn how Cheltenham became the go-to spa town for the well-heeled after it was endorsed by royalty in the 1800’s, and how the town punches well above its weight in industry. The clothing brand Superdry began here after its owner Julian Dunkerton rented a stall on the market, and GCHQ employees collect intelligence from the iconic silver doughnut just out of town. And then, of course, there is the roar and excitement of the racecourse – I can’t begin to imagine how many stories the Cheltenham Festival has generated over the years.

Statue of Neptune at Lit Up Cheltenham
Wander Cheltenham’s best loved landmarks

Cheltenham things to do in a storm

We are planning a self guided tour of Light Up Chetenham after rolling into town on the coat-tails of storm Ciara. On this blustery Sunday afternoon, the shopping centre is lightly populated; only the Hare and Minotaur are sticking around to hear the lone busker playing Singing in the Rain on his trumpet.

The Hare and The Minotaur, Cheltenham
The Hare and The Minotaur sculptures, Cheltenham

Cake fuelled shelter

As night is still a little while off, we warm up in a cafe called The Find, where members of the Orme family greet us with a massive selection of vegan cakes. We fuel up on biscotti loaf and halloumi fries before taking another rain check in the nearby Coffee Dispensary. Then dusk starts to fall and the weather calms. There’s a rumour that the giant observation wheel has started turning so we head for Queens Hotel, our base for the night and the start of guided Light Up Cheltenham tours.   

Coffee Dispensary, Cheltenham
Coffee Dispensary- a shelter from the storm in Cheltenham

Kicking off at Queens Hotel Cheltenham

It would be hard to find a more appropriate building to kick off a tour of Regency architecture than Queens Hotel Cheltenham-MGallery, which faces directly onto Imperial Gardens. One of the first purpose-built hotels in Europe, Queens Hotel Cheltenham opened in 1838, on the site of the old Sherbourne Spa. Its neoclassical architecture boasts Corinthian columns, Georgian windows and carved cornices, and it’s believed it was modelled on the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. Impressively white against a grey skyline by day, the columns look almost unreal in the bright colours at night.

Light Up Cheltenham  Queens hotel lit in pink and blue
Light Up Cheltenham Queens Hotel

From Imperial Gardens to Brewery Quarter

Leaving the Queens Hotel behind us, we stroll through Imperial Gardens where even composer Gustav Holst’s statue presides over the wind symphony. The sky gently turns to gold, then pink, then black, while the wheel becomes more luminous as the day closes down.

As weather has temporarily stopped it turning we head down to the Brewery Quarter, passing a green, orange and amber lit Boots store and a crimson HSBC.

Light Up Cheltenham walk to the Brewery District
Light Up Cheltenham walk to the Brewery District

Sparks and light in the dark

The Brewery Quarter is where the festival launched with a performance from the day-glo drumming band Sparks! We stop for a drink before winding our way to Neptune’s Fountain, resplendent in purple. The Promenade is really going for it, from no 131’s neon gin and juice to the town’s Municipal Offices – which logic tells me cannot be as exciting inside as they look from the green and gold floodlit exterior.

No 131 hotel, Cheltenham
No 131 hotel, Cheltenham

View from the big wheel

We rock up again to the giant observation wheel, now brightly lit in white against the night sky and slowly circling around.

Cheltenham's big wheel
Cheltenham’s big wheel once darkness falls

Bird’s Eye view of the action

It’s a chilly ride but it gives us a bird’s eye view of the lights; bright strips of colour lining the town like a glowing airport runway. And I wonder what the kings and queens and poets who visited would have made of this modern colour splash.

Queens Hotel Cheltenham
View from the big wheel, Cheltenham

A return to Regency white

Next morning a cold sun greets me in the square, flooding pale light onto the Regency white. Over at the shops of Montpellier, the columns of ladies continue to be unfazed by the high winds still battering the county. Meanwhile armies of window cleaners are out scrubbing the grit of last night’s storm from the Georgian windows. Cheltenham resumes its spa town elegance once more. But locals know she will reappear this evening in her full-on disco colours. Bright and bold and as fun and welcoming as a UK town can look on a wintry February evening.

Cheltenham Queens Hotel
Queens Hotel Cheltenham returns to regular white elegance

More Information

Light Up Cheltenham runs from 1st-23rd Feb 2020. It’s just one of many festivals that this festival town puts on each year. Other family friendly festivals include science, jazz and literature. And course the races, with the world famous Ladies Day.

We spent a night at Queens Hotel Cheltenham-MGallery. Its proximity to the town centre makes it a great base for festivals. And it’s not just a pretty face. Inside the building, original features come thick and fast. The wallpaper on the stairs is from an original design by Pugin. (The design can also be found on the walls of the Houses of Parliament.) The Georgian staircase really has the wow factor; upper floors look down onto a glass roof complete with a crown. Following the stairs as they curl around floors is one of the highlights of our stay and we barely consider using the lift.

Queens Hotel Regency staircase
Queens Hotel Regency staircase

The decor delights in the rooms too; artworks pick out elements of the hotel’s design – we particularly love the wallpaper above the bath that features the hotel’s exterior. Our twin room is comfortable and atospherically lit, and there’s a cocktail waiting for us on arrival.

Cocktails at Queens Hotel MGallery, Cheltenham
Cocktails at Queens Hotel MGallery, Cheltenham

Disclosure: Our trip was hosted by Visit Cheltenham and Queens Hotel who provided us with bed and breakfast and tickets for the observation wheel in order to bring you this review. All wandering, wondering, and rainy photography is all our own, as are the words.

Further reading: Enjoy a tour? Read about our self guided street art tour of Manchester or Bristol. Or if you are in the Gloucestershire area you might enjoy some active family adventures in the Forest of Dean.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...

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