On Saturday night I went out drinking in Cheltenham.
This is not a particularly unusual occurrence: obviously I prefer Gloucester, but I work in Cheltenham and therefore have a lot of friends and colleagues who live in the town, so there are frequent occasions when I venture to the other end of the No10 bus route.
The Citizen often tries to stir up rivalry about which is best; Cheltenham or Gloucester. I find this antagonism unhelpful: the fact is that both have something different to offer. If we stopped the ‘my city is better than yours’ kind of arguments perhaps we could come to an amicable realisation that the two actually complement each other quite well.
One of the major differences between the two centres is that whereas in Gloucester the more traditional pubs are in the centre with the ‘youth-oriented’ pubs confined to the Eastgate strip, in Cheltenham the centre tends to be full of younger drinkers with the more traditional pubs around the edges.
Clearly, at my advancing years, it is around the edges that I therefore tend to drink.
On Saturday I was tempted over to Cheltenham by my friend Simon in reciprocation for a number of the Gloucester pub crawls that he has come along on. His chosen pubs were mostly to the south of the town.
We started off at one of my favourites: The Jolly Brewmaster, hidden away in the backstreets off the main A40 Suffolk Road. We then moved on to the Royal Union, just a short walk away in Tivoli, before heading back to the Retreat on the other side of the A40 and the Beehive just around the corner. Next we headed out onto the Bath Road to the Bath Tavern, a pit stop on the way to the Sandford Park Alehouse (SPA) at the end of the High Street – a bit of a walk, but well worth it for one of Cheltenham’s newest and most impressive pubs.
The experience of drinking in Cheltenham is quite different to Gloucester – not better or worse, but definitely different. Apart from the Jolly Brewmaster, which is a good old fashioned traditional pub with a superb laid back, bohemian vibe, all of the pubs had a modern, contemporary feel to them.
Whether or not this is a good thing is down to your personal preference. Sometimes I quite like it, but generally, especially in the winter, I prefer something more cosy and traditional – preferably with a roaring fire.
Some of the pubs specialise in real ale – especially the Jolly Brewmaster, Royal Union and SPA – but they all sold it. The only really ‘trendy’ pub on the route was the Retreat, which attracts a young crowd and, for some reason, a high quotient of attractive women (not that I notice that kind of thing of course!).
But even the more traditional pubs attract a good range of people of all ages, and all were busy – even the Jolly Brewmaster and the Royal Union, which are quite a walk out of the centre and not easy to find for the uninitiated.
Many of the more traditional pubs in Gloucester seem to find it difficult to attract a younger clientele: why is this? Is it because young Gloucester drinkers have been conditioned to segregate themselves away in Eastgate Street, or is it that the contemporary styling in Cheltenham’s pubs is more appealing to them than the more old fashioned, traditional feel of Gloucester’s pubs? Or maybe the demographic of Cheltenham, with its student population, just means that there are more relatively affluent young people about.
I would hate to see Gloucester’s superb traditional pubs all gutted out and refurbished in stripped wood and Scandinavian furniture, but is there something that can be done to make them more appealing to a wider demographic?
The other thing I notice about Cheltenham pubs is that there appears to be much less of a live music scene then there is in Gloucester: this is definitely something that Gloucester’s pubs should market themselves on to good effect to encourage Cheltenham drinkers across the Golden Valley.
Overall I feel that Gloucester and Cheltenham can probably both learn from each other, but it would be a mistake for Gloucester to try to imitate Cheltenham’s approach. Trying to compete head on would not be helpful to either, and I fear that Gloucester would almost certainly lose. Instead, both towns should identify their strengths and work to them, marketing themselves as different and complementary alternatives for a night out.