Cheltenham: The lesser-known side to this Regency spa town of literature and horseracing

I’m in a dilapidated car park and there is rubble crunching under my feet. All around me are brightly-coloured murals, transforming the nondescript space into an art gallery. I’m in Cheltenham, which is known for its racecourse, Pittville Pump Room, statuesque Regency buildings and – more recently – its murals.

The Gloucestershire town, which once counted Charles Dickens as a visitor, has Andy “Dice” Davies to thank for its contemporary public art. Davies set up the Cheltenham Paint Festival in 2017 and the event now takes place annually each July. Its legacy, however, can be enjoyed year round. You don’t have to wander far from Cheltenham’s Regency buildings before coming across a mural.

The street art contrasts with the Regency buildings painted white (Photo: Getty)

Street art can be found in Cheltenham’s car parks, as well as on its breweries, pubs, and social housing (residents of these flats were consulted and shown examples of the artists’ works in advance of the festival). The murals are part of an art trail covering five miles. Works on show include fine art, photo-realism and tile-based sculptures – one 2023 creation covers the height of a seven-storey building.

Businesses have shown enthusiasm for the festival, too: there is a floral peacock by Curtis Hylton benignly looking down from one side of the Holiday Inn Express, one of the festival’s sponsors.

Lisa Kowalkowski from Visit Cheltenham says that the town sees an increase in footfall during the festival.

“Anecdotally, our hotels report more visitors during the festival weekend,” she adds.

But how did it all begin? Davies – or to call him by his artist’s name, Dice67 (his favourite book is The Dice Man, a 1971 novel by American author George Cockcroft) – used to oversee the legal graffitiing of tunnel walls on the Honeybourne Line, a public footpath on the old railway track. The seeds of Cheltenham Paint Festival were sown when people told him how much they loved the street art there.

During the festival’s first year, in 2017, it was mainly Davies’s artist friends painting, but the event now attracts more than 170 artists from all over the world to paint walls in 30 locations.

Davies, a former teacher, has gone on his own artist’s journey. He learnt how to make Banksy-style stencils after pupils at the school he taught at requested them. Now, the children are learning about him.

A mural on the old brewery. The centrepiece by Gnasher is from 2017. It was joined by works from Pogo on the left and Inkie on the right in 2018 Amy Brooke
A mural on the old brewery. The centrepiece by Gnasher is from 2017. It was joined by works from Pogo on the left and Inkie on the right in 2018 (Photo: Amy Brooke)

His first public-art stencil piece was of his then five-year-old daughter, Izzy. In the mural, she is striking a pose in pink boots and sunglasses. It remains on the wall of Williams Cycles, much to his daughter’s distaste.

“She won’t let me paint over it though,” Davies says.

While the festival attracts some big names – My Dog Sighs, Inkie, Irony, Krimsone, and Snub, to name a few – it is a democratic affair. Anyone from any background can apply to paint and Davies ensures there’s a 50-50 split of male and female artists.

That’s part of the festival’s appeal. It is perhaps more accessible than some of the town’s other events (such as Cheltenham Festival or Cheltenham Literature Festival), not least because it is free.

It has also brought an increased interest in, and focus on, art across the town.

“We only had three galleries […] when I started, we now have at least eight,” says Davies.

“I’ve met many people who’ve told me they’ve taken up painting as a result of seeing the works around town,” he adds.

The spike in interest led Art-K, which teaches art to children and adults at studios across the UK, to open its first site in Cheltenham this year. Meanwhile, The Art Studio has been running classes in the town for the past five years. There is also more interest in art at schools with Davies being asked to do workshops for children in Cheltenham and the surrounding towns. Plus, over the festival’s seven-year history, Cheltenham’s residents, young and old, have developed a soft spot for the public artworks.

Davies recalls that when he was retouching a damaged mural in a car park, he was interrupted by a couple of older women. Contrary to his expectations, they just wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to paint over the artwork because they enjoyed the pieces so much.

“They said it made the place much less dark and dingy,” he says.

Unlike other street art festivals, such as Bristol’s Upfest, where almost all pieces are painted over each year to make room for new art, many of those in Cheltenham are permanent. Smaller places, such the Honeybourne Line tunnels and the boards in the North Place Car Park are repainted each year, but all of the large-scale pieces from the past seven years are still up.

And, this year, art lovers supported a crowdfunding campaign that was launched by a member of the community to help save the under-funded festival from closure.

“We raised £16,500 in just 36 hours,” Davies says.

Beyond the murals, visitors will find much to enjoy on a longer stay in Cheltenham.

You can get to know the two sides of of the town by wandering its streets – you can’t miss the white stucco buildings with their elegant wrought-iron balconies.

Municipal Offices architecture in the Regency style in the High Street area on 15th September 2023 in Cheltenham, United Kingdom. Cheltenham also known as Cheltenham Spa, is sometimes known as 'the Garden Town of England', is a spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds in the county of Gloucestershire. Cheltenham is well known for it's Regency style architecture. (photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)
The Regency style in Cheltenham (Photo: Mike Kemp)

Next head to Pittville Park. Cheltenham’s largest ornamental park is home to the Pump Room where visitors once came to drink the spa town’s mineral waters. Just south of the town centre, the Montpellier district is worth a stroll. It is packed with independent boutiques, bars and restaurants (try the Sri Lankan dishes at Karapincha on Clarence Street).

Book a seat on the heritage steam railway for a scenic, 28-mile round trip through the Cotswolds. Or try a swim at the Art Deco Sandford Parks Lido, which opened in 1935. Meanwhile, a wine tasting with the owners of The Grape Escape wine bar is a pleasant way to pass an evening.

Those staying overnight might try The Queens Hotel (rooms from £112); the neo-classical building was named in honour of Queen Victoria.

If Davies has any say in it, Cheltenham’s history and street art will soon be better acquainted.

“We’re constantly trying to find new spaces for artists to paint on,” he says.

To that end, he’s in discussions with the town council about getting planning permission for next year’s artists to paint on some town-centre listed buildings.

Talks are still in the early stages, but Davies says the council is “open to the idea” and has already spoken to one of the buildings’ owners.

If the plans are approved, 2024’s paint festival could see Cheltenham’s more contemporary art scene woven ever more closely with its Regency heritage.