I went to Cheltenham yesterday. The main idea was to let my son travel on a new (to Transport for Wales services) Class 170 train. This was achieved, missing the other rag bag collection of DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units) running on their routes, including Pacers – a Leyland bus on a rail chassis from the 1980s, definitely to be phased out in Summer December, honest, (2019)  but still currently trundling around for at least another six months – it’s Wales isn’t it?

I thought I’d also take the opportunity to have a look at Cheltenham, compare it with when I lived and worked in the area and bore him with ‘when I were a lad’ moments.

The latter objective was easily completed within seconds, you can bore a thirteen year old into a truculent rendition of ‘Daaad! Stop it’ with a simple point of the finger and ‘that used to be a loco shed’. He did get his own back almost immediately as we walked out of the station approach by beginning the second task somewhat earlier than I expected. I was gesticulating, offering a choice between the two routes I knew led to the centre of town, when he took us across the road down a short wooded slope and we joined the Honeybourne line. The council have turned this old railway line that used to run north into Warwickshire, into a cross town path and cycleway. I believe it goes all the way up to the leisure centre and Tommy Taylor’s lane near the racecourse but we just walked into town.

The centre of the town looked familiar, the Prom is much the same – I was aware of the Rabbit/Bull liaison on the bench (a sculpture of a large bull and rabbit cuddling – God knows why) but obviously shops had come and gone and moved about. Waterstones has crossed the road and moved up towards High Street a bit and a couple of other bookshops seem to have disappeared. We didn’t have much time in the end as we wanted to eat and catch a direct train back; stopping trains to where we had left the car are politely described as infrequent, so I didn’t stray very far from the centre. There are clearly major changes just off centre which we didn’t see: GCHQ has unified across town on the old Benhall site, called itself ‘The Doughnut’ and the old Oakley, Prior’s Road site is now a supermarket and housing estate.

Lower High street has had some money spent on it – demolishing large chunks of characterful (dilapidated) properties and substituting flash concrete and steel constructions – no doubt soon to be characterless and dilapidated.

Cheltenham obviously remains that very Middle England mixture of the affluent and the distressed underclass. The number of high end retail outlets – not the mass market chains but exclusive intimate sellers – remains large and the characters who produced the action for the first headline I saw on the newsstands, when local papers had paper display sheets outside newsagents to entice the punters, remain active in the town. That headline had read ‘Post Office armed robbers caught’. A shock to someone coming from the North to what he thought was a spa town for retired gentlefolk and Army majors and colonels. They were there, but so were the late twentieth century equivalent of the trio who walked into the fast food joint my son and I were having lunch in yesterday.

Two men and a woman entered, dived for a table tucked away out of sight of the serving counter and started arguing. After a voluble exchange of expletives, not good natured by the sound of them, one man started swigging from his own unmarked plastic bottle while the woman and the other guy rummaged furtively in a shopping bag. Small white packets of something were being flicked through. At no stage did any of them even pretend to buy any food or drink and when I went to the toilets upstairs I made sure my son came up with me whether he wanted to go or not. As we exited the place they were still rummaging and arguing and the counter staff were looking the other way.

So plus ca change, as they say. A microcosm of inequality: serious wealth, a pretentious middle ground – you can’t move for yoga and Pilates places – and a profoundly dysfunctional group of left behind working class. I moved to Gloucester pretty quickly in the 80s and I haven’t lived in England for twenty four years. It felt odd going back. A beautiful town set in gorgeous countryside on the edge of the Cotswolds, but I never really felt comfortable there. So much pretence, striving to be something that probably isn’t worth the candle and leaves so many harmed. I was glad to get back on the train to Wales.

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