Cheltenham’s fantastic calendar of sporting and cultural festivals brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to this perfect festival town every year.
March sees ‘the olympics of horseracing’, the UK’s premier jump racing meeting, known to racegoers simply as The Festival. The climax of the week is the Gold Cup. The roar of the crowd at Prestbury Park has a strong Irish accent and is complemented by the party atmosphere at the racecourse’s many venues and in Cheltenham itself.
Cheltenham’s other unique sporting festival is Gloucestershire CCC’s Cheltenham Cricket Festival, the longest and longest-running cricket festival in the world on an ‘out’ ground. Cheltenham College provides the glorious venue for up to twelve days of first-class cricket every July.
Four festivals are organised under the Cheltenham Festivals umbrella and each brings a unique buzz to the centre of town:
In October, the Cheltenham Literature Festival is the world’s oldest literature festival. With 350 events over ten days the festival plays host to the biggest names in literature, politics and entertainment. One recent festival featured Vince Cable, Judi Dench, Jeremy Paxman, Michael Palin, Victoria Glendinning, Matthew D’Ancona, Michael Morpurgo and AC Grayling – and that was just on the first Saturday. But the best of the festival is often the small, offbeat performance, an eye-opening education event, debate or workshop with a name you haven’t heard of. Yet.
In midsummer, the Cheltenham Music Festival is the senior professional arts festival, held every year for more than 60 years. But this international festival has always been a celebration of the new as well, notching up more than 200 premieres since the very first, by Benjamin Britten, in 1945. It stays true to its classical heart but now draws in everything from world music and folk traditions to cabaret and movie scores in an ever-increasing variety of concerts, films, debates and performances.
Spring sees the Cheltenham Jazz Festival which is equally committed to fostering new talent and takes its infectious combination of different jazz traditions into the streets and parks and pubs of Cheltenham as well as its concert venues.
The newest of the Cheltenham Festivals quartet, June’s Cheltenham Science Festival celebrates and communicates science and the importance and fun of science through events, explosions, debates, hands-on demonstrations and the central exhibition that always surprises and amazes young and old alike.
Back at the racecourse at the beginning of every summer Wychwood is a cool, green, family-friendly mix of world music and folk with enough indie, rock and comedy to keep you surprised and happy. That and a wonderful variety of food, weird and wacky stalls and sideshows.
In the nearby countryside, the proudly small 2000 Trees Festival also has a strongly green and ethical flavour and treats an audience limited to just a few thousand to an eclectic mix of rock, folk and indie.
Cheltenham’s most local festival is also its oldest. Started in 1926, the Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts in May combines dance, music, poetry and drama with hundreds of participants competing in dozens of classes.
The Cheltenham Craft Beer & Cider Festival in July is a small but perfectly formed festival that promotes fine local beers and breweries, local music and the local branch of the Samaritans for one day only every July. They even let in a bit of cider and perry too.
Cheltenham Open Studios in June is a festival of local art and opens the doors of more than 70 galleries, studios, venues and homes in and around Cheltenham every other year, showing off contemporary painting, drawing, textiles, ceramics, photography and sculpture.
The Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the spring brings poems and poets (and music and comedy and multimedia events) to more than a dozen pubs, schools, bars, chapels and other venues across the town.
The Hobgoblin Cheltenham Comedy Festival in September features big stars like Jeremy Hardy and Ed Byrne but new names, fringe and oddball events and family fun too.
And comic fans converge on Cheltenham for the True Believers’ Comic Festival, where you can buy and sell comics and collectibles, meet artists and writers and, er, dress up quite a bit.