Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Cheltenham. 25th Feb 2006

At Heathrow, two Canadians got on the coach and sat directly behind us. I don't think their mothers had ever told them about when to use their ‘indoors’ voices. After about an hour of their braying I wanted to burst my own eardrums. National Express sometimes provides earphones ostensibly to allow you to listen to the onboard TV, but they're probably really meant for times like this. Both Canucks were evidently quite successful in some branch of corporate IT and were so thoroughly and tediously immersed in business culture that I began to take a renewed pride in my own failure to understand the word career as anything other than a verb.
There was a clear dynamic between the pair. The less successful of the two managed to find endlessly varied ways of agreeing with the other, a skill that I’m sure hasn’t harmed his advancement in the corporate world. I was reminded of a group of middle managers I once saw on a train in Lewisham. The most popular of the group was a man who spent all his time apparently nodding his gushing agreement to everything anybody said. It took me some time to realise that he actually had some sort of tic.
The slightly superior Canadian rang his office to say he would be back in time for a mid-morning meeting on Monday, so this was evidently a weekend trip. It seemed an awful lot of CO2 emissions to produce for a weekend in the country. Perhaps they knew something about Cheltenham I didn’t and still don’t.

Cheltenham is like Bath without the cultural pretensions – like a thick, posh rugby playing brother to its more literary sibling. Legend has it, it's the only posh town in southern England Jane Austen never lived in. Not all its olde-worldiness was an unalloyed delight – I was travelling with my other half, who, single-handed, brought the headcount of black people in the town up into double figures. This caused some curiosity among the locals – either that or somebody had announced a staring competition just before we arrived.
Other aspects of the place were old fashioned in a more endearing way. We stumbled across an old-school electrical shop called something suitably no-nonsense like Cheltenham Electrical, down a terraced backstreet away from the prevailing chintz and poshness. Pride of place in the window was taken by the first two-bar fire I’d seen since about 1979; yours for a very reasonable £17. It gave me a strange thrill of reassurance - I'd assumed those things had gone the way of the Spacehopper and the three-day-week. E was sent into a reverie, remembering long-gone afternoons skiving off school and whiling the time away by flicking bogies onto the bars of her mum’s electric fire to watch them sizzle. She wondered now at the way the fire’s elements never seemed to last long. I suggested they might have been shorted out by her snot, feigning more technical knowledge than I can honestly lay claim to. I felt the shop’s days were probably numbered. For posterity, I took a photo of it from the pavement. From behind the counter, the proprietor and his assistant, both in cardigans, looked back at me listlessly, like two men waiting for the end.

To my dismay E had balked at taking a punt on an unknown local B and B. She insisted we stay at the Cheltenham Travelodge. I caved in, but on the day my subconscious revolted and tried to sabotage the plan by making me forget to take a note of the address. I had a vague recollection that the hotel was near the racecourse so we took the bus there. After twenty minutes whimpering in a freezing gale and fruitlessly asking strangers for directions, we headed back into town. The first cabbie on the rank advised us there were three Travelodges in the area. Three of the buggers!
We took a lucky guess at which was ours. The reception was large, draughty, brightly lit and tiled in beige, like a big gent’s toilet. I wouldn't have been surprised if it automatically self- cleaned between arrivals.
A mate of mine used to complain that Tom Jones delivers lyrics as if he doesn’t know what the words mean. The teenage receptionist had a similar affliction. It was as if she was so bored that language had lost all meaning.
She strung whole sentences together as if they were single words from some obscure dialect; like canitakethemoneyforthepaymentnowplease, which took me three attempts to decipher. I get impatient with travel writing that harps on about poor service – it always strikes me as a bit snooty and mean-spirited, so I’ll cut her some slack and assume some of her brusqueness was fallout from the raging hormones everybody suffers at seventeen. We later saw her boyfriend arrive to collect her at the end of her shift – she seemed a lot more human off duty. Of course, it might have been she just didn’t like the look of us. Certainly when I completed the registration form and admitted that we’d arrived by public transport, an odd mix of incomprehension and mistrust swept across her face. When I handed over my debit card I thought she was going to test its validity by biting it like a bartender in a silent film.

The hallways of the hotel were like a cross between a student halls of residence and a recently tarted-up open prison. I won't bother describing our room as, according to the company's brochure, it'd be identical to every other Travelodge room of the same grade and size. What the brochure doesn’t show you is how impossibly soft the beds are. My guess is that this is a deliberate tactic to render sex impractical, thus reducing complaints about noise. The brochure's also silent on the company’s stinginess with coffee; to whit, one sachet per guest.
I later took matters into my own hands, having noticed that the door of the cleaner’s cupboard was left ajar. While E stood lookout I sneaked in and liberated some extra sachets of coffee and sugar from the cleaner’s trolley. Back in our room, bad coffee never tasted so good. In the morning, on the floor outside our room, somebody had placed a copy of the novel, Lucky You, by Carl Hiaasen. For a paranoid moment I wondered if this was some sort of coded warning from hotel security that they were wise to my coffee thieving, but I pushed the thought from my mind.

When we asked the new teenager on reception if he had any leaflets on local attractions he pointed us to a rack containing nothing but Travelodge leaflets, so we made our own plans. We visited the birthplace of Holst. It bored me, except for the servant’s quarters, a room the size of a phonebox at the top of the house. This apparently was an improvement on the arrangements common a few years before, where staff slept either in the kitchen or under the stairs. Perhaps that’s what was meant by below stairs staff.
Our next destination was to be some ornamental gardens with an impressive domed Georgian building as their centrepiece. I asked the driver of the hopper bus to let us know when we reached the nearest stop. He obviously thought we wanted to go the pretty way. I watched with a sinking feeling as a likely looking green-domed building receded in the back window. A helpful woman suggested that if we stayed on long enough the bus would loop back round to the same spot. As the bus took forty minutes meandering through what felt like most of Gloucestershire, we sank into a glum, gormless silence broken only when there was an unexplained stop for fifteen minutes by a graveyard.
‘There’s a lot of people buried there,’ E observed.
‘That’s cemeteries for you,’ I muttered.
On the return leg of the journey, ten minutes after the gardens had closed, the driver looked over his shoulder and breezily announced our destination. I thanked him as we alighted but the sarcasm I did it with seemed to just ricochet clean off him.