Dom Joly: ‘Why I love Cheltenham’

Front view of the Municipal Offices along the Promenade, Cheltenham (c) CaronB / Thinkstock

Front view of the Municipal Offices along the Promenade, Cheltenham (c) CaronB / Thinkstock - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘We’ve decided to leave the countryside and buy a place in town’

Life goes in weird circles. As a kid I grew up in the mountains above Beirut. The reasons my family got to Lebanon from England is a complicated story that I intend to tackle in my next book. But the part of my family that stayed in England were based in Cheltenham and I recall several begrudging visits to them in which I used to look around and thank the Lord that this was not my life.

I’m sorry but, Cheltenham, in the Seventies, was God’s waiting room. It was like a massive old age home and I dreaded my visits there. I was all about the excitement of life abroad – the sun, the beaches, the food, the skiing… the war. Sure, Lebanon was not for everybody, but it was home to me and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Fifteen or so years ago, when I was doing up my flat in London, I decided to rent a place in the Cotswolds for six months, for a bit of an “adventure.” Once we moved down, we got a dog, then another one and pretty soon we realised that we were never moving back to London. I ended up selling my Notting Hill flat to Salman Rushdie (who had also chosen the Cotswolds – The Lygon Arms in Broadway to be precise – to hide out in when escaping his Fatwah). I still regret not going ahead with my plan to re-tile my roof terrace with a massive ‘Salman Rushdie lives here’ for the next time Google Earth flew over, but I digress.

We lived near Cirencester for a while before moving to a farm just over the hill from Cheltenham. The town was getting a little hipper and my kids started to go to school there. I could feel myself getting slowly drawn in. It was only a matter of time.

Finally, it’s happened. We’ve decided to leave the countryside and buy a place in town. I have come full circle and am ready for death.

What has won me over about the place? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here is my random list of things that I love about Cheltenham.

1. Kibou. The best Japanese food around. It’s always hard to get a table because it’s crazily tiny. But once you’re in in, you really don’t want to leave. The pork ramen, the tempura prawns… I’m drooling just thinking about it.

2. 131 the Prom. I know, it’s stupidly pricey and the food is not always up to standard, but it is a great place to hang out in, the staff are wonderful, and I’ve now written three books in there (my new one – The Hezbollah Hiking Club is out in June). So, it’s technically my office.

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3. The Racing. I wasn’t really into racing until I made a series of films about it last year and I’m now far better informed and almost a convert. Even if I never see a race, you can’t knock the atmosphere and it’s a great opportunity to meet every Irishman you’ve ever known in one day

4. The Literature Festival. How amazing that once a year the whole literary world descends upon Cheltenham? I actually wrote the last page of my new book in the writer’s tent of last year’s festival. You can’t get more local than that.

5. The Boot’s Escalator. Surely there is no smaller or more unnecessary escalator than the mini one between the two levels of the Chemist’s at the end of The Promenade?

6. The Wishing Fish Clock. Located within Regent’s Arcade and designed by Kit Williams (of Masquerade fame) after what was clearly a big night on the hallucinogenics. I love this clock, but only when experiencing a severe acid flashback.

7. The sculpture of a man lying down in Sandford Park. I’m sure it’s got artistic merit, but the fact that the man appears to be lying down staring straight at a children’s playground is unintentionally hilarious.

8. The Spa. Cheltenham was essentially founded on the fact that this it was the source of some truly undrinkable water.

9. The River Chelt. One of the world’s great rivers, often cruelly ignored by scholars.

10. Train prices. The spectacular price of a ticket to London makes plane travel seem much more palatable.

For more from Dom Joly, follow him on Twitter! @domjoly

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