I had been chomping at the bit to go to Cheltenham, ever since I learnt that the town has one of the last remaining great 1930s lidos in the UK. I took the plunge last week, but would I find good coffee and tea to go with the joys of the pool?
Well, Sandford Parks Lido, just a ten minute walk from the centre of Cheltenham, certainly lived up to expectations. It may not have the views of Ilkley Lido or Gourock, but it has virtually everything else you could need…AND the water is heated, unlike Ilkley!
It’s a 50m pool with enough width to cater for lanes at all sorts of speeds and a free-swimming area for fun or for those who just don’t want the discipline of lap after lap.
The fountain is frustratingly placed apart from the pool – surely it must once have been in the pool, as at Ilkley? – so no chance to sit and let the water flow over you after a strenuous twenty minutes of lengths. But, other than that, this pool is fantastic.
And there’s a great sense of history here. I loved the gallery of old photos showing the lido at different points in its past. There’s a very encouraging attendance chart (something other pools would do well to copy, in my view) showing the summer of 2013 to be the most popular season ever since the Lido opened in 1935.
There’s an excellent pamphlet celebrating the lido’s history and its place in the Cheltenham community. And don’t miss the pre-war turnstiles, still in use today, the like of which I’ve only – so far – seen at Stonehaven Pool.
Even the lido café does a decent cuppa (Coffee roasted by Ethical Addictions nearby in Gloucester) and some home-baked biscuits. So you could spend all day here and not even need to head into town.
But of course the aim of this Fancy a Cuppa? tour is to find the best coffee and tea in town nearby the lidos of the UK.
So the good news is that it’s less than half a mile from the pool to get the best coffee in Cheltenham (in our view, anyway). Moka is in Suffolk Parade, a quiet little side street you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for it.
Moka is not to be missed, though. The coffee comes from the excellent Extract Coffee Roasters in Bristol, making a superb flat white, prepared by Mark, the brother of the owner Simon.
The cakes are all locally-made, too, with some interesting local specialities like Eccles Cakes (!) and my Dad’s old favourite: Lardy Cake. So, in memory of the Old Man, I had to have a piece of that to go with my first cup. He would have been delighted to find it still on sale so many years after his family had it as their regular treat probably 80 years ago or more.
Cheltenham is a pretty, leafy town, with long curving terraces of Georgian or Regency buildings. But I didn’t find many distinctive or quirky landmarks to whet my appetite between cuppas. I passed the private Cheltenham College several times between the pool and the town and assumed the famous Ladies College had gone co-educational…
Oh dear, just shows how wrong my upbringing was that I didn’t know these are two totally different institutions, and a google search on my return home showed that girls are still being ‘finished’ on the other side of town…
I guess these ladies-to-be take their tea within the confines of the college, so no public faux pas possible with the clotted cream! I certainly didn’t find any obvious place for the Fancy a Cuppa? tea room in Cheltenham.
One place that does advertise as a tea room was closed (but I read that they just serve Yorkshire Tea in bags in any case…); another had a nice selection of loose leaf teas, but I discovered that it was part of a local chain, so again didn’t quite fit the bill. And then I passed this place, which would have been perfect – from the outside at least – if it had not closed down, probably ages ago.
I even traipsed back towards the lido to try a deli, only to find their loose teas were all fruity or green and their traditional black teas in bags. And I was on the point of giving up on tea in Cheltenham, when I spotted a place down below ground that just might do the trick, I thought.
You can’t really tell from the name – The Muffin Man – what kind of place this is. The kind of muffins you can buy in Starbucks, Costa or any of the other Americanised chains are definitely NOT on The Muffin Man menu. They do sometimes serve old-fashioned English muffins, but actually the name comes from a 19th century character who sold muffins in Cheltenham and is depicted in a local artist’s drawing, a copy of which was on display in the Gents’ toilets!
It’s a nice little local connection and it surely merits greater prominence in the tea room and outside!
But the best thing about The Muffin Man is the quality of the tea (and the coffee, actually – from Union Hand Roasted). Jenier World of Teas do a great selection of blends from their HQ in Scotland and that’s the brand facing you on the display as you enter the place down in the basement of what must once have been a residential block.
The scones are all made in-house and delicious with Cotswold clotted cream and home-made jam (also on sale by the jar). And if you have a sandwich, it’ll be on bread made on the premises.
This is a real quality find in the heart of Cheltenham. It’s right by the National Express coach station, so if ever you’re leaving (or arriving) by bus, this is the your best port of call. Thanks to owners Robert and Lawrence for ending my frustrating search for a decent cuppa tea in Cheltenham!
Two final mentions before we leave…
Just down the road from Moka is the wonderful Daffodil building. Now a lovely restaurant, it was very obviously once a cinema and as I took a photo of the frontage an old guy stopped and told me he used to go to Saturday matinées there as a kid. All this place needs now is an occasional dinner and film night, and it can end up in my future Fancy a Cuppa at the Flicks? book…
And talking of future projects, I am also working slowly on Fancy a Cuppa Before the Off? Cheltenham, some would say, is the HQ of National Hunt racing in the UK. So I couldn’t leave town without a quick spin by the racecourse. It’s by far the grandest grandstand entrance I’ve seen yet, and the views down over the course must be a delight on any race day.
Cheltenham, I’ve good reason to say: I’ll be back!