As the River Chelt has recently threatened to burst its banks yet again, I thought I should share a recent obsession – to show what the River Chelt is really like, compared to how its perceived. Without it, the town would not be here, but in recent times it has seemed unable to comprehend this streak of wildness flowing through its heart.
Having had three jobs within 200m of the banks of the Chelt, I have spent many a lunchtime getting some fresh air alongside it, and had thought vaguely about photographing it. Then recently a friend of mine talked about an exhibition he was thinking of putting on – and that gave me the impetus I needed. The results are in a slideshow on flickr here, but I thought I would whet your appetite first.
The River Chelt has its main springs above the Dowdeswell Reservoir. The wildest of these is up in the woods on the south side of Cleeve Hill. Others are on the opposite side of the valley, around Upper Dowdeswell, and have a more domesticated air: indeed an ancient disused well by one of them suggests that the village was probably built around the spring.
Exploring the upper reaches of the river has been a particular treat: I’ve been amazed how lovely and scenic it actually is. Here’s a pic of it near Wellinghill House. The wild garlic also gives it an appearance of lushness – as well as providing the area its own unique smell…
The Chelt is known as a ‘flashy’ river, because for much of the year it seems like a small, undistinguished stream. However, as the recent rains have shown, it can quickly become full and fast – more obviously a potential river. This is in large part due to the lie of the land in the Dowdeswell valley, which funnels a number of tributaries into the Chelt. This is then added to by others which run off the Cotswold escarpment.
One of these, the Lilley Brook, arises less than a mile north of Seven Springs – a location renowned as a source of the Thames. Instead, the Lilley Brook flows north-west and joins the Chelt in a well-kept garden in Charlton Kings, almost doubling the river’s size.
It’s partly for this reason that flood prevention is particularly important just downstream of this junction. Nevertheless the 2007 floods showed that a flashy river is capable of defying most schemes…
Shortly after, the River Chelt flows through Sandford Mill. Two mills in the area were recorded in the Domesday Book, and this may have been one of them: the site is no later than 1615, when it is first named unequivocally. Sandford Mill is no longer operational but the building is still there, and the area is unusually attractive.
So, what do you think the town does with a river which is such a key part of its origins and geography? It buries it. The river is hidden away after it leaves Sandford Park, passing the Rodney Road car park behind brick walls, disapearing completely under the town itself. It is only permitted to emerge into view again on the far side of Bayshill Road.
Fortunately, thereafter the river is no longer treated as an embarrassment but as an asset, and there are a number of parks and walkways alongside it: along the back of St. George’s Road, then beyond Waitrose, and through Arle. Incidentally the Saxon name for the river was Alr, showing the antiquity of this part of modern Cheltenham and its deep connection with the river.
Just before leaving town it winds past a number of car dealerships. Although no longer hidden behind walls as it is in central Cheltenham, it’s another odd juxtaposition between the natural and commercial.
The reality, which for much of the time can be so easily missed, is that Cheltenham is situated in the floodplain of the Chelt. This reality becomes obvious as the river leaves the town and winds through Boddington (sliding past the manor), where the surrounding countryside approaching the Severn is very flat.
The river flows past Barrow, a small village at the end of a lane, which you’d only ever go down if you deliberately intended to visit it. This may explain its air of remoteness: despite the nearness of the motorway and Cheltenham itself, it has a deeply rural feel to it. This is also where the Chelt is most obviously a ‘river’ and not just a stream.
Nevertheless the River Chelt’s journey ends not long after this: its floodplain is shared with its giant neighbour, the Severn, which it joins at Wainlodes.
It’s a curious thought that a raindrop falling in Dowdeswell will find its way into the Chelt, and then flow via the Severn into the Atlantic; whereas if it were to fall half a mile to the south in Foxcote, it would drain into the Churn, merge into the Thames, and then empty into the North Sea. Much as we like to control things, sometimes it is small differences that can lead to radically different outcomes.
The full slideshow is here.