The River Chelt from source to mouth

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.

Source of the River Chelt in Dowdeswell Woods

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.

Upper reaches of the River Chelt

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…

River Chelt near Wellinghill

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.

The Lilley Brook merging into the River Chelt in Charlton Kings.

River Chelt at Sandford Mill

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.

The River Chelt is hidden away under the town between Rodney Road and 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.

River Chelt going through the park at Arle

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.

River Chelt near Barrow

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.

River Chelt beyond Barrow

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.

The River Chelt joining the Severn at Wainlodes

May 2012

24 thoughts on “The River Chelt from source to mouth

  1. Hi Richard. Pete Studd here (HighWater). I am involved with the “Love Your River Chelt” project. I came across your blog whilst searching for “River Chelt otters”. We are involved in cleaning up the Chelt, removing invasive plants, sampling invertebrates and checking water quality. We were on a stretch below where the Chelt flows under the Old Gloucester Road/Hayden Road to the north of Cheltenham half a mile from Bristol Street Motors. In the mud under the bridge were many footprints from otters!

  2. It is by accident i have found the river Chelt through a casual conversation .If as a Arle school boy i had been introduced to local historical knowledge plus local geography and the gravitational run off of a rain drop too two seas from the year 1086 i am sure i would have been a more interested student ” never to old to lern” ?

  3. Have recently lost several 20 / 30 lb Koi carp and about 20 goldfish. The bigger fish severely chewed, and just the odd bits of the smaller ones. Suspect otters from Chelt, but think they, (or it,) would have to travel about 100 meters along the A40 to reach my garden and then find a way through to the ponds. Anyone Sandford Mill area had similar problem?

  4. Pingback: The River Chelt – thephotostorysite

  5. The river Cheltenham travels further than you think !!! I am here in Thailand on my 62nd birthday reading your blog. When I was about 11 I think, various members of my school helped clear the banks between Coxes meadow and Sandford Park behind the fire station. I remember the Echo and the BBC came to film for the local news.

    Sadly the work was not maintained.

    There is also a brook that flows from the Battle down estate and under Charlton Court road, but then disappears. I assume that also joins the Chelt.

    • Hi Derek,

      Many thanks for the slow response – I’m chuffed that you’ve been reading the River Chelt page in Thailand! I think the river probably needs a lot of maintenance which depends upon the enthusiasm of volunteers. There are probably several tributaries of the Chelt further upstream – the one I saw was the Lilley Brook – was that the one you were mentioning?

      All the best

      • Thanks for the reply. It would not be the Lilley Brook which flows from Leckhampton Hill and follows the route of the Cheltenham Cirencester road towards town. The brook I am talking about rises somewhere within the Battledown estate (possibly in the grounds of St Edmunds school) and follows the path of the A40 but disappears underground I think. It hardly appears on any maps and I cannot ascertain its name. It’s only existence seems to be acknowledged by the naming of a nearby street as “Brook Vale”

  6. Hi River Chelt lovers
    A couple of points if I may. First of all I believe the Chelt starts life the opposite side of the London Road to the reservoir, having been culverted under this main road. I have followed its course back from the reservoir to a spring on private farmland. This is confirmed on the pathfinder series of O.S. maps. Secondly the stream referred to by Derek is the Ham Brook which joins the Chelt immediately after it is culverted under the London road near the Ledmore area of Charlton Kings.
    Hope this helps.

    • I see the Ham Brook on the map which starts in the Ryeworth area and I can see where it would join the Chelt. However it is not my minor brook, which passes under Charlton Court road alongside Brook Vale. It’s probably too insignificant to be named !!

    • Hi Mike,

      Many thanks for your comments and sorry for the slow response. It all depends what one means by the source of the Chelt – there are several springs above the reservoir, I think I know the one you’re referring to, which was fairly unimpressive/ There are a couple which are just below Upper Dowdeswell – if memory serves me one has a well near it, and another further round is a real gusher, or at least it was much the most powerful on the day I was there. It would be worth photographing each of them. The one in Dowdeswell woods on this page was certainly the most photogenic, though a better photographer might do better with each of them!

      All the best

  7. I’d like to know the location of the Lilley Brook meeting with the Chelt. With landowner’s permission I’d like to photograph it.

    • On the map it is shown as meeting somewhere behind the Spirax Sarco grounds and the back of Charlton Drive, but it is not clear to me whether it is in private grounds or within the Coxes field area

  8. Hi Rich,
    The company I work for is doing a philanthropic project (we do one every year) that this year is called Sea Sieve, the idea being to design, build, prototype and then build a sieve to stop rubbish entering the sea via our rivers.
    I was wondering in your experience, does the Chelt struggle with floating rubbish and plastics? I have engaged with out local MP to see if there is any interest in us using the Chelt as an area to utilise prototypes and was wondering if they were happy for that where would be a good place to think about installing? After reading your information above it would seem somewhere towards Wainloads.

    • Hi Lee, many thanks for your comment – I’m not the right person to ask about this, not least because I moved away from Cheltenham several years ago. The project does sound really interesting though. I think the best thing would be to walk the length of the river, I would suggest particularly the part that goes through the town where you’re most likely to see floating rubbish. Most of the route from Sandford Park out beyond Arle is fairly easy to navigate. All the best, Rich

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