Cheltenham, located at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment, has become known lately as a festival town – the Literature Festival is a major European event, and then there is the Jazz Festival, the Folk Music Festival, the Classical Music Festival, the Science Festival, the Cricket Festival. But when people here talk about The Festival, they mean one thing: horses. The Festival, a four day steeplechase meeting, featuring the Gold Cup, takes place annually in March. And since it always coincides with St. Patrick's Day, it has for long been popular with the Irish, who come over in droves, bringing with them a certain joyousness and competitive spirit that, together with the apple and cherry blossom that decorates the countryside, heralds the onset of spring. Or so we like to think. Weather, as we all know, is fickle and never more so than in March, when the chances for sun and snow are about equal.
In fact, the weather is just a minor inconvenience and has only rarely brought the event to a stop. Even under grey skies the presence of hundreds of thousands of eager racegoers from all over Britain and Ireland, scattered in accommodation throughout the Cotswolds, means that restaurants and bars and pubs in every village take on a mood of celebration that is exactly right for 'The Festival'. It is Christmas Eve every day for a week.
You don't need to be a fan of racing. You don't have to go the races at all but you can absorb the atmosphere, as you watch the small armies of punters, Racing Post in hand, buoyant with optimism, walking across town after a mighty breakfast to the racecourse at Prestbury, on the very edge of Cheltenham. Or, even better, take a walk on Cleeve Hill, the highest point of the Cotswolds, which overlooks the racecourse, and look down at the milling crowds and listen to their thunderous roars of encouragement, as after the final fence their favourites strain up the hill to the finish line.