If you were absolutely desperate for something to do on a Sunday afternoon then you might go to Cheltenham to look at the regency architecture. You could also visit the birthplace of The Planets’ composer Gustav Holst. He was indeed born there, even with a name like that. As the sun sets, and the cloak of darkness shrouds your further activities, you might want to hide behind a bush and observe the posh girls through the windows of Cheltenham Ladies’ College. There’s nothing to lose if you’re on the sex offenders’ register already.
However, that’s as entertaining as Cheltenham gets. Unless you ignore the warnings of the ‘Ides of March’ and turn up for the Cheltenham Festival. It takes place in the middle of March, just in case you didn’t know what ‘Ides’ meant.
This particular festival has nothing to do with music, mud and spotty adolescents thinking they’re all grown-up by sitting in a tent and passing round a joint for three days. The Cheltenham Festival is all about the more mature male activities of gambling, boozing and competitive farting.
It is a four day party that celebrates ‘National Hunt’ horse racing. Rather than just run in a straight line, this is the type or racing where horses are set the more troublesome task of having to jump over fences in return for their sugar lumps.
Hence it’s less about oil sheiks, top hats or royal waves from carriages and it’s much more about the beery bonhomie of sharing one room in a B&B with three other middle-aged men and their cacophonous symphonies of belches, snores and rectal emissions. It’s about waking up with a hangover and wiping the fart-infused condensation from the window, looking out on a spring morning and thinking about which one of your roommates is going to provide the most graphic ‘first-dump of the day’ report. The best tales usually involve a bit of blood-letting.
Then it’s down to a fry-up breakfast with the other lodgers in the house who, being Irish, will happily advise you on their best bet of the day. This usually contradicts whatever you’ve read in the Racing Post, whatever Channel 4’s Racing Line is predicting and whatever your intuition is telling you. But you’ll back it anyway, because they’re Irish and they probably heard it from the horse itself over a drink in a Donegal bar. It usually turns out that their fancied nag falls at the first fence and the one with the silliest name, which you were going to back, ends up winning at fifty to one.
The usually genteel population of Cheltenham doubles for the festival. It is mostly swollen by the aforementioned Irish who have cashed in every EEC farming subsidy they’ve ever swindled to get there. If they’ve not been flown or ferried across the Irish Sea, then they’ve swum it. The numbers are also boosted by prostitutes that have been bussed in to take full advantage of thousands of drunken men who have been let off the marital leash for a few days. The boozy evenings last until the small hours and the pavements are awash with spilled Guinness and kebab vomit. It’s all part of the fun though, until you slip over in it.
And when the festival is over, when the final race has been run, when the last betting slip is torn in half, the goodbyes all said and it’s time for the long drive home. What do you take back with you? It would be nice to say just treasured memories, but unfortunately I took crabs as well.
I won’t be allowed to go again.
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