DOWN THE RIVER CHELT
In view of all the environmental work affecting the river at the north end of our estate, it might be of interest to look at its story. The most intimate connection between man and stream occurs at water-powered corn mills. Domesday Book (1087) records that Chelenham Parish had two old Saxon mills and three new ones, none of them named. The two old ones are generally assumed to be those at Cheltenham (Cambray) and at Arle, simply because those are the only two communities whose names have (yet) been discovered in Saxon documents. The contenders for the three new mills must be Charlton Kings (Cudnall), Sandford, Upper Alstone and Lower Alstone.
From Hesters Way, a short way upstream is Lower Alstone Mill. This still stands as a rather scruffy building used as a social club for the nearby Gas Works. It is in Arle Avenue, but can also be reached by a short walk from Tesco's Superstore.
Lower Alstone Mill
In medieval centuries, the river can be pictured running down from there for the next half mile (0.8 km) between boggy green meadows on the north bank and a huge communal arable field called Sand Field on the south bank. The name Sandfields for housing either side of Arle Road seems to have gone out of fashion (though still marked on many maps).
It does appear that the area was so damp that the River Chelt ran in two separate channels here. The smaller north channel was perhaps fed by the well-known ditch that ran down the centre of Cheltenham High Street. It ran parallel to the main river about 200 yards/metres away, through the peaty area known as 'The Moors', meeting up with the wider course at the point now crossed by Princess Elizabeth Way. The north channel is now covered over, the area being largely surrounded by industry and concrete.
Downstream from the railway line we are fortunate that the riverbank is accessible and landscaped, although there are rather odd industrial remnants scattered about, this being the location of Cheltenham's first electricity works, as well as an incinerator and sewage works.
For a description of Arle Mill, see Volume 1 (p13). It stood some way from the River Chelt, fed by a particularly long artificial millstream. The upper arm of this, known as the Mill Race, split from the south bank of the river within what is now known as Chelt Walk, and then spread into a wide mill pond under what is now The Big Yellow Storage Co.. The site of the mill itself is marked by a landscaped mound at the end of Kingsmead Close. The lower arm of the millstream, known as the Mill Leat, can still be faintly traced across the George Readings Way playing field, rejoining the Chelt at the point where it is crossed by Glynbridge Gardens. The river itself follows a landscaped route between the above two housing estates, also forming the parish boundary between Cheltenham and Swindon.
The remnant of an old bridge still stands (near no. 44 Frank Brookes Road) which once connected the manor and mill of Arle with the Tewkesbury Road. The grounds on the north bank were formerly a market garden called Arlebrook Gardens. The name of the house here (demolished in 1971) commemorates the belief that the River Chelt was once more usually known as the Arle Brook. This is certainly implied by an ancient local document, recounting how the river formed the boundary of the estates of Deerhurst Abbey before the Norman Conquest. The boundary is described in Saxon English as running 'andlang alre', translating as 'along the Arle'.
North of the Chelt in Swindon Parish was another mill. It is now represented by a timber-framed house built around 1600 on Hayden Road called 'The Homestead'. Until the 1960s it was a farmhouse called Bedlam Farm, but before 1890 known as Bedlam Mill. Before then, its history can be traced thoroughly in the records of Gloucester City Council.
The situation arose because in the mid-1200s the owner of the mill and its lands donated the whole to a hospital in Gloucester (founded by Gloucester Abbey). In the Reformation when such institutions were separated from church influence, the Corporation of Gloucester City inherited both the hospital and the mill. In 1717 the name Bedlam is recorded for the mill, being the nickname in use for asylums. The hospital formerly founded for the treatment of leprosy, had become a psychiatric centre (to use modern terminology). The present day Hospital of St. Margaret's and Asylum Road indicate the location.
It was not until 1890 that the mill and its lands were sold off by the Charity Commissioners. Most of the attached lands (fifteen and a half acres) were in the parish of Swindon, but a further acre was south of the river within Arle.
Although neither Bedlam nor Arle Mills can be proven to be amongst those in the Domesday Book in 1087, it is clear that Bedlam Mill was operating in the early 1200s, and the existence of Arle Mill is strongly implied in the same records. The following 650 years are well chronicled for us, including an account of 1617 in which the building is called 'Hawling's Mill', no doubt after the miller's surname. A confused reading of the documents led to a tale that Arle was the name of the early miller who gave his name to the whole district.
If you walk to the end of Waldrist Close you can see where the river drops a little in level. This was the site of the weir and sluice which diverted water across what is now Orchard Park caravan site. The mill pond lay under the two modern houses called Isis and Barbizon. The leat ran along the Uckington parish boundary back into the Chelt.
Below Bedlam, the river winds through some scrubby wasteland, or did until recently when the ground was cleared for industrial use. The children from the local housing estate had set up a rope swing here from a tree across the river.
Bar Bridge is the next landmark - a very ancient crossing point. The highway itself was doubtless created to connect Gloucester and Winchcombe, after these places were designated as abbey towns, about 680 A.D. If so, the bridge itself could be up to 1320 years old, although rebuilt frequently - most recently in 1986 (see Volume 2, p12 The Battle of Bar Bridge). The highway itself has had a long reputation for poor maintenance, and after more than a millennium still suffers from excessive subsidence.
Before leaving Cheltenham parish, the Chelt finally reaches open countryside, sometimes running in a surprisingly deep channel. Uckington's fields are on the north bank, and on the south in Arle is the large flat area known as 'King's Meadow' (or Kingsmead). A local historian has suggested that the name might derive from the old legal (Royal) obligation of each parish to provide for its poor. Charity may have been raised each year by selling rights to make use of the meadow. More fanciful origins might also be suggested for the name.
At the parish boundary stands a modern concrete bridge on a bridleway. This also appears to mark an ancient crossing point, standing as it does on the long greenway or drove which can be traced from Coberley via Shurdington, Badgeworth and The Reddings to Arle, and onwards to Uckington and Elmstone manors.
In all, it should probably be no surprise that locally our most ancient documentation focuses on and around the river. It is a small feature that still has a large influence on things and people.
Incidentally, the Environment Agency work is a scheme to increase the capacity of the River Chelt. The present local work between St. Benedict's School and Kingsmead School is just the first stage of the 'Flood Alleviation Scheme'. Currently employing 55 workers, the work will last several years and cost an estimated £21 million.