TAMING THE WATERS
The River Chelt
The River Chelt, flowing as it does, from its source at Dowdeswell to join the Severn at Wainlodes, passes through Cheltenham, and has changed very little over the years.
In ancient times millers relied on the force of the Chelt to drive their mills and so it must have been even in Domesday. The nearest mill to the one and only main street of Cheltenham in ancient times was Barrats Mill, in what is now Sandford Park. In order to cleanse the main street, the miller was required, from time to time, to divert the flow of water in order to wash away the rubbish and effluent which gathered in the street.
This continued for many years but caused much inconvenience to the miller, who needed a strong flow of water to turn his mill wheel but though the Manor Court ordered that a bridge be built to go to the churchyard, and stepping stones were laid for churchgoers to cross the mire, it was still unsatisfactory and there was never a sufficient flow of water to really cleanse the street.
This problem continued until 1786 when the watercourse was diverted, but the difficulty of maintaining a sufficient flow of water at all times, still remained. In times of drought it was insufficient to power the mill wheels and in times of heavy rain, the Chelt often flooded, parts of the town and Alstone did not escape these floods.
The following report from the "Examiner" shows the havoc which can occur from time to time.
The Great Flood of 1855
Continuous heavy rain fell during the whole of Wednesday the 25th of July and Thursday the 26th. The water actually hissed as it fell upon the pavement and out of doors, traffic was entirely put to a stop. About 5 0' clock on Thursday afternoon the houses along the line of the sewers were inundated by the water bubbling up through the lower floors and towards 6 o'clock water in the Chelt burst its banks along its upper portion and rushed through the town in a deluge. In a very few minutes all of the houses from the Bath Road to Alstone and covering a belt of some 100 yards in width had their basements flooded from 3' to 4' in depth.
The first outburst of the water occurred in Charlton Kings where a culvert at the Upper Mill, blew up and a piece of made land nearly an acre in extent, and used as a sort of coal and faggot wharf, was swept bodily away. From thence the torrent spread through the low-lying lands of Charlton, passed the Sandford Mill, and rushing onwards through the Sandford fields, swept over the ground of Wood Road in a cascade some 3' in depth and immediately spread itself through the "Mitre Fields' carrying away fences, pig sties, hay-ricks and garden produce in its onward progress!
From the Mitre Field the torrent rolled across the Bath Road. Cambray, Rodney Terrace and Regent Street to the Promenade where it made a clean break through some of the principal, gushing down the front steps and up into the area grating in cascades which reached halfway across the spacious pavements, while over the roadway itself it rushed with the velocity of a mill race, being all but impassable to carriage and vehicles and carrying away several venturesome pedestrians who attempted to ford it.
From the Royal Crescent, Bayshill Terrace and St. George's Terrace it continued until it rejoined the uncovered portion of the river near Jessop's Gardens. Here the weight and impetus of this immense body of water became perfectly irresistible, and at a bend in the stream at the back of York Terrace, it burst through the embankment and rolled in wide spread desolation through the beautiful nursery grounds which stretched beyond.
The wall between the gardens of Messrs. Jessop, Jr. and Sr., was swept away and a large number of fancy poultry belonging to the former were drowned, whilst the gardens of the latter, one hour before were a perfect picture of cultivated beauty, became the bed of a raging torrent of mud and water. The greenhouses, with their costly plants, were swept away and the arches of rose trees which had cost years of labour to bring to maturity were destroyed, and the rich loam of the garden, to the extent of several 100 yards was washed away before the advancing torrent.
The water lay on one portion of Mr. Jessop's grounds upwards of 7 inches in depth and in the course of the evening a quantity of debris consisting of bricks, gravel and pieces of wood, was swept through the breach in the embankment into the gardens, of an estimated weight of 500 to 600 tons. From Jessop's Gardens the waters found an outlet through the arches of the Great Western Railway Station and sweeping over the low-lying lands beyond, continued their destructive course through Alstone, and there spread themselves over the face of the country for many miles.
For between 3 and 4 hours this torrent of water continued to rush through the streets at the rate of 6 or 7 mph in a stream from 100 to 200 yards wide and in some places, nearly 5' deep; and from these facts, those who did not witness the phenomena, can form some faint conception of the scene, of which we at home were compelled to be reluctant spectators. (Examiner 1855)
The problem lies in the fact that between Dowdeswell and Cox's Meadow in Bath Road, several tributaries run into the Chelt all of which add to the risk of flooding in heavy rainfall and the ancient culverts have been unable to cope.
However, by the 1990's the Council, lacking sufficient resources to deal with the problem, enlisted the help of the Environmental Agency, who since then have carried out very extensive improvements to minimise the risk of floods.
R. Chelt Near Bayshill Inn
Phases 1, 2 and 3 concentrated on that area north of Alstone which stretched from Village Road to Princess Elizabeth Way and on towards the railway. New culverts were made and support for the river banks and this part of the work has given us Chelt Walk - an attractive feature in the park behind Brooklyn Gardens.
A new and larger culvert replaces the old one which ran under the railway and the ancient culverts leading to the Lower Mill, have been opened up to give better flow as it passes through the industrial land in that area. The Old Mill was protected whilst work continued in its vicinity and has been much restored. To avoid the possibility of a 'rat run' from Arle Road to Collets Avenue and so to Tewkesbury Road, access is closed to vehicular traffic but an imposing bridge now fronts the mill, giving access, both to Arle Avenue and Lower Mill Street.
Phases 4, 5, 6 and 7 covers work between St. James's Site and Cox's Meadow and is almost complete. The Environmental Agency has done a great deal to improve the ecology of the Chelt and its banks and so it is hoped we may see an increase in river life and enjoy walks along its banks. Much needs to be done, however, to control the vegetation and the depredations of those Cheltonians who think it clever to heave trolleys and other rubbish into the Chelt.
The houses which bordered the river Chelt as it passed through Alstone vary considerably from the rows of Cottages in Millbrook Street; the backs of which can now be seen from Honeybourne Way, to those which used to be in Gas Green. But there were one or two more imposing residences one of which disappeared with the development of the Waitrose site, namely, Brookbank Cottage which was a Regency villa and was somewhat remote, being reached from a path in Market Street.
One other house which flanks the Chelt and still remains is Lower Alstone House - perhaps one of the oldest surviving houses in the area, originally the home of one Richard Hyett in the 18th C, and in the 19th C the home of one Daniel Cook of the well-known market gardening family. This still stands in its original position opposite the old Mill House.
All in all, however, Alstone has seen vast changes, not only to habitations but to its river which continues to flow, placidly onwards in its journey to join its mother River - The Severn.