…and they’re off! The 2016 Cheltenham Festival of horse racing started yesterday, which means it’s a busy, busy time in the Cotswolds right now!

The Cotswolds capital of Cheltenham Spa (or “Cheltn’m” to its friends) plays host to a number of festivals throughout the year – Jazz, Science, MusicLiterature – but the biggest and most famous of them all is *the* Cheltenham Festival of horse racing, held each March.

Over the course of four days of racing action, more than 200,000 people flock to Cheltenham Racecourse to lend their voices to the ‘Cheltenham Roar’ – the infamously deafening cheer that accompanies the start of each race. Many more people come to Cheltenham even if they didn’t manage to get a ticket to the races, just to soak up the lively atmosphere in the pubs and bars around the town.

Image: Magic Foundry, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)The Cheltenham Festival kicks off with Champion Day, during which the most important hurdle race of the year is contested: the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Wednesday of ‘Cheltenham Week’ is always Ladies Day, where as well as the horses and jockeys competing for prizes, women dressed up to the nines also seem to compete for biggest, fanciest and most elaborate hat!

‘Cheltenham Week’ usually coincides with St. Patrick’s Day, the national day of Ireland. This, combined with the enormous popularity of horse racing in Ireland, means that Cheltenham Festival is particularly popular with our neighbours across the Irish sea. In fact, of the 200,000 festival ticketholders throughout the week, it is estimated that around 8,000 of them are Irish – that’s a busy Aer Lingus flight!

Image: Chris Guy, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)But the really hot ticket of the week is always the Friday – Gold Cup Day, which sells out long before the rest of the festival tickets. This grade I steeplechase has the biggest prize money pot of any horse race in the UK except the Grand National – as well as the inevitable fame that comes with winning the Gold Cup, a whopping £575,000 is up for grabs this year!

We’re not big gamblers, so we don’t have any racing tips I’m afraid, but if you’re planning to visit Stratford-upon-Avon or the Cotswolds this week, or around St. Patrick’s Day in future years, here are a few tips of the tourism variety!

  • Book your accommodation early! Some accommodation providers in Cheltenham can be booked up years in advance, with repeat customers and corporate groups often securing the best spots. If you want to stay in the town of Cheltenham Spa during Cheltenham Festival week and haven’t booked well in advance…er…good luck! Smaller bed & breakfasts or perhaps even AirBnbs might be your best bet, but don’t hold your breath, or expect anywhere to be cheap! Most people travel into Cheltenham from further afield, taking the opportunity to stay elsewhere in the Cotswolds, or in one of the larger surrounding towns such as Gloucester, Worcester or Stratford-upon-Avon. Be warned though: even at an hour’s drive or more away from the racecourse, you’ll find your accommodation options limited.
  • Book your transportation early! In line with the above advice, if you intend to travel to Cheltenham from outside of the town, think about how you’re going to get from A to B, and back again! Taxis can be very expensive, parking at the race course is limited, and just about everyone arriving and leaving the race course will end up being stuck in traffic at some point! If you’re in a large group and are thinking of hiring a minibus or coach, this is something you will also need to consider well in advance of your trip. Speaking for the Stratford-upon-Avon area, there are only a handful minibus and coach operators around, and demand for passenger carrying vehicles is extremely high. Alcester Minibus Hire, the private hire side of Go Cotswolds, already has minibus bookings for some dates during Cheltenham Festival 2017!!
  • Expect crowds! Cheltenham, with its resident population of around 120,000 people, is a pretty quiet town at most other times of the year. During Cheltenham Week however, the population swells to three or four times that number – so don’t expect it to be quiet then! Traffic into and out of the town can also be horrendous, so if you’re not going to watch the racing, I suggest coming back another time!
  • Visit the Cotswolds while you’re here! The Go Cotswolds minibus is booked up to shuttle people to and from Cheltenham Festival, but our tours of the Cotswolds from Stratford-upon-Avon will be back to normal from 20th March, with scheduled guided trips on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays throughout the summer. There are also a number of speciality tours, including our Brewery & Cotswolds Pub tour on the first Saturday of every month, and – just announced for the 5th April – we also have a special ‘Arts & Crafts’ tour of the Cotswolds in association with our friends at the Cotswolds Conservation Board. Click here to see what’s on offer!
  • If you can’t get to Cheltenham…two other famous race meetings in England to try are the Grand National at Aintree racecourse near Liverpool (7-9th April 2016), and Royal Ascot in Berkshire (15th-18th June 2016). If you’re unsuccessful at getting tickets for any of these, or if you want to experience English horse racing on a smaller scale, there are plenty of other race meets all over the country. There is a race course right here in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Warwick or Worcester aren’t too far away. If you need a minibus, we might be able to help: click here for details of our private hire service!