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Blog > Cotswolds town of Cheltenham Spa is home to a rare British Icon

Pathfinders' home town of Cheltenham Spa is well known as a gateway to the popular Cotswolds region, and is, though we say so ourselves, definitely worth a visit in its own right. With its spacious, leafy parks, elegant Regency architecture, attractive streets and shopping districts, and numerous bars and restaurants, Cheltenham is the perfect base to explore the Cotswolds north and south.

To its many obvious charms can be added something perhaps less noticeable, but at the same time quintessentially British. It is the town's collection of rare 'Penfold' hexagonal pillar boxes.

Traditionally made from cast iron, the red pillar box (a street mailbox) is something of a British institution, on a par with the classic red telephone box. First established on the nation's streets in the mid-19th century, the pillar box quickly caught on and went on to be a British export, found in many parts of the British Empire and still seen today in a number of Commonwealth Countries. Over the years there have been hundreds of different designs bearing the ciphers of six reigning monarchs. The UK's oldest one dates from 1853 and bears the initials of Queen Victoria. From 1859 to 1874 the standard colour was actually green, with red eventually being preferred in order to make the pillar boxes stand out more.

The unique Penfold boxes (named after the designer J.W Penfold) come in three sizes and altogether there are nine different types. They are very widespread, with the biggest accumulations in London and right here in Cheltenham. Others are spread across England, Ireland, India (including locally made copies), British Guyana, Australia and New Zealand. An export order from the postal service of the Republic of Uruguay resulted in nine boxes of the Penfold design being exported there in 1879!

There are 8 'Penfolds' here in Cheltenham - out of the 20 original 'Mark 1' designs still extant in the UK. Installed in 1866, they are today classified as Grade II 'listed buildings', and with good reason - as they are genuinely beautiful objects: hexagonal with a top decorated with acanthus leaves and bud, and decorative balls. It's most unusual to find such a large concentration of very early pillar boxes in one location, and they certainly add to the interest and enjoyment of a walk around the elegant, tree-lined streets of Cheltenham Spa.

Date: 09/04/2021 | Author: Jonathan Taylor

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