Paradise is a Cheltenham industrial estate

The smell of bread when you walk in! The choice! Not just bloomers and baguettes, but proper butter croissants (Photo: Boulangerie Artisan)
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At the end of January I was on a conference call in a hotel room in Prague discussing the logistics for a six month job in Trinidad: could we fly direct with a quick stop over in St Lucia? Were there planes back overnight on a Friday? Would carnival make hotel bookings difficult?

By the end of March I was in the kitchen at home discussing the logistics for a five minute trip to buy bread: should I take the car or walk? Would there be space to park? Would all the bread be gone by the time I got there?

The job in Trinidad never happened, of course. It’s true that sitting out a global pandemic on a beach in the Caribbean where the death total is still in single figures, would make a great story; it’s also the case that it would be incredibly bad form when the family is locked down on Plague Island.

Of course, there are pleasures to be had from being here. It’s quieter than usual, the air is cleaner, people actually speak to each other, key workers get thanks to go with their low pay. And then there’s the French bakery.

For the past year I’ve been going to La Boulangerie Artisan, which is tucked away on a small industrial park in Cheltenham. It really is what the name says: a French bakery with genuine French bakers who speak in accented English. There’s a small counter inside the bakery’s wooden, windowed front, and behind it different types of bread stacked on wooden shelves. The smell of bread when you walk in! The choice! Not just bloomers and baguettes, but proper butter croissants that haven’t been mass-produced and transported halfway across the country, as well as pain au chocolate, cinnamon buns, almond croissants.

Then, in March things started to change. You couldn’t go inside the bakery, but were served from a hatch while standing behind a yellow line that had been chalked on the ground at a safe distance. Payment was by card only. A first experience of social distance queueing was one day during race week, when there were three people already waiting to be served.

And suddenly the bakery had gone viral, though happily not in a life-threatening way. As we entered a half-hearted “proper” lockdown, numbers on a Saturday multiplied; by 8am opening time, the queue was stretching out of the car park and snaking down the road with 30 or 40 customers waiting half an hour or more to reach the yellow line in front of the hatch.

How very ‘Cheltenham’: forget the photos of people sitting in their cars in traffic jams waiting for hamburgers at ‘drive-thrus’. Here people come with their partners, children and dogs to buy delicious fresh bread. They greet others and chat; it’s a social occasion. If you walk or cycle there, two of the permitted reasons for being outside can be achieved at the same time (exercise and food shopping) and you get to share an experience with friends from other households – a precious commodity when we are all stuck in our cells the whole day. In the car park you can get decent fresh coffee and cottage industry stalls offering vegetables and wine have appeared.

Who’d have thought that one of the rare joys of 2020 would be sitting on a wall in an industrial park eating a croissant and drinking coffee from a plastic cup? It beats lying in the sun on a tropical island’s sandy beach.

Which is just as well: the Prince song I referred to above, was released in 1987 when AIDS was at the forefront of people’s minds. We still haven’t found a vaccine for that over 30 years later. We could be in this for the long haul.

Guy Maughfling lives in Cheltenham