Dancing Ken’s House, Cheltenham

Many English towns have their local quirky celebrity; not the local made good on the national or international stage, but the odd character who retains their roots and is often described as eccentric.  Often they have an obsession, and they can seem a bit of an outsider, but nevertheless they are widely known and their exploits followed.

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I stumbled across Dancing Ken’s house as I had a final wander round Cheltenham on my way to the station.  It was not publicised, the local tourist office hadn’t mentioned it, and there was nothing to prepare you for the riot of colour and expression that explodes across the end terrace as if someone has stood on the road with a paint gun while the car was parked in front.  In the genteel if slightly scuffed surroundings it makes a statement and marks a heroic stand.

The look of a neighbourhood is one of those flashpoints that can create all manner of quarrels.  Cheltenham is renowned for its stunning parades in which a unified aesthetic is held together through coherent brickwork, decorative iron and repeated stonework.  The Georgian and Regency features of the classical facades of Cheltenham’s great streets and crescents still evoke an upper-middle class sophistication that was hoped could elevate society.  Similar ideas pervade English social housing, where the Nash and Adam look might have been too expensive for the suburban estates, battles can still rage over the paintwork of house fronts or even doors painted too brightly.

So it has become quite something to make such a mark on the public-facing aspect of the home.  Some people go too far and end up facing the wrath of the local planners, while others become renowned and preserved.  But Dancing Ken’s house is a personal statement that seems to speak simply of his own slightly anarchic and joyful presence.  From 1997 he stood for the Monster Raving Looney Party four times but politics doesn’t appear to have been his passion.  A bigger clue is that Kenneth Hank changed his name by deed poll to Dancing Ken Hanks.

He fell in love with American culture, especially country and western music, when a teenager.  So he danced his way through life using his unbounded energy to arrange dancing events and regular nights, raising large amounts for charity and becoming much beloved.  He passed away recently and his funeral brought Cheltenham to a standstill.  His influence still rattles on with requests for a lasting memorial.

But the house won’t remain.  His car has already been sent for scrap, felt to be a better solution than the possibility of it being used inappropriately.  In time no doubt the house will change hands and be reclaimed by its new owners in their own identity.  It’s unlikely to be quite so exuberant, and I suspect will return to the tasteful and appropriate conformity with which Cheltenham has become synonymous.

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