If there’s two things that have stuck in your mind from learning the Romans at primary school, I’ll bet it’s that all their roads were straight; and that if a town ends in “chester” or “cester”, then it was Roman. Good old Romans, making things nice and logical for us. Cirencester nicely fulfils the latter, its name a descendent of the Latin Corinium Dobunnorum. The town that’s now Cirencester was established as a fort in the earliest part of the Roman occupation of Britannia, and when the frontier with those crazy Celts moved towards Wales and the fort abandoned by soldiers, the local Dobunni tribe moved in, hence the name – it grew into the second largest city of the province. Approaching Cirencester, you’ll also not fail to see evidence of the roads as well: this was a major junction on the Fosse Way between Exeter and Lincoln, the long, strangely direct road through the Cotswolds (further evidence at Stow, Moreton-in-Marsh and Northleach); at Cirencester it met Akeman Street (between St Albans and Gloucester), and Ermin Street (between Gloucester and Silchester).
So, an important town for a long time, and it has retained this status despite being comparatively small compared to neighbours like Swindon or Gloucester. A quick google for “capital of the Cotswolds” places Cirencester firmly as the main town of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and therefore firmly within the aspirational urbanite dream of bucolic isolation. Let’s be clear here: the Cotswolds are not bucolic isolation in the way the highlands of Scotland, or the Welsh desert are; they’re very much on the trainline into Oxford and London, and you’re more likely to find pink corduroy and David Cameron’s children in the pub than pentagrams and scary locals. Nevertheless, in a reserved, chocolate-box, typified English way, this is a thoroughly picturesque part of Southern England and well worth a riverside stroll or a cream tea stop. Cirencester is the biggest town in the area, but still absolutely full of the local stone, as planning regs insist – charming to some, a bit much for me.
The town centre is dominated by this particular stone, and it’s most notable in the cleaned up medieval church of St John the Baptist, in Market Place. Rather than the rain-softened pale yellow generally found in the Cotswolds, the south porch has been polished to a bright magnolia effect, and really looks quite odd. Each to their own I suppose. This is the centre of town, no doubt: Castle Street broadens into a marketplace, and coaching inns and coffee shops line the facades. Here you’ll find Sue Ryder and an Oxfam bookshop, which is really a very pleasant bookshop. It’s the thoroughfares leading away from town that are the most propitious though. Head West on Castle Street (there’s no castle, not since Henry III) towards the vast Bathhurst Estate and you’ll come across Age UK and Cancer Research in close proximity. The opposite direction takes you into a more modern section of the town centre, or perhaps modernist, as the occasional 1960s precinct appears in an otherwise well-turned out country town. Here you’ll find Cotswold Hospice Care, British Heart Foundation, and Salvation Army. These are somewhat unremarkable shops all, but far from poor; in fact, the Sally Army has turned up Le Creuset cookware before now.
Head South off the marketplace (along yet another picturesque limestoned street, Cricklade) and you really hit the jackpot. In quick succession there’s a Barnado’s (just off the road in the understated Bishop’s Walk arcade), Helen & Douglas House (always worth a visit), British Red Cross, Blue Cross and RSPCA. All fairly worthy charity shops. Worth pointing out here is the back entrance to the market hall – besides the market, this is where the public loos are. Not a particularly interesting fact, until you consider the 20p charge to use the ones in the car park that get the letter-to-the-editor-writer in me grumbling. The market hall itself is a cut through to opposite the church, and is home to some boutiquey shops and a rather nice looking coffee bar.
I’ll be honest: I’m not such a fan of Cotswold architecture as much as I admire, say, the slate austerity of the Lakes, or the dusky red-brick of north Worcestershire. But I know it appeals to many and if that’s you, then Cirencester is a feast of quite lovely and interesting buildings. Quite besides this, there’s plenty to look at and in, and of course a sizable haul of charity shops. It’s been an excellent place to stop on the cross-country route between various parts of my family, and being smack in the heart of these famous undulations, it’s a lovely journey both sides. So Cirencester comes pretty highly recommended.
Find: Cirencester @ Google Maps
Get there: if not by Roman road, then it’ll have to be some other sort of road I’m afraid, unless you’re willing to schlep from Kemble station, four miles hence.
Consume with: there’s all the usual, but I’d like to try that coffee shop in the market arcade.
Visit: I’d suggest either the Corinium museum or the Cotswold Water Park
Overall rating: four straggly balls of wool