Tag Archives: exploring

Coleford

Coleford Market Place, by Roland Turner. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Coleford Market Place, by Roland Turner. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

As with its Forest of Dean neighbour Cinderford, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what made Coleford what it is. The Forest was one of the most intensively industrialised regions of the early Industrial Revolution and has a history back to the Romans of coal and iron working, and the crossing of Thurstan’s Brook in the west of the region, on the way to the River Wye, must have seemed like a reasonable enough place to set up a settlement. It was originally just a hamlet in the parish of Newland, now a nearby village famous for its massive church, the Cathedral of the Forest; it didn’t gain the market which defines the centre of the town until 1642. This was in the early throes of the Civil War when the nearest market town, Monmouth, was under Royalist control, which didn’t sit easily with the Parliamentarian Coleford. The market was reinstated after the war ended, and a grand new market hall was built – the clock tower in the centre of the modern marketplace is the remaining section of that.

Coleford these days is a mixture of the old market town, and the sprawling development characteristic of industrial towns – as such it’s got a lot in common with towns like Bilston or Stourbridge in the Black Country, or the cotton towns of the West Riding, where geography and geology collide with human history. The town is surrounded by relics of mining – Whitecliff and Darkhill Ironworks are nearby, and are both very significant historical sites (if you’re into your industrial history), and you can hardly venture into the surrounding forests without stumbling across disused mineshafts or other remains.

Back in town, what looks initially like a glorified village with added industrial estates actually turns out to be quite a hive of charity shops – although not much else. The action all takes place surrounding the marketplace and clocktower, from which four streets radiate. On Market Place, you won’t find charity shops. You will find the Angel Hotel, possibly the oldest of numerous pubs and beerhouses that characteristed the early nineteenth-century town. There are several of note, but my favourite was the Cobblers Micropub – looks… interesting.

On High Street, there are charity shops. Sue Ryder is between Mushet Walk (named after David Mushet, the Scottish steelman linked with both Whitecliff and Darkhill) and Kaplan’s Cafe, which we belatedly discovered serves a full range of Turkish food, including tavuk şiş (the one thing I miss London for). I am so there next time.

It’s actually a bit unfair to say that there’s not much in Coleford. Once you start to dig (and if you can forget that it’s first thing on an incredibly wet morning) there are plenty of interesting buildings and sites – if you continued up the high street you’d find the Coleford Great Western Railway Museum, and the possibility of walking all the way to Parkend and the Dean Forest Railway along the former Severn & Wye Railway track, if that’s your thing.

Head South East on Newland Street and you’ll Dial-a-Ride – I think this is the first time I’ve seen one of their charity shops, but unfortunately, given the overwhelmingly smell of boiled cabbage, I might be a bit wary of others. A somewhat nondescript Cancer Research is around the corner, but Forest Aid is much better, with an array of all sorts of stuff, including an entire men’s room where the books are kept. I don’t know if that’s rampant sexism or just space utilisation… Further round, on St John’s Street is Opportunity Box, a bit of a treasure trove, and the pick of the bunch, the massive Dean Forest Hospice. We were a bit rain-drowned and bought just the one thing in Coleford – happily it was from here, and happily it was a rather pleasant mid-century style mirror. That is, one thing aside from a sausage sandwich at Kaplans.

I liked Coleford, despite the rain. It’s tiny, which means you can hack it around the charity shops in under an hour, or take it at a more leisurely pace. It has a lot more to it than meets the eye and would bear a proper explore, and I’m fully expecting to return next time I’m in this neck of the (literal) woods – if only for tavuk şiş.

Find: Coleford @ Google Maps
Get there: Buses from Gloucester, Lydney, or Chepstow – but cycling through the Forest would be much more fun.
Consume with: there’s quite the range actually, from the Tram Road chippy, to Kaplan’s, to the various alehouses – take your pick.
Visit: Even if you’re not a rail enthusiast, there’s still plenty to look at. Try the Puzzle Wood, Clearwell Caves or Hopewell Colliery for starters. If you’re the outdoors type anyway, the Forest of Dean offers loads of great walking.
Overall rating: four cabbages

 

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Filed under 4/5, Gloucestershire

Tewkesbury

Summer in Tewkesbury, by Jayt74. Image used under creative commons, click pic for link.

Summer in Tewkesbury, by Jayt74. Image used under creative commons, click pic for link.

Things you might associate with Tewkesbury: floods; mustard; abbey; battle. For a fairly modest market town in Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury has a fair volume of history and contribution to society behind it. Floods first – perhaps more than anything, these define Tewkesbury in contemporary popular imagination. 2007 was only the most recent drama to affect the town – see here for a full breakdown of flooding in the Severn catchment – and not the first time the town has been completely cut off. The dramatic pictures on the TV revealed a low-lying town at the confluence of two of the biggest rivers in the country (the Severn and Avon), and Tewkesbury is essentially built on the wide meadows of the Severn plain, making it a prime spot for a bit of flood water. It’s a shame, because it’s a lovely town, but like Worcester and other towns on major rivers, there’s a risk to living here (and no doubt a significant chunk of insurance premium).

But beyond the obvious, Tewkesbury is home to a whole pile of Englishness. Tewkesbury Mustard combines the heat of mustard with the heat of horseradish. Genius! Tewkesbury Abbey is the third largest church that’s not a cathedral in the country; the Battle of Tewkesbury was one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses (York won, much to my dad’s chagrin), and  Edward IV became the boss. (not The Boss, just the boss). Not just a market town, it’s a historic (sadly now historic only, and no longer operative) flour milling town, and the relics of this industry are clearly seen along the banks of the Avon, just off the High Street. It’s a delight too for historians of vernacular architecture – we met my folks there for the day and were regailed with all sorts of information about jettying and timber-framing, which hopefully didn’t push any other, more useful, information out of my brain. It’s also a pretty good charity shop destination.

Parking is available in several spots around town – next to the Saturday market is handy; so is St Mary’s Lane, overlooking the Avon. Be careful when you choose to go: hit Tewkesbury on Medieval Festival day and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a spot. Tewkesbury’s array of charity shops is strung along the High Street, between the Cross and the shopping arcade at the upper end. Don’t just stick to this stretch if you want to fulfil the Tourism part of our brief: some of the most scenic parts of Tewkesbury are on Church Street, including the Old Baptist Chapel, the Abbey itself, and ancient pubs like the Berkeley Arms and Royal Hop Pole (now a Wetherspoons hotel, but mentioned in the Pickwick Papers). At the bottom of the High Street you’ll find the slightly random Roses Charity Shop in aid of the town’s theatre and opened by Gervase Phinn, don’tyouknow; and close by, the Bookworm shop (I have to be very selective about going into charity bookshops like this as I’m quite prone to temptation).

Further along we have British Hearth Foundation, Cancer Research, AgeUKTenovus and Blue Cross (always proud of its medieval-themed displays), then a string of Guideposts Trust, St Richard’s Hospice and the Salvation Army. I wouldn’t say that any of these were remarkable shops, as such; but again none are poor or weird (always a possibility), and as a rule are fairly large. Happy hunting grounds, really, and a distraction from the biggest attraction Tewkesbury has (for me at least): Cornell Books, with its ramshackle side entrance and its boxes, and boxes, and boxes of old maps: Bartholomew, vintage OS and many more besides, many of them for a solitary pound. I could genuinely spend a day in there, but I am very careful.

I love Tewkesbury, actually. It warrants a whole day of exploring the alleys and ginnels, the antique markets and tea shoppes, the river walks and – of course – the charity shops.

Find: Tewkesbury @ Google Maps
Get there: the station is Ashchurch For Tewkesbury, on the mainline from Brum to the South West, but it’s a bus-ride for anyone who doesn’t want a hike.
Consume with: plenty of choice in terms of hearty pub food or cafe culture; my experience can recommend cheap-and-cheerful pub grub at the Berkeley, or coffee and cake at Caffe Ricci.
Visit: plenty to look at too, the obvious choice being the magnificent abbey.
Overall rating: four slotted spoons

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Filed under 4/5, Gloucestershire

Birmingham

As a wannabe historian, I’m wary of making pre-judgments of people, places or events based on paltry, secondhand information. It wasn’t always thus: time was that I was quick to judge places that I’d never been, in particular, and for the sake of winding up the (later-to-be) wife, Birmingham came in for quite a bit of derision. It’s a city of ring roads and concrete, I argued, like a town planner in the 1960’s tripped over and spilled all his tools onto a relief map. It’s all sinister canals and derelict factories, mid-table football teams and easily-ridiculed accents.

As it turns out, since moving to the vicinity, I’m quite a fan of sinister canals and derelict factories and I’m quite enjoying the accent. I draw the line at Aston Villa mind. I live in the Black Country, it should be noted – on a local scale, there’s plenty of rivalry there. But when it’s the Midlands against one of the other regions, those from the conurbation tend to be pretty proud of their big city. Not proud like the self-aggrandising Liverpool, and not the parka and monkey legs swagger of Manchester; Brum has always been strong on the self-deprecatory humour and it means that despite being the second city of the nation Birmingham is more often a figure of fun than a serious contender for a global city.

It’s a pity. I, like Telly Savalas, have become a big fan. Like him I can appreciate the Aston Expressway and New Street station of course, but to be honest they’re as much as most people know – or want to know – about the city. If you’ve never taken the time to get to know the city, you may well associate Birmingham with mind-numbing delays through Spaghetti Junction, on the M6 to anywhere else. Or you might have tried to negotiate the equally epic M5/M6 junction in Walsall, or got lost around the ring road. Birmingham is Motor City UK for sure: its wide roads matching the vast car factories such as the now-departed Longbridge plant; not, perhaps, the most elegant city to approach. That’s true by rail as well – entering New Street Station (even/especially after the recent renovations) is an ennervating experience as you descend into black tunnels, all watched over by brutalism’s cheerless eye.

That’s Birmingham – centre of the Midlands, on the middle of your journey to somewhere else. But Birmingham’s joys are just different to those of other cities, not less. Wander a while in the Jewellery Quarter if its gas street lights and old-fashioned workshops you’re after. Explore the canals which radiate in all directions from the hub beneath Broad Street – you’ll find waterside living and pavement restaurants every bit as pleasant as anything London can offer. Bit of culture? Try the (free) museum, the festivals in Moseley, the coffee and fine dining in the Colmore Row area, the balti triangle in Sparkbrook, join a revolution in Handsworth. Take your pick of monumentalist Victorian architecture, of Brutalism, of Georgian, of Tolkein-ian or of Jacobean. For as long as it’s been a city, Birmingham has been a centre of Enlightenment and industry, radicalism and controversy. It’s shaped in the popular mind by the bulldozed concrete behemoths of the city centre and the Birmingham Six, but in reality it’s more diverse and more interesting than you could hope to discover.

In fact, as I understand it, Birmingham has not only become a foodie destination but a shoppers one also. The Bullring is no longer the concrete hulk where a young Godber fell in love over jars of pickled onions; it’s high-end and fancy. It’s not to everyone’s taste mind – Birmingham’s alt.culture finds itself increasingly marginalised into the Oasis centre, for example, while Reddington’s Rare Records and Swordfish end up having to relocate – but if you like carrying giant paper bags with string handles, you’ll probably do well here. One area for improvement is charity shops. Historically there’s always been a handful, but more recently I could have had no justification to write about Brum at all. That was until the arrival of two British Heart Foundation stores in close proximity to one another. The first is a large, well-stocked and – unusually for BHF – they seem to have got the floorspace designers in so there’s far fewer “scuse me”s needed to get around the shop. The second shop is the really handy one. It’s huge for a start – possibly the biggest charity shop I’ve ever been in, occupying the site of the former Virgin Records store. And it’s full to the brim with every kind of homeware, from sofas to digital radios, fridges to rugs, bookshelves to spin dryers.

Birmingham is, sadly, not much of a charity shop destination. The suburbs are another matter, but the town centre is a bit too swish these days. These two BHF shops though are great and surprisingly well worth an investigation – much like Brum itself.

Find: Birmingham @ Google Maps
Get there: easy by any means – try out the new New Street station if you dare, but I prefer Moor Street.
Consume with: a vast range here, depending on your taste or budget, running from the awesome 99p baguette shops, to meat-heavy Brazilian grill Rodizio Rico, to the Balti Triangle, to Purnell’s, to the Flapper on the canal.
Visit: free museums? The centre of Britain’s waterway network? Bit of art at the MAC? Bit of animal at Cannon Hill Park?
Overall rating: three washing machines

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Moreton-in-Marsh

A Thought for Sunday from John Ruskin, by UGArdener, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

A Thought for Sunday from John Ruskin, by UGArdener, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

I’ve been reading about Roman roads recently, for no particular reason other than there’s one marked on the map near home. Apparently there’s about a bazillion, going everywhere – if there’s a long, straight stretch of road near you (and you live south of the Union Canal), chances are it was first put there by the Romans, by dint of mad engineering skills, legions of grunts to do the work, and a sheer bloody-mindedness which led them to insist almost exclusive on straight marching routes, hills be damned. It’s given me some respect for the soldier of the day – to march across the country on a regular basis is no mean feat – and renewed my lack of respect for my own fitness by comparison.

One of the best known of the roads is the Fosse Way, which cuts across country from Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) to Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum). There’s a turn at Ilchester (Lindinis), but between there and Lincoln the road is never more than 6 miles from a perfectly straight line. Considering that it traverses the Mendips and the entire length of the Cotswolds, that’s not bad going. Anyway, Moreton is found on that Fosse Way, in a direct line from Cirencester and Stow on the Wold to Leamington Spa and Leicester, and the long high street reflects that. It’s not a large town, Moreton; it wasn’t really a settlement area (so far as anyone knows) in the Roman times, and was just a stopping point for many years. It grew into a proper town about 800 years ago as a coaching stop, and got a market – it’s now a coach stop tour (£15 for a return to the Tuesday market from Thomas Cook in Stourbridge), its long high street ideal for some pootling, or apparently a cream tea – there are a hundred and one tea shoppes here.

Time was, I’d have been able to get a train here directly. Thanks to *cough* the rationalisation of the last few decades, the journey is far less convenient (and probably less stylish than boarding the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway in my bowler hat and spats); the station remains though, and will take you to Oxford or Worcester on the Cotswold Line. The last time we were here, it was at the tail end of a thoroughly enjoyable couple of days over Spring half-term; we called into Moreton as one of a number of stops on the way home. There was one difference to our previous visit: a pop-up mixed charity shop has now disappeared (it seemed to be sending it’s proceeds towards both Help For Heroes and the Bob Champion Trust), and the permanent charity shops are the only ones that remain.

The remaining shops are pretty good, happily. The largest is undoubtedly Sue Ryder Care, a double shop with a variety of oddments – it’s a particularly esoteric assortment given the somewhat clean-cut and anodyne nature of Sue Ryder shops generally. I tend to prefer a dark hole of a charity shop, a ramshackle, junk-shop feel, to the cleaner, modern, lighter shops; but this is a fine exception. Light and airy, yet full of random nonsense, perfect.

The other charity shops (including MindAgeUK and Break) reflect Moreton’s well-heeled population and bucolic setting – lots of nice things, lots worth a poke at. With just the four charity shops, Moreton is unlikely to detain the CSTourist for too long, unless you happen to get lost in the endless, wonderful maze of the Toy Shop, or stay for a cream tea. But it’s definitely worth a pass through, and there’s so many chocolate-box towns with a few places worth visiting around here, that you can easily make a day trip out of it.

Find: Moreton-in-Marsh @ Google Maps
Get there: there’s a dead convenient railway station at the end of the high street, with signs in Japanese for the benefit of the many visitors. Handy.
Consume with: for the most traditional of cream teas, Tilly’s looks like the place to be.
Visit: you could go and have a nosy at Dorn Roman village nearby (doesn’t look like there’s a lot to see).
Overall rating: three hipflasks

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Filed under 3/5, Gloucestershire

Marlborough

Old Appleby's Yard in Marlborough, Wiltshire, by Anguskirk. Photo used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Old Appleby’s Yard in Marlborough, Wiltshire, by Anguskirk. Photo used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

On these, shores, the word Marlborough is redolent with history. John Churchill, created first duke of Marlborough after a diplomatic switch of allegiance to William of Orange, was one of the foremost, and the most successful, of military commanders at the time of the Restoration/Glorious Revolution (for more info, see Neal Stephenson’s sprawling Baroque Cycle, in which Churchill features regularly). Visiting the town today, you’ll find an attractive medium-sized country town, with an apparently famously wide high street – nice, but not the sort of grand gesture you’d expect for such a hero. Never mind though – Churchill had to console himself with Blenheim Palace, which might have helped. Actually, Marlborough’s refined bustle harks back to a lengthy history – the town’s name allegedly comes from Merlin’s Barrow, the bearded wizard reputedly being buried in the grounds of the College. Certainly there are archaeological remains from older than 2000BC, progressing through iron age buckets and Roman coins (at Cunetio, two miles east) and a Norman castle and mint, and notables such as William the Conqueror (hunted here), King John (married here), King Henry III (held parliament here), Thomas Wolsey (ordained here) and William Golding (raised here), all passed through.

There’s a nice, quick run-through of a lot of things you forgot from school there. No doubt they would disapprove at the town’s big educational establishment, Marlborough College, site of the aforementioned Barrow. Marlborough today is actually a rather pleasant town, with plenty of quaint olde worlde buildings – you wouldn’t, perhaps, get a sense of the overbearing weight of history compared to some other towns who ham it up more; Marlborough is a bit too select to flaunt itself in such ways. You’ll notice that from the shops in the wide high street (after you’ve spent the most stressful half-hour of your life trying to park): plenty of these are just that cut above the normal high street fare (Phase 8, Joules, White Stuff, that sort of thing).

That bodes well for the charity shops though, of which there are several. It’s tricky to pick the best here, there are several contenders, all based around the high street. The sort-of exception is the always excellent Helen & Douglas House Hospice, which is slightly up the hill on Kingsbury Street, opposite the artfully tatty Cat’s Whiskers. It yielded two t-shirts for me, and cheerfully so: it turns out that I’m a size smaller than I used to be. Must be all that car-less commuting, I heartily recommend it.

A new discovery on me that morning, the Prospect House Hospice in Marlborough turns out to much less odd-smelling, and a little cheaper than its Hungerford counterpart (although not that much cheaper). It’s a big old shop, with a large upstairs full of interesting bread bins and vast racks of antique books. On the same stretch is a smaller, more typical Blue Cross shop – the wife got a mustard handbag here, as mustard is absolutely in, in this household. On the opposite side of the high street is a well-stocked Oxfam Bookshop (with two (two!) boxes of maps) and a charming RSPCA shop which winds all the way back into the building, into snugs and down steps. There’s huge displays of trinketry, and I even picked up a DVD of Blood Simple, which I’ve had an eye peeled for for ages.

If we had a longer day, Marlborough would make a great stop for some proper exploration. There’s all sorts of hills and side-alleys leading off the main street, and the river Kennet which flows through is quite charming. The sheer volume of history makes it worth a trip if you’re into that sort of thing – interesting for me, as I tend to write off Wiltshire as being bucolic to the point of empty. Marlborough was certainly worth a stop though, and might find itself a convenient break point now my family members have moved. No doubt we’ll be back, if only for a pub lunch (of which many options).

Find: Marlborough @ Google Maps
Get there: you’ll have to get there from Pewsey or Swindon if you’re coming by train, but there’s plenty of buses no doubt.
Consume with: there were many, many options for a pub lunch along the high street. We plumped for the Royal Oak, a Greene King pub, but there’s also the Castle & Ball, the Green Dragon and the Bear. If you’re after something a bit littler, how about the Mustard Seed bookshop and cafe sat right over the river.
Visit: Jazz festival, food festival, but my pick would be the intriguing Big & Little Mop Fair. No idea.
Overall rating: three bags in mustard

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Filed under 3/5, Wiltshire

Hungerford

Hungerford swing bridge, by lovestruck. Used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Hungerford swing bridge, by lovestruck. Used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Despite having a major motorway and a mainline service to London running through it, this part of Berkshire is absolutely rural. It’s difficult to imagine that this is a home county, butting right up against London on its eastern front, home to Slough, Staines, and the sprawling Thames Valley zone of monotonous offices and enterprise parks. Instead, Hungerford is approaching over rolling downs and areas of natural beauty, punctuated by the river Dun and the Kennet and Avon Canal on its way across the country. Coming from the south, we took a turning that wasn’t exactly the one we intended to take, and the result was an idyllic drive through the North Hampshire and West Berkshire Downs, over Walbury Hill and past the source of the River Test, descending to Hungerford Common and entering the town alongside the railway.

The day was cold. A few brief days of spring-like weather preceding this visit, we had high hopes for a pleasant cross-country run with a few town stops. Pleasant it was, but hardly balmy. The wind barrels down the high street, cutting through any layers you care to wear, and soon enough there’s some April snow. It’s a shame, because on a more clement day there’d be plenty of pleasant places to wander off the beaten track – footpaths off the street direct you to the church of St Lawrence, and following the high street to its end brings you to a very scenic river. Best of all of course is the canal, a very pretty spot underneath the high street, with bridged shops and houses on the road above, and an assortment of unusually-hued ducks. It was a bit chilly for a proper explore, but there would be ample gongoozling opportunities here.

In terms of shopping, this is an antiques town (cf. Leominster, for example). There are hoards of actual antique shops, emporia and arcades in this tiny town, and several of those ubiquitous vintage style fake-antique shops, filled with rescued wooden crates and limewashed furniture. The collector could wile away some serious time here, and would (of course) be well advised to give the charity shops a once over for bargains. For the wife and I, we have to steer ourselves away from such expensive temptations and stick to the three charity shops on the high street.

If you are looking for a bargain, however, Prospect Hospice might not be the place to start. Charity shop it is (complete with odd smell, over-familiar assistant and determined shoppers), but what looks like a bucket of bric a brac turns out to be a basket of tiny doorknobs. Nothing special, but priced at more than new retail value. The same is probably not true of some wellies in the back room. A quick Google suggests that a brand new pair of Aigle wellies will probably set you back around £100; £60 for a secondhand pair is quite a reduction then, I suppose, but yowch, that’s some expensive rubber boots.

The other charity shops are better – British Red Cross is a large shop with a good selection of all sorts; and Blue Cross is located slightly confusingly over a little bridge coming off the main bridge (not down the path as the sign seems to suggest). This is also a busy, full shop with a selection of all sorts of goodies. Best of all, it’s located conveniently for the Tutti-pole Tea Shoppe directly below. This is a tea shop of the Old School. You’ll be greeted by a waitress in a pastel green blouse and ankle length floral skirt, you’ll be brought tea and plenty of it, sturdy cakes (we had a wonderful simnel) and be surrounded by olde timey pictures of the town. An experience for certain.

If you have an antiquey inclination, Hungerford is certainly worth the stop. If you don’t, it’s worth the drive to get there – just take the smallest road you can find on the map and it’s certain to be beautiful. The charity shops don’t add up to much, to be honest, but it’s a charming little town regardless and a pleasant visit.

Find: Hungerford @ Google Maps
Get there: one of the best connected little towns you could hope for – main line to Reading or Swindon through the town, and the M4 just a couple of miles.
Consume with: definitely stop at the Tutti-pole.
Visit: it it was me, I’d hike the canal to Newbury some 9 miles hence; otherwise perhaps a drink at the Bear Inn, where William of Orange was offered the crown of England?
Overall rating: three overpriced pairs of wellies

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Filed under 3/5, Berkshire

Cirencester

Coxwell Street, Cirencester, by Graham_B. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Coxwell Street, Cirencester, by Graham_B. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

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

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Filed under 4/5, Gloucestershire