There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Cirencester: Capital of the Cotswolds

In 2011 we spent the nights of Day 10 and Day 11 of the South West Odyssey in Cirencester, but I was busy walking and had time only to note that it was a place worth revisiting. With the 2013 installment about to start from Swineford, just outside Bath, Lynne and I took the opportunity to visit Cirencester and then spend a day in Bath before walking commenced.

A handsome old town that became wealthy on the wool trade, Cirencester styles itself ‘capital of the Cotswolds’. The mellow local stone is used throughout the central area, and almost everywhere you look the prospect pleases, whether one is looking at 15th century streets….

….19th century town houses….


….. or the unusually sympathetic insertion of well-known names.

Not bad as W H Smith goes
Although newer buildings use the same stone, the design does not always harmonise – the courthouse being a case in point. Actually I prefer there to be some faults. When all is perfection it means the town is no longer living and has become fossilised as a tourist attraction - Qingyan in China and Hoi An in Vietnam are two such places featuring in this blog. Cirencester, I am happy to report, is a living, thriving town. It may attract tourists, but it does not exist just for them.

The church of St John the Baptist dominates the central market square. In 1117 Henry I founded an abbey (of which nothing remains) and started the construction of St John the Baptist to replace an earlier Saxon church.

The church of St John the Baptist
The tower, built between 1400 and 1420, was financed by Henry IV to thank the town’s citizens for their support during the Epiphany Rising of 1399. Constructed on marshy ground, flying buttresses are required to keep the tower upright. The wool trade brought wealth to the region and in 1520 the church was remodelled and enlarged to such an extent it became known as the cathedral of the Cotswolds.

Inside the church of St John the Baptist

Taller and wider, the new building filled in much of the space between the tower and the buttresses, but it still cannot disguise their basic ugliness.

The tower of St John the Baptist

Inside, the 14th century ‘wine glass’ pulpit is one of the few to survive the Reformation. Possibly its lack of overt religious symbolism saved it from the reformer’s zealous iconoclasm.

'Wine glass' pulpit
St John the Baptist, Cirencester
The late medieval period, though, was Cirencester’s second flowering. The Romans established a fort at Corinium around AD 44 and over the next twenty years a grid pattern was laid down and stone buildings constructed. Development continued until the 4th century when the city was the second largest in Roman Britain with a population that may have reached 20,000 (modern Cirencester has some 19,000 inhabitants).

When the Romans left, the city went into decline and many of the buildings became ruins.

The Corinium Museum, a short walk from the church (and an even shorter walk from the pub where we had lunch), covers most of Cirencester’s history but the major feature of the award winning museum is their outstanding collection of Roman artefacts.

Under the auspices of the genius loci…

The genus loci - the spirit of the place
though precisely which place is no longer known
Corinium Museum, Cirencester

…they show all that is required for civilised Roman living including mosaics for the floor…

The Hunting Dogs mosaic,
Corinium Museum, Cirencester

…and a reconstructed Roman Garden. The Romano-British seemed as keen as the stay-at-home Romans on building houses with an atrium, though the design seems better suited to Mediterranean warmth than to Gloucestershire’s fitful sunshine.

Lynne in the Roman Garden
Corinium Museum, Cirencester

On the edge of the town, just over the ring road, is the site of the Roman amphitheatre. Although today nothing remains except a substantial earthwork, in its time it accommodated 8,000 spectators. By comparison, the modern Corinium Stadium, home of Cirencester Town FC, has a capacity of 4,500 - though in the Southern League South-Western division 200 paying spectators is considered a good crowd.

The Roman Amphitheatre,
The Museum owns many artefacts from the amphitheatre site, but they are probably all belongings dropped by spectators. There is, as yet, no clue to what sort of entertainments might have been on offer.

Many other earthworks surround the amphitheatre, and from the highest point there is a good view back to the tower of St John the Baptist.

St John the Baptist from the amphitheatre
With this view still in our minds we headed south towards Bath.

1 comment:

  1. We were very impressed with the Corinium musuem - lots for little people to do, and I got to beat my husband at a game of Tabula (or backgammon, as it's otherwise known).