Cirencester: Where history is at home
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Cirencester – the Capital of the Cotswolds – still functions as the working town it has been for centuries
The Cotswolds are an especially historic part of the country, with our Medieval wool towns, our Saxon place names, and our dry stone walls that look as though they have stood there forever, patiently becoming part of this rolling landscape. This is a region that continues to impress its visitors, whether they’ve come from the other side of the world or just the other side of the country, but if you’ve lived here all your life, it can be easy to feel that once you’ve seen one darling West Country town, you’ve seen them all. Not so with Cirencester. Although steeped in layer upon layer of historical beauty and intrigue, the sense of this being a thriving, modern town fits in perfectly alongside.
It’s evident that Cirencester has always valued its history. Although it has been the site of many battles and skirmishes, fought by everyone from Roman generals to Parliamentarian wool traders, great care has always been taken by each generation to rebuild and preserve the historic architecture damaged in the process. During the early 16th century, the wealthy merchants, who had benefitted from centuries of the town’s successful wool trade, paid for the reconstruction of the parish church’s long-damaged nave. This extensive building work and masterful display of perpendicular gothic masonry have since earned the Church of St. John Baptist the unofficial title ‘Cathedral of the Cotswolds’, and those wool merchants tombs can still be seen inside the church today.
But everything here has a purpose, not just to be admired from a distance. It astounds me that just a five minute walk from the Waitrose, you’ll come across the remains of a genuine Roman amphitheatre, and you’re likely to spot plenty of locals walking their dogs or jogging through the arena where once hundreds of Roman spectators would have gathered to enjoy a play or two. It was a place of community then, and although its function may have changed a bit, over a thousand years later this is still place where the folk of Cirencester come together.
That’s not to say that this town is averse to change, and another glance back at its past makes that clear. By the end of the second century, Cirencester – or Corinium, as the Romans called it–– was the second largest city in Roman Britain, and although maps of 21st-century England tell a different story now, the town’s ability to adapt to the needs of a changing nation ensured that it continued to be a major urban centre for the Cotswolds. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution came the rise in popularity of cotton, and the wool trade that had practically built Cirencester was suddenly in danger of becoming obsolete. Local farmers had to expand their arable alongside their traditional livestock, and the town’s central marketplace was redesigned to accommodate this. The Corn Hall, with its Italian-style frontage and elegant masonry, opened in 1863, and at the time dominated the marketplace, serving not only as a place where farmers and traders could sell their goods, but also as a social meeting place for the town that included a library and a school. The Corn Hall remains popular today, enjoyed by both locals and visitors, and is home to a variety of regular markets that showcase the best the Cotswolds have to offer. Drop by any Friday to peruse a gorgeous selection of antiques and collectibles, or plan a visit on the second or fourth Saturday of the month to see the Cotswold Craft Market. If the shopping wears you out, stop for bite to eat in Diversitea, the Corn Hall’s own café, which serves light lunches as well as a tasty array of cakes and fancy teas.
No day out in Cirencester would be complete without a trip to the Corinium Museum. Located on Park Street, this family friendly museum exhibits many of the significant artifacts, stonework and art found in and around the local area. Whilst primarily focusing on the Roman occupation and settling of Cirencester during the first and second centuries, Corinium also charts the history of the town from its earliest prehistoric settlements, through the Anglo Saxons, and into more modern history. It is a lovingly curated appreciation of everything Cirencester has ever had to offer.
Marvel at the huge floor mosaics, beautifully detailing feasts and deities, and admire the pottery and brooches, their designs and gemstones still fantastically preserved. These displays in particular I find moving. Of course, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe looking at things that real people would have touched and used and loved centuries ago, but it’s more than that. The history we learn at school, in books, in documentaries – it’s almost always about the exploits of wealthy men, kings and generals, but here in these glass cases, it is mostly the ordinary belongings of women that have stood the test of time. We may not remember their names, but whilst men massacred each other for ownership of this cold, stormy isle, women brushed their hair with these bone-handled combs, and treasured these intricate brooches, and here at the Corinium those items are treasured still. I think there’s something very touching about that. What’s more, it’s reflective of the town’s attitude to its past in general: the historic and the everyday are intertwined in Cirencester, people use the town as it has always been used, and allow their exploits to become just another layer in its history.