Early one morning in the quiet hush before the streets of Cirencester awake, an elfin-like runner and her daughter explore the town in athletic style whilst capturing the beauty of their surroundings on camera. Unknowingly the elder runner, dressed in black lycra, performs a jumping jack in Black Jack Street. It is not one of the theories usually related to this part of Cirencester, but for the purpose of this feature, it is rather apt. This small gesture of spontaneous joy and energy is not out of place for what is a vibrant, ‘buzzy,’ and quirky street which is packed to the hilt with unexpected delights and life.

Great British Life: Black Jack Street, Cirencester. Black Jack Street, Cirencester. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

That’s not to say the rest of Cirencester, heralded as the best place to live in the South West in The Sunday Times Best Places to Live 2023 list, is not special. Hear me out. One of the delights of exploring or visiting this Roman town is indeed its myriad of passageways and courtyards, stunning architecture, rich history, and friendly community. But for today, it’s Black Jack Street and The Stable Yard’s turn to take a bow.

In three hours, I manage to chat to many wonderful independent businesses, but it is only a snapshot of what this street represents. It is about stepping off the High Street for a moment, to encounter a different time and place, where specialists in their trade, be it chocolate, art, fashion, beauty products, books or artisan foods offer the personal touch and warm welcome. Within a few steps, one can easily escape into another world, and for many it is an oasis, especially the hidden gems in Stable Yard. Before I unpack these, I will unpack more of Black Jack Street’s history.

Great British Life: Black Jack Street, CirencesterBlack Jack Street, Cirencester (Image: Tracy Spiers)

It's considered one of the oldest streets in Cirencester, and there are two theories concerning its name.

‘One theory is that it is so named because the statue of John the Baptist in one of the alcoves of the parish church, which looks right down into the street, became so grubby due to the smog of the industrial revolution, they named it Black Jack,’ says Caroline Morris, collections and education manager for the Corinium Museum.

Incidentally, what visitors and locals can see today is the modern bronze statue of John the Baptist holding up the Holy Lamb of God, sculpted by Rodney Munday, and installed in August 2021. It replaced the original 500-year-old stone version which was taken down in 1963 due to weather damage and pollution.

Great British Life: The 2021 installed bronze statue of John the Baptist with the Lamb of God at Cirencester Parish Church. The 2021 installed bronze statue of John the Baptist with the Lamb of God at Cirencester Parish Church. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

Black Jack Street was originally known as Temple Street, before it was called St. John’s Street in the early 16th century, and became a westerly extension of Gosditch Street until 1887, when the Local Board suggested the use of Black Jack Street. Whether it was named because of the overlooking blackened statue is questionable.

‘I prefer the second theory in that Black Jack is named after a measure of ale. In the Victorian days, there would have been three pubs at the top of the street, there would have been The Swan, The Ram, and The Crown – which is still there,’ adds Caroline.

Whichever theory, the street is full of wonderful mystery, history and has an otherworldly feel about it. You can of course buy a Black Jack sweet or two in The Candy Man, at number 18, and other liquorice treats. But the special part of this intriguing street is that one can add personal history to it. I had my first date with my husband in The Golden Cross on New Year’s Day almost 30 years ago, and a few years ago a giant kingfisher, painted in my humble studio, proudly perched outside Jacks, the popular café, at number 44.

Great British Life: The Golden Cross, Black Jack Street.The Golden Cross, Black Jack Street. (Image: Tracy Spiers)Great British Life: Holly Buswell at Jacks Cafe. Holly Buswell at Jacks Cafe. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

Those who work in the shops, pubs, and eateries add their own stories to this street. It is all about people and passion, loyalty, and generosity.

Octavia Karavla opened Octavia’s, an award-winning children’s’ bookshop 13 years ago in March. She started 2024 celebrating her best festive season – a vote of confidence in her service but also in the faithful book.

‘My theory is that books are still a worthy present. They cost so little for the joy you get for them. You are buying a whole new world to escape to,’ Octavia says.

‘The people are so loyal to the shop and Black Jack street has an amazing atmosphere, it is just so lovely.’

Great British Life: Matt Garrad, manager at Jesse Smith Butchers. Matt Garrad, manager at Jesse Smith Butchers. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

One of the longest standing businesses in the street, as pictured in the late 19th-century photograph, is Jesse Smith butchers, established in 1808. Manager Matt Garrad sums up the street’s character.

‘It’s very bustling, very friendly and it is a lovely community. We have very loyal regulars who are so supportive of all of us traders,’ he states.

Great British Life: Gary Pendery of KNEAD Bakery. Gary Pendery of KNEAD Bakery. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

Next door, celebrating its third year of trade, is KNEAD Bakery, which has won awards for its Focaccia bread and almond croissant. The bakery spills into The Stable Yard, with cool wooden slabs attached to the arch wall that can be pulled down for make-shift tables. The company also has a KNEAD on Wheels, a mobile bakery which travels to local business parks and industrial estates to bring freshly made baguettes, salads, and sweet treats to workplaces as well as villages. I am intrigued by KNEAD’s Reuben croissant, which apparently is a big mac in a croissant, originating from America.

Step through the arch to The Stable Yard and one finds an oasis.

Great British Life: The Stable Yard, CirencesterThe Stable Yard, Cirencester (Image: Tracy Spiers)Great British Life: John Saunders from Ma?kerCulture with a driftwood sculpture by Steve Mansfield. John Saunders from Ma?kerCulture with a driftwood sculpture by Steve Mansfield. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

‘It is a bit off the beaten track, but it is a popular yard with good footfall. In the summer this is a magnet for tourists,’ says John Saunders who runs MākerCulture, a delightful shop which promotes the work of artists, makers, designers, and manufacturers who reuse, upcycle, and repurpose materials found in the built environment or in nature. Here one can buy colourful glass, striking jewellery, unusual accessories and a range of stationery, house, and garden products.

‘A place like Cirencester is perfect for small independent shops. It is stunningly beautiful in Stable Yard and Black Jack Street is very buzzy,’ he adds.

Great British Life: Heather Williams, owner of Heather's Cafe, with one of her regular canine visitors, Monty. Heather Williams, owner of Heather's Cafe, with one of her regular canine visitors, Monty. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

At the far end of Stable Yard is Heather’s Café, a place where the atmosphere is as inviting as the scrumptious food on offer. It’s thanks to Heather Williams that this café, with its fantastic open seating area, is so successful. This month (March) marks her 10th anniversary as owner. The former Royal cook, who is married to a butler, is well trained in hospitality, but there is something special about Heather. She knows how to welcome her customers and treats them as friends, so much so that the café even has a regular four-legged visitor, Monty the dog. I meet Roma Scott, who visits from Fairford often and always sits outside in the courtyard, whatever season, to enjoy her coffee. ‘When you are in Europe, many people sit outside on the pavements and enjoy drinking coffee. It is not quite the same in the UK, but tucked away in this yard, it is so lovely. This is one of Cirencester’s hidden gems,’ says Roma.

As for Heather, she is still enjoying her dream. “I worked at this café for five years and when the previous owners wanted to sell it, I knew I had to buy it. It has always been my dream to own my own café and it has just gone from strength to strength. It has been so successful, and I am just loving living out my dream. I am sure we will celebrate our 10th birthday, but I am not sure how yet,’ says Heather.

Great British Life: Jackie Gumpert of Cameo in Cirencester's Stable Yard. Jackie Gumpert of Cameo in Cirencester's Stable Yard. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

All the traders know each other in this shopping oasis. Beverly Skinner, owns Cameo, which specialises in high quality gifts, fashion, and home accessories and enjoys being part of such a vibrant trading community.

‘I particularly love the summer when people sit outside the café and there is such a Mediterranean feel. It’s not a High Street here, it is always chummy and friendly,’ says Beverly, who celebrates her 15th year as a business in April.

Great British Life: ANI Skincare, The Stable Yard, Cirencester.ANI Skincare, The Stable Yard, Cirencester. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

Not far from Beverly’s shop is ANI Skincare, owned by Joanna Walker, who moved into the yard two years ago following the success of her pop-up shops and market stall. Tiring of what was available on the market, Joanna decided to formulate her own natural skincare with the goal of creating a skincare range using only ingredients offering something essential to the skin’s needs and a pleasure to use.

‘The ANI ethos of clean and kind is very evident in the shop, caring for the individual, listening, and providing help and advice is paramount to us. Taking a moment or two to do something good for yourself to be kind to yourself can and does have a profound impact on your wellbeing. We give people permission to be happy with themselves,’ says Joanna.

ANI is a natural skincare range, using sustainable and recyclable packaging. It is 100% vegan and cruelty free.

Great British Life: Mary Harris at ANI Skincare. Mary Harris at ANI Skincare. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

‘We never use parabens, synthetic perfumes, silicones. We tread lightly on the earth.

ANI Skincare is a proud Cotswolds independent business, we have been making all our products, for the past 11 years, right here in Cirencester,’ adds Joanna.

‘We opened the shop just over two years ago and have been bowled over by the wonderful support and response we have received. The Stable Yard is the perfect place for us; like being part of a small village, and it’s been wonderful to see it shine and grow over the past two years.’

Walking back into Black Jack Street, I take a left and spot the modern John the Baptist statue looking down on me. I pop into The Coln Gallery, which is like a sweet-shop to artists, full of ordered colour and that invitation to try and touch – very similar to The Candy Man’s appeal to the sweet-toothed. This independent shop, which acts is both an art supplier and a gallery, has been serving locals for decades. Laura Hayes has been working here for 20 years and is always ready to offer advice.

Great British Life: Laura Hayes of The Coln Gallery. Laura Hayes of The Coln Gallery. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

‘I have loved meeting all the different artists and designers over the years. I studied textiles design and I enjoy answering the questions that people pose. There is always something new to learn. The materials are so tactile, and people do say it has a sweet shop feel and the display of ordered colour inspires them to want to try,’ she says.

It is this personal touch that is so important. It is why the town of Cirencester is such a shopping destination. It has such a plethora of independent shops and it’s the one-to-one attention that many shoppers love. I witness it for myself in Lola, a chic boutique at number 10 Black Jack Street, where fashion meets sophistication yet when honesty is needed for customers it is given in kindness. A customer who lives far away declares: ‘I only shop in Cirencester. I come and see my friend who lives here and always do my shopping then.’ Caroline Moss, who works at Lola has helped her find the perfect fitting trousers and she leaves a happy customer.

Great British Life: Caroline Moss of Lola in Black Jack Street. Caroline Moss of Lola in Black Jack Street. (Image: Tracy Spiers)

‘Black Jack Street really is a supportive community. We recommend shops to our customers if we do not have what they want, and our fellow traders do the same for us. It is a very pretty street, and we love Drizzle Chocolate, the chocolate shop opposite here where we always get our coffees and teas,’ says Caroline.

‘The street has such a community feel and people look out for one another.’

So, Black Jack Street and The Stable Yard, it is time to take your bow. Those who work here and enjoy visiting, browsing, buying, and enjoying your wonderful delights, applaud you.