Cirencester, once the second largest city in Britain

Tactfully excusing myself from a Cotswold Water Park boating event on Sunday I found myself close enough to to the pretty market town of Cirencester for a little visit. For “town” it is: never becoming the seat of a Christian Bishopric and thereby losing the splendid designation of “civitas” or “city” some seventeen hundred years ago at the end of the Roman occupation.

But whatever it can call itself now, the town’s fortunes have been far from running downhill during the intervening centuries and solid middle class prosperity is reflected in every aspect of its history and architecture. In fact, it is at the Corinium Museum that we can be introduced to “Mrs Getty”, the affectionate nickname given by archaeologists to one of the most splendid female burials of the early Saxon period ever discovered. This lady’s gorgeously dyed clothes and magnificent jewellery show that local wool production continued to equate to a comfortable, even ostentatious, lifestyle during the period that many still refer to as the Dark Ages.

Of course the museum is also stuffed with Roman treasures because, as they say, you only have to stick a spade in the ground in Cirencester to come up with yet more relics of the Empire. It really was that important. But on this occasion I decided not to wait until the 2pm Sunday opening time because, after all, I’ve visited before and will almost certainly do so again. Instead, Molly and I explored a little of the town, from time to time looking up at the lowering skies and all the while expecting a call to say that the boating event had been rained off and we were required to give someone a lift home.

The 12th century not-a-cathedral church of St John the Baptist is distinguished by several phases of aggrandisement, the nave having been extended by an additional aisle almost wide enough to contain a second church and a grand, decorated porch added to announce its presence to the High Street. As befits the recipient of the magnificent Boleyn cup, it is also one of the only Parish churches in the country to have its very own Pitkin guide. In 1643, during the English Civil War, it is said to have accommodated 1,200 townspeople as prisoners which seems like a novel way of ensuring that everyone remained until the end of the service. St John’s is not, however, to be confused with the Baptist church around the corner in Coxwell Street, founded in 1651 and one of the oldest of that denomination in the country.

As if this isn’t all isn’t confusing enough, there is no castle in Castle Street. The street plan of central Cirencester is more or less the same as it has been for two thousand years so the fact that the castle was burned down sometime in the 12th century doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been forgotten. If you like though, you can pop up Cecily Hill behind the church to find a Victorian bastioned and crenellated monstrosity that once served as a barracks and is now part of the local sixth form college.

Despite the weather, I am pleased with the photographs since I’ve never taken any on previous visits. I’m afraid I didn’t find the Roman amphitheatre on my way back to the water park, apparently it’s never been excavated and is just a grassy outline in a field but I bet that if I’d stopped to ask a local they would have told me what was last performed there and who was the star.

Categories: Britain, West of England

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