A postcard from Cirencester
PUBLISHED: 12:37 06 November 2018
I send this postcard from Cirencester, complete with the discoveries and viewpoints from four members of my family – both the young and not so young
History oozes out of its pores and encourages the imagination to spark into life so it’s easy to believe you’re back in Roman times, fighting gladiators or watching bear baiting in the town’s ampitheatre. Cirencester is delightful both in terms of architectural appearance and content. With a myriad of pathways and quirky independent shops to explore, a plethora of creative endeavours to take part in or visually enjoy and picturesque Abbey grounds to wander at will, this market town never disappoints.
• I am particularly fond of this town partly because it fuels two of my passions, art and history. Evidence of creative innovation and production is everywhere, as is evidence of who used to live and work here. I take my tribe to the New Brewery Arts for our first stopping point to show them the diversity of arts and crafts made here. We also look at the courses coming up for the Autumn season which include ceramics, stained glass, bookbinding, relief printmaking painting and drawing, stone carving, needle felting and digital photography. There are also art workshops for children on Saturdays and after school during the week which look appealing as well as adult masterclasses.
• Next door is New Brewery Art’s former 19th century Cotswold stone brewery barrel store is now beautifully and creatively transformed into 21st century accommodation for up to 43 people over two floors in 14 rooms. It’s a welcoming boutique hostel, described as ‘budget accommodation with high end flair.’
• This is one of the newest builds in the centre, but I should note here that on our way into the town, we pass The Royal Agricultural University, the oldest agricultural college in the English speaking world, founded by the 4th Earl Bathurst in 1845.
• Being a regular visitor to Cirencester, I am determined to discover something new. My artistic eye and passion for colour and boldness leads me to M.A.D.E. in Silver Street, which stands for Makers and Designers Emporium, set up in 2008 by Louise Bonham and Sheena Jennings Dash. It celebrates the hand-made, the fun inventive creative spirit and showcases the work of artists both local and further afield. It’s an unashamed expression of everything that can possibly be made from all kinds of materials including paper, textiles and clay and it’s a treasure trove which changes from week to week as contributing artists get inspired. Louise sums up what it is like to work in Cirencester. “I love the architecture, people are very friendly, I love all the independent shops and here in our shop, we are constantly changing stock. Only this week two new makers came in with new things they had made, which makes it exciting.”
• The children gravitate towards one of their favourite parts of town, Black Jack Street where two shops in particular are their must visits, notably The Candy Man, a traditional sweet shop run by Julie and Matthew Townsend, and Octavia’s, an award-winning childrens’ bookshop which is a homely welcoming venue to search for that must-have read. We pop into both, before meeting Phil Day and Rob Sparkes, joint owners of Xanadu, which sells fair trade, painted furniture and household gifts. I immediately start singing Olivia Newton John’s title song from the 1980 film of the same name. My children turn away in embarrassment, but the owners don’t. “We couldn’t think of a name to call the shop. We were driving home one night and Xanadu came on the radio, so that’s what we decided,” says Phil. They tell me it’s the comradeship of the street community which they particularly love and pay tribute to Mark from The Golden Cross for organising fund-raising events to help his neighbours. Adorable pub dog Franklin apparently has his own Facebook page.
• Phil and Rob’s trading neighbor Georgia Buffoni has been running Pick a Pot and Paint for the past 10 years. “I love Cirencester’s independent shops, community spirit, its history. It is such a beautiful town and it’s ever evolving whilst not forgetting its historic roots.”
• We find out more about those roots by visiting the award-winning Corinium Museum, which is full of significant finds from the Roman town of Corinium and demonstrates how important it was. Corinium was the second largest Roman town outside London and the major Roman administration centre for south-west Britain. The girls enjoy making mosaic designs, interacting with the displays and backing away from the not-so-nice facts about the past. I am particularly drawn to pictures of the ampitheatre as it would have looked in the early 2nd century AD. Oval with two entrances, it was one of the largest in Roman Britain and was used to hold popular attractions of the day including gladiatorial combat, bear-baiting, animal hunts, boxing and wrestling. The museum is beautifully laid out and provides those all important clues to how our predecessors’ lived. It always surprises me how that desire for inventiveness, inquisitiveness and adventure is a human trait which lives on. I meet Sarah Lewis, the Museum’s Digital Engagement Officer and she tells me about the Stone Age to Corinium Project which will bring new improvements to facilities and the collection in the near future (see panel).
• As part of the Museum complex, Cirencester Visitor Information Centre offers useful tips about attractions and what’s coming up.
• Another venue to note is the exhibition space adjoining the Visitor Information Centre and Museum. Today we find an impressive show entitled Colour and Line, showcasing the work of four Cotswold artists – Valerie Jordan, Daphne Malfiggiani, Ann Cracknell and Christine Smith. Inspired by landscapes and a love for colour, these artists provide an exuberance of passion and personal response to what they see using a variety of media. It is uplifting, engaging and certainly inspires the desire to capture moments. It is a lovely place to show work and well worth visiting to see the wealth of local talent.
• Today as we walk along Market Place, we admire another piece of modern art. This is Pink Lady Dancing with Big Brown Dog, made in 2000 by sculptor Sophie Ryder. Behind her creation, is one of Cirencester’s greatest landmarks, the Church of St John the Baptist, considered Gloucestershire’s largest parish church which was funded by the thriving wool trade of the 13th century. I took the children to see the miniature replica of the Abbey, which was built inside the church, made from Lego bricks as part of the Abbey900 celebrations last year. The Boleyn Cup is the church’s greatest treasure. Made of silver gilt for Anne Boleyn in 1535, the year before her execution, the cup was given to physician Richard Master by Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth 1. He subsequently presented it to Cirencester Church.
• The more energetic of the group – namely myself and 11-year-old Kezia venture off into the Abbey Grounds to climb trees, find the swings and come across one of Cirencester’s famous hares on the way. We are also impressed by a wall full of mosaic panels which were designed and made by local young people to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey which stood on the grounds they are now placed. They were put up this summer and are a welcome addition to the park.
• Kez and I walk back into the town centre to find the rest of our party who have been exploring the independent shops. I take a visit to Corn Hall Market, jot down a few menus and venues I want to try out with Mr Spiers notably Made by Bob, Côte Brasserie and He Says She Waffles, recommended by our eldest daughter Naomi.
• Before driving home, we all venture out to the remains of Corinium’s Roman Ampitheatre, maintained by English Heritage, and I let the younger ones run up and down the steep slopes to appreciate its structure, while Mum and I practice our gladiator skills! In the Museum, I picked up a helmet and had chance to appreciate the weight of the heavy attire they used to wear so I am amazed the Romans were able to move at all! We leave Cirencester closer to history than when we arrived and very glad that life is somewhat different today.