Cirencester, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 11:51 23 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

Market Place

Market Place

... it isn't worth it.Even in these difficult times, the capital of the Cotswolds is blossoming with a revitalised Corn Hall and thriving new arts centre. Adam Edwards reports; pictures by Mark Child

There was a palpable sigh of relief in Cirencester last month at the saving of the prawn mayonnaise sandwich. Enthusiasts of the popular Crayfish and Rocket snack and of the fancy Oakham Chicken and Pancetta Caesar fare were also wearing smiles of unbridled joy.

The recessionary rumours that the yeomen of the town were going to have to survive a working day without the sniff of a balsamic roasted tomato in their butties were unfounded - the Marks & Spencer Simply Food store in Dyer Street was not on the January nationwide list of 27 M&S stores to be axed.

Quite the reverse, in fact; the M&S, at the wrong end of the market place directly opposite the Wimpy Bar and Salvation Army Charity Shop, is not only a retail success but it is also a pointer to the new thriving Cirencester, a municipality that only a decade ago had tumbleweed - well Tesco's polythene bags anyway - blowing through its main street.

This month the capital of the Cotswolds took another step towards becoming one of the UK's most attractive small market towns with the official re-opening of the historic Corn Hall following a 2 million face-lift.

"Cirencester is one of the most attractive and thriving towns in the UK," says Rachel Vincent of Wildmoor Properties, the company behind both the Corn Hall revival and much of the rest of the current rebuilding in the centre.

"It is no longer the hole in the doughnut. It is no longer the poor relation in comparison to the wealthy countryside surrounding it. It is beginning to attract some of the best retailers and the most sophisticated customers in the land. By the end of this decade it will, I believe, be more than a match for Cheltenham or Bath."

It is not just the polished Corn Hall or the survival of the two-year-old M&S that has given Cirencester its new swagger; nor is it the relatively recent arrival of upmarket chain stores like Monsoon, White Stuff and Body Shop or even the opening of a new fresh fish shop in its centre.

Last year a revived and revitalised Brewery Arts Centre opened. It is now one of the leading and largest arts centres in the UK. A year before that the town's library was done-up at a cost of 1 million while three years earlier the Corinium Museum re-opened its doors after a 5 million refurbishment.

In 2010 the old Post Office in Castle Street will emerge with new pedestrian walkways linking it with Swan Yard and Black Jack Street - a street that has already undergone major retail resurgence in the last few years. Furthermore there will now be a slew of new shops along those alleys.

The prominent Kings Head Hotel in the Market Place - for a long time the sole preserve of geriatric holiday-makers - will re-open later this year as a boutique hotel with an upmarket restaurant and bar. There are also approved plans, with JCBs expected to start digging in the next two years, for a new arts cinema near the back entrance of WHSmith in the Brewery Car Park.

The magnificent St John Baptist Church, one of the largest parish churches in England with its glorious three-storey south porch that dominates the centre of town, is currently undergoing major restoration work.

Meanwhile the town council is planning to improve the Market Place by the church - much of it will be pedestrianised - in the very near future. This is in addition to the council's other worthwhile, if somewhat less obviously sexy projects, such as those dealing with traffic, sustainable public transport, themed festivals, safe routes to school and even creating a brand called `Cirencester Local'. Last autumn the town council, under the banner `Our Future Cirencester', put forward many of these proposals to ensure that in the coming years it will become "a sustainable market town".

"It is a community plan that will make Cirencester an attractive town to live in, to visit and one where we can enjoy a vibrant culture," says Town Clerk Andrew Tubb.

"Vibrant" is not something that, in fairness, could be said of the town at the end of the last century.

Before the Great War, a local guide book described Cirencester - then pronounced "Sissiter" by well-bred locals - as an "extraordinary mixture of the ancient and the modern, easily harmonised by dexterous arrangements". In 1938, shortly before World War II, it was called "one of Britain's most captivating towns, with a chain of interest running through the centuries". In the 1990s, in the decade before the War on Terror, it could most generously be termed "clapped out" and its nickname "Ciren" was an appropriate clarion call.

It was in those years that the out-of-town supermarkets were built. They had the immediate effect of turning the capital of the Cotswolds into a suburban shanty town full of thrift shops and pound stores.

It was the move by Waitrose - it had been the first out-of-London Waitrose - from Dyer Street to the edge of town that started the rot. Its old site re-emerged as Argos. The Crown pub, once the hang-out for the well-heeled agricultural students, metamorphosed into the cheesy Slug and Lettuce. The Chinese and Indian take-aways, Tatyans and Rajdoot respectively, were the only restaurants of note. There was no decent wine bar or coffee bar of any standing, no tobacconist, no greengrocer and no proper electronics shop (unless you count the smallest Curry's in England).

The cinema, the Regal, was a grim flea-pit that showed new releases several weeks later than any other picture palace in the UK (it finally closed in 2002). The railway station had been shut in the 60s, the link roads to the M4 and M5 were a series of bottlenecks and the cattle market was threatening to move out of town (it did).

Even the attempt to revive the Woolmarket, a small area of shops with a large bronze of a Ram at its centre, was fraught with difficulties and remains to this day a somewhat ghostly place. In the main streets only the estate agents and building societies flourished.

Now those uninteresting years are mostly behind the town. Even in these recessionary times Cirencester is blossoming. To give just one example, the refurbished Corn Hall with its fine Victorian ceiling will offer in addition to the usual tribute bands, the occasional political demonstration and the established craft and antique markets, a weekly food and drink market on Thursdays. That will include passing the permanent Made by Bob deli/restaurant in the arcade, owned and run by the former chef of the Swan at Southrop and Terence Conran's Bibendum in London's South Kensington.

And if, and this is hard to believe, there is nothing there for the gourmet he can still always wander the 100 yards down the road for an M&S sandwich.

When I first came to Cirencester, in the mid-90s, the ironic remark among the local county set was "if you can't get it in Cirencester, it isn't worth buying".

Actually, like all good jokes, there was, even then, a grain of truth in the saying. In 2009 there is more than a fat butty of honesty in the witticism.

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