Cirencester: Through the looking glass

PUBLISHED: 16:27 27 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:58 20 February 2013

Cirencester: Through the looking glass

Cirencester: Through the looking glass

As Tracy Spiers revisits Cirencester, she is reminded what a wonderful and surprising place it is Photography by Victoria Jones.

Cirencester: Through the looking glass

As Tracy Spiers revisits Cirencester, she is reminded what a wonderful and surprising place it is Photography by Victoria Jones.

Curiouser and curiouser! cries Alice in Wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser! I cry in Cirencester for all the right reasons. Having not visited for a while, I forget how wonderful it is to explore the myriad of winding narrow alleyways which lead to surprising finds and hidden treasures both dolls and giant size on offer in the market towns fine selection of independent shops.

There are no white rabbits or sleeping dormice, but there are Alice-style gigantic wok-sized chocolate, Victoria sandwich, coffee and walnut cakes, each made with 16 eggs which ooze calorific icing in Jacks Caf in Black Jack Street. They dont need a label saying eat me. My daughter says it for them. She pulls my arm and her big blue eyes plead. Ive never seen such enormous cakes. Its like being in Alices Wonderland. Everything in this caf is fantastically large and generous.

Owner Anne Rainy-Brown creates them; her customers devour them. Having worked through a tough and disruptive year as workmen dug up the street to transform its appearance, Anne and fellow Black Jack Street traders are finally benefitting from the new-look. Her caf now spills out into the pedestrianized street all year round, giving it an inviting continental feel. Shes hoping despite the recession, the air of positivity will carry through 2012.

We have got through a very difficult year but the new look street has improved my turnover and I just hope it will continue. We are very much about delicious home-cooked food which people just love, says Anne, who also does outside catering for up to 600 people.

Down an inviting alleyway into the Stable Yard, I discover another gem in Cowley House five downstairs rooms full of wonderful unusual gifts for the home; among them cushions made to look like giant Scrabble pieces and tins depicting Ladybird book scenes familiar to childhood. Manager Simon Hart admits business did take a dip during building work, but its now back to where it was.

Despite the recession we have been OK and hopefully it will just get better. We are finding that people are coming back to traditional family values and their buying reflects this. We have sold a lot of board games, particularly Scrabble. People definitely like the quality nostalgic games, he remarks.

Recent changes to Cirencester particularly the old post office site, have taken this thriving market town with its bustling market place where Monday and Friday street markets are held and farmers markets on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, into a new league. Its colourful, lively and visitors are impressed by the high proportion of unique independent shops, cafes, restaurants, arts and plethora of winding streets, alleyways courtyards including Swan Yard and The Woolmarket, to explore.

Business newcomer Paul Brock opened up Brocks smart casual menswear shop in Castle Street because he could see the potential of trading in this vibrant community.

I have another shop in Stow and I sensed that Cirencester was on the up and wanted to come here. From what I have seen, it is just like Stow, friendly and welcoming but with four times the foot fall, he confesses.

A stones throw away in Brewery Court is Jungle Boutique, an eclectic mix of affordable stylish colourful clothes, footwear and jewellery, which specialises in sourcing French, Spanish and Italian designer ranges. The shop has been here for 23 years and company director Hilary Stewart is optimistic for the coming year, despite her concerns over Sunday and overnight car park charges now in force in Brewery car park.

I am hoping it wont affect business and people wont opt to park elsewhere in town. I am lucky to have a loyal following. We differ from High Street shops, our clothes are a unique and quirky and shoppers go out with a very individual outfit they wont find anywhere else, explains Hilary.

Everybody is feeling the pinch but we will carry on being different from the rest of the world and continue to provide the unique personal service we are known for.

While she tells me this, one of her customers Angela Macadam, a visitor to Cirencester from Epsom, Surrey, adds her thoughts on the towns shopping experience.

Theres such a selection of shops to choose from and its a real pleasure to walk round. There is no hustle and bustle so you can walk round in a relaxed and enjoyable way. I also love the farmshops in the locality and Corn Hall. I spend a fortune when I am here, she adds.

This is exactly what Cirencester needs. Visitors locally and further afield who recognise Cirencester as a shopping destination as well as for its historic strengths and arts and crafts. One only has to visit the towns award-winning Corinium Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Romano-British antiquities extensively from Corinium; to appreciate that. The New Brewery Arts is also a key attraction as a nationally recognised craft centre, housed in a sympathetically converted Victorian Brewery.

I hope the town will continue to go from strength to strength and be recognised as a great place to spend the day to shop, to eat and visit the various attractions that the town has to offer. It is not like other places, says Jonathan Davies, president of Cirencester Chamber of Commerce who owns Lock, Stock and Barrel and Cygnus in Market Place.

It is not a clone town, but has many independent restaurants and shops that make it a very exciting place to visit and I would encourage visitors and locals to think about Cirencester first when shopping. By keeping our money local we will keep Cirencester special.

And special it is. It is rather like an Alice in Wonderland experience, so much to explore and discover and my daughters have informed me I must return if only to get another slice of Anne Rainy-Browns enormous chocolate cake.

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