Cotswold Heritage Cirencester, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 10:38 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013

David Viner, Cirencester historian

David Viner, Cirencester historian

Cirencester is a place where the past is kept alive through diligent research, and now some of its more tangible relicts have been remodelled towards a new lease of life.<br/><br/>Words and photography by Mark Child

Cirencester was built when the Cotswolds was an outpost of Rome, a civilian protectorate of government in Dobunni territory. By the second century, only London was bigger. Under Roman occupation, probably around 20,000 people were living there, and the drawing of Corinium Dobunnorum, currently in the museum, is a realisation of the size and scale of the Romano-British town that most visitors find quite startlingly unexpected. The remnants of all this activity, and that of the succeeding but often forgotten Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods hereabouts, have been coming to light for centuries, sometimes by scheduled activities, more frequently by accident. Cirencester's first decent collection came about after a Roman mosaic was discovered beneath Dyer Street in 1849.

When a place is of such nationally historical significance as Cirencester, it needs someone who is really dedicated in the cause of historical research to adequately maintain and interpret its past. David Viner has been doing just that since, more in hope than expectation, and at just twenty-three years of age, he applied and got the job as the town's first full-time museum curator. It was a heady time for the town museum, which has been on the same site in Park Street since 1938. The District Council was on the verge of launching a three-year programme for developing and integrating four historic buildings thereabouts wherein the wealth of Roman artefacts, for which the museum was principally known, might be better displayed. After the now-famous 'Hare' mosaic was discovered in Beeches Road in 1971, it became the adopted symbol of the redeveloped Corinium Museum.

David Viner came to the museum in 1970, and, for the next twenty-eight years after his appointment, he built up the collection into one of the top three museums in the country, established the Countryside Collection at Northleach, and oversaw the local archaeological excavations. Along the way, he became one of the best-known personalities in the town, and the conservator of much material from which we now understand how Cirencester has worked in the past. Of course, the past has been good to the Cirencester museum.

Now, David Viner is a very successful historical researcher and writer. He has a dozen books to his name - including albums of old Cotswolds photographs - and is currently working on an illustrated album of farm wagons, which he describes as being 'nationally interesting and locally significant', which is scheduled for publication in 2008. His books also include The Thames & Severn Canal, and (with his wife Linda) Cirencester A Century Ago - The Bingham Legacy.

David was the last head boy at Cirencester Grammar School before it closed in 1966. He went on to read history at Reading University, where he is now Research Fellow at the Museum of English Rural Life. This has been instrumental in his current farm wagons project, as the Reading museum holds the national collection of farm wagons; it has also helped him to pursue an inventory of traditional craftsmen's tools, recording those in often hidden collections all around the country.

Nine years ago, David took early retirement from the Cirencester museum's service to set up a consultancy with his wife, Linda. She read archaeology at Leicester University, worked on the site at The Beeches, and became site supervisor at the Roman cemetery. When that finished, she stayed on, and became involved with post-excavation work on the small finds and other aspects of the archaeological programme - producing written material about this, and the other sites around Cirencester that have been excavated in the last half-century or so. She has also worked as an archaeologist on digs for English Heritage, and is the author of Lost Villages in Dovecote Press's Discover Dorset series. Always interested in 'the humps and bumps left by lost villages', she investigated and put together a paper on those in Gloucestershire, with Mick Aston of television's Time Team fame.

David and Linda met when she took part in a Leicester University summer dig at Cirencester. They could hardly complement each other better, for whilst her husband has a relatively high profile, Linda prefers research and background work, which she is then happy to hand over 'for someone else to put into words'. She looks after their archives, writes church guides, and undertakes historical research - particularly with regard to private commissions for people who want their own historic houses investigated, or old buildings that are being redeveloped for whatever use. A recent project has been on the Silk Mill at Chipping Campden, and she has also undertaken architectural and historical investigations for old places that are submitting for Heritage Lottery funding. An example of this is Temple Guiting church, whose decalogue was restored with HLF money.

The pair act as advisors to the Trustees of the Bingham Library, which is the other Cirencester body that has a collection. Meanwhile, David spent five years on the Heritage Lottery Committee for the South-West where 'the annual pay-out of 11 million gave us a wonderful opportunity to help schemes'. He is also chairman of the Cirencester Archaeological and Historical Society, and is a trustee of the Cotswold Archaeological Trust at Kemble - one of the largest archaeological units in the country.

Among David's other publications is an annotated album of photographs on The Thames & Severn Canal; the similar format Cirencester As It Was; Transport In The Cotswolds - on canals, railways and roads; The Stroudwater, Thames & Severn Canal Towpath Guide; and, more recently with Linda, the Thames & Severn Canal History and Guide which is to be reprinted for the second time by Tempus, in 2008.

December 2008 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the date when the programme of local archaeological excavations was formally set up under the auspices of the then three-year-old Cirencester Archaeological and Historical Society. It will also be the year in which the Corinium Museum, which has gained so much from the resulting excavations, celebrates the seventieth anniversary of when the collection was set up in 1938. There is currently a general appeal for anyone who was involved in the Society's early excavations to contribute memories, photographs, and general information. Cotswold archaeology wants to record this material, and one of the Trust's members is aiming to write a history of the Roman town.

The Viners are by no means interested only in Roman Cirencester. David recalls standing, in the late 1970s, in a puddle on the first floor of a semi-derelict former brewery store room with Cllr. Joyce Barker, then a senior member of the Archaeological Society. The District Council had bought the property in order to safeguard it, but had little idea as to how it might be developed. Her aim was to turn the building into what would become Brewery Arts, and, in doing so, setting up a Trust that was an early example of its kind in the Cotswolds. It is this successful arts and crafts complex that is poised to emerge, in February 2008, as the remodelled New Brewery Arts. David Viner was, for a while, Arts Officer for the District Council.

The buildings that comprise Brewery Arts, and the adjacent Nicoll Centre, primarily a theatre space and, says Linda Viner, 'a meeting space for people of a certain age', were part of a brewery that was associated with the home brewing activities carried out by the adjacent Bell Inn, and which had become a brewery by the 18th century. Linda was to become the tutor for the courses in palaeography that were held there, taking over from Joyce Barker. Since it was established in its present form in 1979, Brewery Arts has been an amalgamation of craft workshops, galleries, coffee shop and performance space in what were the one-time brewery's bottle-washing room, bottling plant, hops and malt store, malt kiln and store rooms. Since the 1990s, there have been plans to remake Brewery Arts into an accessible arts centre for the 21st century, 'accessible to all areas for all people' being key to the programme. Under the redevelopment programme, all three floors in all three buildings are linked by a lift and are wheelchair and pushchair accessible. New toilet facilities, including a toilet for the disabled, have been built on the ground floor.

The buildings are still owned by the Cotswold District Council, who have partly funded the redevelopment programme to the tune of 500,000. If you have been to the site over the last year, you will know that it has been business as usual for some of the craft workers, most of whom have been packed tightly with the complex's administration personnel into what was the Nicoll Centre. This was all necessary to facilitate a 2.7 million redevelopment of the three buildings by Leadbitter Construction of Abingdon. Apart from the CDC funding, the rest of the money has come from two grants by the Arts Council, totalling 1.7 million, with the shortfall taken up by charitable trusts and individuals.

At the onset of the lead-up period to the reopening, the trustees appointed Ali Russell as Director of Brewery Arts, to see it through its final phases. Ali is a craftsperson and a performer, with a wide experience in arts management, education and business. She has taught theatre and English, was a director and trustee of two community arts organisations, and was the programme director for Business in the Community, an HRH Prince of Wales charity.

The New Brewery Arts will open on Saturday 9th February, 2008 with an exhibition in the gallery called Made In The Middle. This showcases the output of thirty-seven contemporary West Midlands and middle-England craft workers who are at the top of their game in a wide range of disciplines, and highlights how people might commission work from them for their own interiors. At the same time, an exhibition called At Home In The Cotswolds will run in the theatre space. This work was commissioned of professional craft workers by adults with learning difficulties who have worked alongside them, and with educational outreach worker Gwen Rogerson. Outreach is an important part of NBA's work with schools, community groups, hospices, day centres, etc, throughout the region. The aim is to use improved revenues from the remodelled caf and shop to increase the amount of outreach work that can be carried out in the region.

Under the new scheme, the former Nicoll Centre will once again become a performance area, but will no longer have fixed seating, and will be far more flexible in what is carried on there. The space will be used for exhibitions, and for performances by booked-in professional companies, but will now be available for more frequent use by the wider community. The aim is also that it should be the home of a resident dance group and a resident theatre group, and otherwise a useful performance and practice space for local musicians, where, at some future date, there may be recording facilities. Two associated education studios will also be here, and another in the adjacent building, running classes in a wide range of arts and crafts. In the latter building will be a ceramics studio with a ceramicist and a kiln, who will be teaching children and adults through workshops and by means of classes.

The front building can now be accessed through a main entrance on the ground floor, something that has only been possible by lowering the original floor of the building during the current remodelling programme. The craft shop, immediately to the right, is open to the ceiling. Straight ahead, a staircase and lift rises first to the main gallery to the left, and, to the right, a mezzanine caf overlooks the craft shop and the displays on the walls. The lift continues to a second floor, where there are craft workers' studios, with access to a walkway into the theatre building with its offices and new educational studios. Around the outside of this building, there is another series of refurbished craft workers' studios, some arranged around a courtyard or passage.

Among the craft workers in the dozen or so studios of the New Brewery Arts, are some long-time favourites. These include weaver Sarah Beadsmore; felt-maker Sarah Brookner; china restorer Kate Cotton (who is in the theatre building); glass blowers Loco Glass; jeweller Louise Parry; upholsterer Stephen Perkins; garment designer Dorothy Reglar; wireworker Celestino Valenti; stained glass artist Daniella Wilson-Dunne; and the seven professional designers - Jenny Bicat, Sarah Cant, Kathryn Clarke, Sarah Pearson Cooke, Corinne Hockley, Anne Rogers and Liz Lippiatt - who make up Studio Seven.

Since the remodelling programme began, the most frequently asked questions have been 'when will the caf open again' or 'will the caf be the same'. This was one of the best-loved meeting places in Cirencester, cramped and atmospheric, and full of buzz, where the food was tasty, wholesome and generous. Personally, I hope that Lucy Muller, the former Swiss restaurant chef who has come on board as the new catering manager, can retain this 'feel'. Lucy is known around Gloucestershire's Farmers' Markets for her organic free-range pork, bacon and sausages, and her work with Royal Duchy Home Farm, and is said to be passionate about cooking and local food. She takes on a brand new kitchen, and a caf space that is about the same size as before, in approximately the same position, but with a gallery view and arranged to accommodate wheelchairs. We are promised 'breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea menus' and 'an emphasis on local produce'.

As part of the rejuvenation of Brewery Arts, the Cirencester Civic Society set aside 10,000 for a stone carving that would exemplify the spirit of the place. Local, but nationally renowned classical sculptor Rory Young (coincidentally, Linda Viner is currently researching the history of his house) has done better than that in carrying out his commission to create a panel in relief that will be added to the outside of the theatre building. Rory has certainly placed the context of the craft-based ethic into his piece, but he has also firmly aligned it to the most profitable era in Cirencester's past.

He is the designer of a frieze in York Minster, depicting the Creation, where he was also involved in renewing the stonework on the west front; Rory sculpted the pilgrim outside the Pilgrim's Chapel in Southwell Minster; and undertook figure work at King's College, Taunton. The churches at Minchinhampton and Stinchcombe have both felt his sculptural touch, and he is an enthusiastic and articulate lecturer on his work, and on approaches to architectural propriety and integrity in contemporary stoneworking in the medieval tradition.

His inspiration at Cirencester was how the craft workers use their hands, and this formed the basis for his New Brewery Arts piece, called Celebration of Hands. He photographed each of the resident craftspeople with the tools of their crafts, made detailed drawings, then sculpted a maquette from clay. This acted as a guide, initially for carving the piece out of polystyrene before moving onto stone. In the finished piece, by this accomplished art worker, the hands are unified with cloth, tying them in with the historical woollen industry hereabouts.

The New Brewery Arts will open with a burst of exhibitions and revitalised craft studios; gallery and theatre space displays; public talks; craft shop and caf; adult classes in craft-based techniques; community and outreach projects; adult and children's workshops; and a reading group. The first published programme of events begins with a mission statement: that the place 'is Gloucestershire's hub of visual and performing arts and crafts - inspiring learning and culture for the enrichment of all, regardless of age, ability or privilege'. Now all it needs is sufficient support by the local community, and a commitment by visitors to seek out all that it has to offer. Believe me, it will be worth it.

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