A sunny day in early spring is the ideal time to explore a town known as the ‘Capital of the Cotswolds’, says Andrew Swift.
Fact File Length of walk: 3.5 miles; 4.5 miles with optional visit to amphitheatre Terrain: On pavements and surfaced paths, and virtually level throughout Facilities: A wide selection of cafes, bars, pubs
Cirencester was founded by the Romans, and was the second largest city in Britain after Londinium. All there is to show for the original Roman town today, however, is a short length of broken-down wall, a grass-grown amphitheatre and the mosaics and carvings in the town’s museum. From the ruins of the Roman city a new town arose, home to the richest Augustinian abbey in England. After its dissolution in 1539, the abbey was razed to the ground. Today, only a gatehouse and some perimeter walls survive.
Even before the abbey disappeared, though, Cirencester had grown rich on the wool trade. In the centuries that followed, wealthy merchants built grand townhouses in its narrow streets, There was no standing on ceremony, however. They stood amid weavers’ cottages and warehouses, and were built, like them, of local stone, creating a townscape of surprising variety and interest.
It takes around an hour to get to Cirencester, which lies 35 miles north-east of Bath. There are several car parks, but the cheapest long-stay option is the Beeches, just off the ring road on the east side of town. (SP029019; GL7 1BW)
Leaving the car park by the main entrance, turn left along Beeches Road, past the Barn Theatre. The London Road, which lies ahead, follows the line of a Roman road. Corinium’s East Gate once stood here. To see the only surviving section of the Roman walls, you need to cross the London Road, but, although there is a 20mph speed limit, it is wide and busy, so you may prefer to turn left, cross at the traffic lights and walk back along the opposite pavement.
From here, head north along a road called Corinium Gate, take the second right and after 50m turn right across a footbridge. After visiting the broken-down wall, which lies over to the right, carry on past a lake which started life as the abbey fishpond. The row of buildings you can see in the distance, to the right of the church, stand on the site of the abbey.
After passing a playground, turn right to find Spital Gate, the only surviving abbey building. Head back along the path and carry on towards the church. After passing the site of the abbey, bear right into the Market Place, dominated by St John’s church. Its palatial three-storey porch was built by the monks as an office from where they could regulate the trade of the market.
From here, head west along Castle Street, where you’ll notice a bell carved on the estate agents on the corner – a legacy of the days when it was The Bell Inn. Turn right at the end along Silver Street. Ahead is the Corinium Museum, with one of the finest collections of Roman artefacts in the country. Before you reach it, turn right along Black Jack Street, the narrowest and busiest in town. At the end turn left along Gosditch Street, with a high wall on the right which once screened the abbey from the eyes of the townsfolk.
Turn left along Coxwell Street. Here the bustle of the streets around the Market Place is left far behind, and you enter a part of town hardly changed for over 300 years. As you walk along, cottages give way to grander buildings. Grandest of all is Woolmongers, a wool merchant’s house set back behind a garden, with a counting house on the left and a warehouse on the right. If you look to the left at the end, you will see that the warehouse’s facade is almost as impressive as that of the house. Turn right along Thomas Street, towards the end of which is St Thomas’s Hospital, also known as Weaver’s Hall, built in the late 15th century.
Gloucester Street, at the end, is built on the line of the Roman Ermine Street. Before turning left along it, look to the right, where more grand buildings line the east side of the street. After turning left, a detour to the right along Spitalgate Street leads to the remains of the 12th-century St John’s Hospital. As you carry on along Gloucester Street, look out for the massive blocks of stone in the walls of No 33, reclaimed from the demolished abbey. Another curious feature is the partially revealed threshold mosaic on No 65 – now a hairdressers, but once the Anchor Inn.
Towards the end, after a spot of Edwardian half-timbering on the left, the street curves round the Old House, once a mill and tannery, built on the line of the Roman road. A little further on, after crossing the fledgling River Churn, turn left along the riverside path. Follow it as it crosses back over the river, and, when you come to a lane, continue along a footpath between walls just over to the right. This leads past an open-air swimming pool to emerge on Thomas Street. Turn right and right again to walk up Cecily Hill, leading to the entrance to Cirencester Park. Here is a wealth of grand buildings, and given the width of the street there is plenty of room to admire them from afar.
When you reach the gates, there is the option of carrying on into the park – which boasts the longest avenue of trees in England – but to continue with the walk, head back down Cecily Hill and turn right along Park Lane. On the other side of the wall on the right is Cirencester House. Further on is the most surreal sight in Cirencester – a monumental gateway in the wall with a high and seemingly continuous yew hedge behind it.
Cross the road ahead, bear right along Park Lane, and after 150m, turn left into Sheep Street past the Marlborough Arms. The old station, designed by Brunel and closed in 1966, is on the far side of the car park on your right. After 150m, when the road swings right, carry straight on. When you come to another road, cross the zebra crossing and continue along a footpath to Querns Lane, the site of the Roman West Gate.
To return to the starting point, turn left along Querns Lane, where, amid later buildings, old cottages survive, along with impressive warehouses. A short diversion to the left at the traffic lights along Cricklade Street leads past the Brewery Arms to some impressive converted maltings.
Carrying straight on at the lights, past the old waterworks and the converted brewery behind it, you walk through what was the heart of the Roman town – the forum and basilica – although nothing survives above ground. After passing a couple of ghost signs – Cabinet Maker on the right, Printing Works on the left – cross ahead at the end and carry straight on to return to the car park.
Many more walks can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, published by Akeman Press; akemanpress.com.