Circling Cirencester

Finally. After many years thinking about it, I finally got to see Cirencester on this overcast and gloomy day. I had some leave due (actually I have a lot of leave due) so went to Gloucester on Tuesday and Cirencester today. I travelled via Cheltenham and it was a long drive with the 51 bus and. I finally reached the town around 45 minutes later. The bus runs once an hour so I planned for an initial 3 hour stay. The first problem being that inbound bus stop is not the same as the outbound and I really need to sort that out before I made too many plans.  

In my navigation I had not really planned too much, but top of my list was the very impressive church that I saw while looking around on the net, and that also would include graveyards, cemeteries and anything else inbetween. The map below more or less shows the town and the major attractions. But given my dodgy leg and hip I was not in a mood to walk too far from the closest bus stop. 

Once I had orientated myself I headed towards Castle Street which was where I would find the church. The tower is probably the tallest structure in the town so all I had to look was peer into the distance until I saw it.

Cirencester (often referred to as the Capital of the Cotswolds) was the second largest town in Britain during Roman times and was  known as Corinium Dobunnorum. Even in Roman times, there was a thriving wool trade and industry, which contributed to the growth of Corinium.  There are many Roman remains in the surrounding area, including several Roman villas near the villages of Chedworth and Withington. When a wall was built around the Roman city in the late 2nd century, it enclosed 240 acres (1 km²), making Corinium the second-largest city by area in Britain. The wool trade continued long after the Romans left and there is a lot of sheepish evidence to point to it.

“The Ram”, sculpted by Jill Tweed FRBS. Unveiled by Joanna Trollope 19/04/1997.

Once in Castle Street I spotted the church in the distance. And, as usual they were building a road in the middle of the street and the traffic was somewhat chaotic as the lanes merged and the area was bogged down with large 4×4’s.

The Church of St. John Baptist,  does not seem very big from this viewpoint, but the bulk of it is behind the building in the foreground. Make no mistake, it is a big church and supposedly the biggest parish church in Gloucestershire, although I suspect Tewkesbury Abbey may hold that title.  The War Memorial is slightly to the left of the building and looked small in relation to the church, but I was soon to discover that there was more to it than what I was seeing.  

The wall closest to the memorial has the names engraved on the side of it which really solved the problem of engraving all the names on the memorial. I have only posted the First World War Roll of Honour, and it takes 6 panels to list all of the casualties, whereas the only 2 are needed for the Second World War.

Just as I was about to open the door into the church my cell rang, ruining my mood instantly. I had to answer it or they would be disturbing me the whole morning. Once I had gotten rid of them I tried to retrace my steps but instead of finding the North Door I ended up in a South Door which led to the extensive churchyard behind the church. 

I did not see any CWGC headstones although that is not to say that there aren’t any private memorials in the churchyard.

I could not even guess what the oldest headstone here was, but I suspect that some may date back to the `1700’s. The churchyard was closed to burials in 1871. 

I followed the path until I came out at the church once again and found the North Door with its huge round handles and heavy clanking noises as I opened it. It was a very impressive door!  Like so many churches in the UK it has a long history that is often difficult to make sense of. It has also been extensively restored and rebuilt, but the church is medieval and is renowned for its perpendicular porch, fan vaults and merchants’ tombs. The chancel is the oldest part of the structure, and construction of the current church started in the 12th century on the site of an earlier,Saxon one. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St._John_the_Baptist,_Cirencester)

The church is not to be confused with St Mary’s Abbey though as that is a totally different building altogether.  The image below is credited to Traveler100Cirencester StJohnBaptistChurch, resize, CC BY-SA 3.0..  Why did I not have that glorious sunshine?

Inside the building is large and very ornate and beautiful. 

The Lady Chapel

Chapel of St Catherine and St Nicholas

The High Altar

There are a lot of beautiful wall memorials and artifacts in the church, and trying to show them all here would be impossible. Many are placed very high up too and are impossible to get decent images of.  I may have to do a separate page about the church at a later date. 

Visually the church is amazing, and my time there had come to an end as my bladder was getting impatient. I headed outside, and eventually had to ask a food vendor where the closest loo was. He pointed back the way I had come, the implication being it was somewhere in the park next to the church. I was quite amazed to find that there was this large park and it seemed that there may have been some significance to the long gone Saint Mary’s Abbey. I explored a bit and found outlines in the grass from old foundations and stonework. An information board provided the answer. 

Computer generated artist’s impression of the Abbey as it may have looked in the 14th Century. (Image from Information sheet)

St Mary’s Abbey was consecrated in 1176 in the presence of Henry II, remaining until the Dissolution in 1539 when the Abbey was completely demolished. The only remaining building is the Norman Arch situated at the north-eastern corner of the grounds.

I had a look on Google Earth to see whether I could pick up any of the vague markings left behind today, and they do show an outline, but it is partly obscured by trees. Inside the church is a Lego model of the Abbey, a tantalising glimpse is all that is left of that ancient building.

It was time to end my ecclesiastical meandering and see what else was out there.  The buildings around me were all of a light stone and some were obviously very old. There were all these winding streets and nooks and crannies that needed investigating which really justifies a  return to here one day (preferably in sunlight).

I was hoping to see evidence of the Roman occupation but did not have a lot of time to poke around in far away areas. If I missed the last bus I would end up stuck so instead I chose a street and headed down it.

 

I may be wrong but I get the impression that it is a very “arts and crafty” type town and there are an abundance of trendy and charity shops in the many nooks and crannies. 

It had a recorded population of 63.5 households in 1086, putting it in the largest 20% of settlements recorded in Domesday, and is listed under 3 owners in Domesday Book

Domesday entries for Cirencester

Land of King William

  • Households: 31 villagers. 2 freemen. 10 smallholders. 13 slaves.
  • Ploughland: 5 lord’s plough teams. 12 men’s plough teams.
  • Other resources: 3 mills, value 1 pound 10 shillings.
  • Annual value to lord: 20 pounds 5 shillings in 1086; 9 pounds 5 shillings in 1066.
  • Tenant-in-chief in 1086King William.
  • Lord in 1086: King William.
  • Lord in 1066: King Edward.

Land of William son of Baderon

Unfortunately I missed the Roman Amphitheatre and Corinium Museum as well as the Norman Arch in Abbey Park. However they are worth remembering for a future trip.  I have not explored the town as much as I would have liked to, but sometimes a return is always a good idea. The town used to be on the railway but fell victim to the Beeching axe in the 1960’s. Buses run from Cheltenham (51) and Gloucester.  

My verdict? a very pretty town with beautiful buildings and lots of history, apparently the crime rate is quite high and I do not know how much work there is in the area. Its really a touristy place, but how liveable it is I do not know. The weight of ages hangs heavily over it,  and of course the loss of the Abbey is tragic. Return? definitely, but in better weather. 

DRW 2022. Created 26/05/2022.  The Open Domesday Project and the associated  images are kindly made available by Professor J.J.N. Palmer. Images are reused under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.  Image of St John The Baptist by  Traveler100Cirencester StJohnBaptistChurch, resize, CC BY-SA 3.0..

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