There are a handful of cities in Europe that were once major epicenters of the universe, but are now snoozy little hamlets who betray nothing of their illustrious pasts. Cordoba comes to mind. The place was once pretty much the center of the universe, and the most populous city in Europe. Now it’s a quiet Andalusian city with about 300,000 people. Another sweet little village that hides its cosmopolitan history is Cirencester, in the Cotswolds. I went there in July to do some reconnaissance for the history tour I’m leading in May, which will have a day to relax in the thatched-roof quintessential England of the storybooks, based in Cirencester. During my time there, staying at The Fleece, I learned a lot about this pokey little village, and I am now convinced that it is one of the most awesome places in England. And thus, the world. Here’s why:
- Cirencester was the second city to London in Roman England. Ptolemy wrote about how it was chosen as a spot for a fort along the Fosse Way, which linked the Exeter area to Lincoln, passing through the Cotswolds. The Dobunni tribe hadn’t opposed the Romans, and they had an administrative area nearby. Rome decided to take advantage of their friendliness and build their own center in the same general area. The new area was called Corinium Dobunnorum in Roman parlance, and by the 2nd century, it was the second largest town in Britain, covering 240 acres (compared with the 330 of London) with a population of up to 15,000 – which is pretty much the same as the modern population.
- For four centuries, the landscape was dominated by the Abbey, which was founded in 1117. At the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Henry VIII ordered the total demolition of the buildings so that today the Norman Arch, built in 1180, and parts of the precinct wall are all that remain above ground of the old abbey.
- There are several Roman sites to visit – The Corinium Museum, and the Roman Amphitheater. Both of which will give you plenty of insight into the Roman past, allow you to see artifacts, and get a sense of Roman Britain.
- But there is plenty in Cirencester that isn’t 1800 years old. It’s a bit of an independent-minded, foodie, artsy town, with these medieval narrow lanes, and winding streets and plenty of non-chain shops (with some chains thrown in for balance). It all makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Most of the shops close around 5pm, and so in the evenings you can wander through these empty little lanes and completely lose yourself.
Cirencester has no train station, meaning that to get there you either need to drive, or you take a train to Kemble and then take a cab for about £10. Apparently they used to have a station, but it was closed in the 50’s.
It’s a magical spot which seems at once incredibly on trend and modern, while also being steeped in history and tradition. And everyone should go there. But don’t tell too many people, because you don’t want it to become overrun with tourists. Let’s just keep it our secret, shall we?