When asked to name the plus points of living in Swindon, I say two things: cheap living (whilst being ‘alright’) and ease of access to nicer destinations. One of these ‘nicer’ destinations is Cirencester.
Don’t get me wrong, the Magic Roundabout often brings a tear to my eye, but it does lack a certain je ne sais quoi. I needed little persuasion to convince me, I hoped on the Saturday 51 bus and headed up to the Cotswold capital.
The ex-History student in me would tell you all about the Roman ancestry of Cirencester, and how subsequent centuries have impacted on this Gloucestershire town, however the newly formed, slightly less pretentious, Alice Bennett will gloss over it in simplistic fashion. Bunch of Romans came along, made Cirencester their capital, left. Place becomes a successful market town. Want more information? Google it.
I’ve been to Cirencester a few times over the last couple of years although I’m still very much prepared to accept I’ve got a lot to learn about this little Cotswold town. For example, I somehow managed to stumble across a massive park last time I visited. A large area of green in the Cotswolds? Who’d have thought. The town centre has a large, conveniently placed car park which, due to road works, is also where public buses are currently picking up and dropping off. From there you need only follow the maps or the constant streams of people to get onto the bustling streets.
The town itself is quaint but small, if you’re looking to conduct the big Christmas shop you’re probably better off sticking to the confines of Swindon. However, if you’re looking for the experience then Cirencester will certainly appeal, as the shopping here delivers more on holding a miniature mixture within the restraints of its historic streets. There’s a small Accessorize, an even tinier New Look and, of course, a condensed Poundland. I personally tend to avoid the high-street brands, only because the stores sell a poorer selection of what I could easily pick up from Swindon town. Alongside this there are small arcades and nocks which contain independently run businesses and charity shops, and the historic town also plays host to weekly farmers’ markets.
I probably should have said before, but Cirencester has an underlying reputation and/or belief in its own mild snootiness. I like to think of this town as the younger cousin of Bath. You get similar vibes from both locations. In Cirencester you will walk past many couples and families sporting matching hunter boots and tweed coats while a small to medium sized dog totters along beside. There are also the stylish sorts, those who pop into the bespoke kitchen fitters to chat designs. They can often be spotted as they dump their last season Michael Korr handbags outside one of the charity shops, before speeding off to brunch somewhere else. Left behind are the third kind, the Swindon one-day expats, the pottering about-ers and those with other agenda other than wanting to feel classy and tell their friends they occasionally frequent deli shops. No prizes for guessing which category this humble writer belongs to.
Being of the third kind, you’ll more likely than not spot me rummaging through one of the multiple charity shops located in the town. On this particular visit it was Oxfam Books who took claim to my hard-earnt money. Taking my selection of goods to the counter, I briefly held eye contact with an older volunteer who, at that moment in time, possessed dominance over the four walls and its contents. The look in her eye and smile on her face told me she approved of my selection.
After a hefty dose of second-hand blouses, I took the decision to peruse some of the little giftware shops. Shops selling pretty little items for a pretty large price. For a young female who dresses the way I do, half of the awkwardness/fun is going into these shops and trying to give an air that I’m seriously interested in buying a £4.00 greeting card. Thanks to the joys of the 5p bag charge, no longer can shop staff instantly judge me on my shopping habits; instead they have to make their assumptions based on how I browse. Pick stuff up, smile, put it down again. In such an environment it doesn’t take long for me to become an unwelcome floor-space clogger. Without thinking, I took a photo of a mug and turned to see the shop assistant staring me down with her arms crossed. Not even the Michael Bublé album playing in the background could ease the tension. In contrast to the elderly volunteer in Oxfam Books, the look on this lady’s face conveyed a message not suitable for a pre-watershed audience. I quickly scarpered.
A site which I personally feel gets overlooked all too often by shoppers is, ironically, the massive church of St John the Baptist. While I will be the first to admit I have yet to enter inside the medieval church, the exterior of this religious house is something worth stopping for. As mentioned earlier, I’m not at liberty to provide an extensive overview of the church’s History, but it’s well worth devoting fifteen minutes to. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m partial to a nice churchyard (FYI, I’m not a goth) so I always find this area of land, also known as the Garden of Remembrance, to be very peaceful. With its numerous benches, it’s also good space to sit and gather one’s thoughts. A very British way of meditation, as it were.
After the church (yes, I really do power around these places) I went to one of the town’s coffee shops. Now this is where I do take issue with Cirencester. It’s a delicate topic, but a very British one which must be addressed. The lack of public access toilets in this town is truly awful. When I say public access, I’m not referring to those God-awful, outdoor blocks, but just loos which you can use without shame (e.g. those in department stores). However it seems the WC monopoly of Cirencester is firmly controlled by the food and beverage outlets. To some people it may sound petty or downright bizarre, but over the course of my frequent visits I have seen many parents and toddlers standing awkwardly in a queue for the one, singular, toilet in Costa. I too can say I’ve felt similar frustration as I find myself morally obliged to buy a Tall Americano in Starbucks so I can justify my use of the average facilities. Only in Britain would it be an issue, but a heads up for those visiting, time you coffee breaks well.
For a single person such as myself it did take considerable time before I was able to go into a coffee shop and safely secure a table (because marking territory with coats and/or children is definitely a thing). That said, once I was able to sit down in the furthest corner of Coffee #1 with coffee, cake and a selection of three books to read, I felt very relaxed indeed. Soon enough though the light outside started to fade and the shops, from the charity to the stylish, one by one locked their doors. I milled about the darkening streets whilst I waited for the next bus, wondering how different the town would look in a few weeks when the Christmas lights were switched on. Would it add charm, make no difference, or maybe, just maybe, would it detract attention away from the essence of what makes this Cotswold town so classically ‘Cotswoldian’. Shortly after this thought crossed my mind I found myself on a double decker bus, hurtling down the A419 towards the bright headlights of Swindon. Dozing off slightly on the upper level, two thoughts entered my mind: do I have milk at home and how much do I have to save to buy a house in Cirencester.
Like what you read? Check out my blog, My Housemate’s a Mermaid, here: