I've often wondered how it happens that certain areas of the country seem to concentrate towns that begin with the same letter. If you head north of Manchester you run into Bury, Burnley, Blackburn, Blackpool and Bolton. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the southern part of the Cotswolds the recurrent letter is 'C' – Chippenham, Cheltenham and Cirencester. It's quite possibly my inability to remember which is which that led me to think I probably knew Cirencester and to be rather surprised when I got there and discovered that I didn't – not at all. I'd never been there before in my life.
I adore the Cotswolds but proximity means I lean towards the northern towns – Chipping Campden, Broadway, Shipston on Stour and even (if pushed) Stratford on Avon – rather than the more southerly areas. My sister and I booked a hotel for a weekend away with our parents and agreed to meet up in Cirencester for lunch before going in search of the hotel. It was a Friday, which turned out to be a market day, though the market was small and not particularly attractive, but the town was much better than I expected it to be.
I really did know next to nothing about the town and was surprised to discover after visiting that it's the largest town in the Cotswolds – though really that says more about the rest of the towns and how small they are, rather than suggesting that Cirencester is a bustling big place. Historically it's one of the places where you can find history dating back to Roman times, and there's a National Trust Roman Villa open to the public just a few miles north of the town and the town's museum – the Corinium Museum – attracts visitors from a great distance. It's also the location of the Royal Agricultural College, and so you're likely to find a lot of well-to-do young gentry in expensive rubber boots. In fact, there's not much about Cirencester that doesn't scream out at the visitor "We've got lots of money round here!"
The main car park in Cirencester is called the Forum Car Park. It's a fair size for the size of the town but it's by no means enormous and it took us a while to find a space. The fee of £3 for 3 hours would be enough to put me off going too often or would encourage me to search of cheaper or free on street parking elsewhere. Based on the size of the town, I suspect that 3 hours is as much as most people will need to have a good look around unless they are planning to see the church, the museum and have a very long lunch break.
In recent years, English towns have become more and more generic. If you look around you the same shops selling the same things seem to be on every High Street. Cirencester is different. The vast majority of the retail outlets are small independent stores. There are small family owned butchers in historical premises, shops specialising in cheese or cakes, and fashion outlets focused on the inherently unfashionable upper classes. Many of the shops sell pretty or funny things that you want but really don't need at prices that might make your eyes water. It's no wonder that the Japanese and American tourists LOVE the Cotswolds – the area is just so astonishingly 'twee'. It's a time-warp town that's crying out for Miss Marple to come and solve and dainty but devastating murder mystery, whilst exhibiting nothing but the most exquisite manners.
After our lunch we took a brief stroll round an antiques fair which was closing up and most of the stalls had been packed away. The market place was in the same situation – mostly boxes and people packing away for the night. It was only about 3.30pm so either they'd all made so much money that they could afford to leave early, or they had done badly and just wanted to go home. We strolled down some quiet side streets, buying cheese and pate for dinner, browsing in second hand book stores and soaking up the 'timelessness' of the place. You could look down some of these streets and nothing would tell you it's 2011 and not 1951. The buildings are all made of honey-coloured stone, many of the shop fronts are decidedly 'retro' in appearance (or possibly just old!) and it's just a very lovely place to wander around. If I hadn't been with my relatives, I'm sure I could have happily strolled in and out of dozens of shops, but since trying to keep all of us more or less together is like trying to herd cats, we stuck to a rather more sedate amble and not too much retail therapy.
For those in need of sustenance, we found relatively few places to eat. There are a few moderately expensive hotel restaurant and quite a lot of dainty tea shops. If there are any McDonalds or Pizza Express or other chain fast food restaurant we certainly didn't spot them, nor any cheap and cheerful bakery chains. Make sure you know where the nearest cash machine is – you'll probably need it.