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Notes on...

Lions' wool and other wonders of Cirencester

A family pilgrimage reveals how little has changed in this charming Cotswolds town

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

9 January 2016

9:00 AM

Everywhere you look in Cirencester there’s another animal: a cockerel, a hare, a sheep or a skulking lioness. I rather fancied the big beasts that chase each other lustily around the Roman mosaics in the Corinium Museum, home to one of the liveliest archaeological collections I’ve ever seen.

The Romans of first-century Cirencester (Corinium) strike me as having been a fun-loving, optimistic bunch — so much of what they left behind honours Bacchus, the wine god, and Mercury, god of commerce. They made some fantastically modern things. One could easily mistake the model of Mercury’s cockerel (the herald of a new day), found in a Roman grave, for a Picasso.

Beyond cockerels, historic Cirencester owed much of its success to its sheep. Both Cirencester Parish Church of St John Baptist and the former abbey were built with money raised from trade in local wool. From the 14th century, wool was sold in what is now the Corn Hall, transported to Kent, and shipped thence to Europe. The Florentines were particularly partial to it.


Cirencester’s enterprising sheep–shearers must have had little difficulty in gathering enough wool. The Cotswold Lion, traditionally the favoured breed of sheep, is one of the hairiest ever seen on Countryfile. These lovely shaggy creatures served the Romans and Elizabethans of Cirencester exceptionally well with their famous ‘golden fleece’, but there are only a few thousand left in the UK. Could we not strive to breed more? Perhaps then the branch of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill on Cirencester market could be replaced with something more Cotswoldsy. I’d call it the Lion’s Fleece.

I last went to Cirencester with my family, who wanted me to see the parish church where my mother was baptised. The church’s fan vaulting is out of this world, particularly in St Catherine’s Chapel, north of the chancel, where it acquires a life of its own as light issues in through the stained glass window beneath. Look up to see traces of bright 15th-century paint on the upper walls, creeping out from beneath the whitewash.

Seeing central Cirencester with one’s elders, one learns how little has changed in 50 years. On Black Jack Street the former offices of the Gloucestershire Echo, the local paper that now operates from Cheltenham, have been transformed into a restaurant, but the internal structure of the old building is the same as in the 1960s. Two newspaper offices were separated by a gangway leading, via the loos, to a court at the back. My grandfather, who held one of his first jobs on the paper, still talks fondly of his days here, reporting on local news and shuffling along winding streets of antique shops.

Wander from Octavia’s Bookshop, a haven for children — and Moomins — to the market and down Dyer Street with its Georgian buildings of oolite ashlar, the attractive limestone which forms the bedrock of Cirencester. Then drive south-west for half an hour to Westonbirt arboretum. Even in midwinter, you may be lucky enough to spot a hare or game bird among the trees. Though not, sadly, a Cotswold Lion.

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