England – Cirencester And Fairford

I CAN offer no explanation of a mysterious life-long desire which I have at length, quite late in life, appeased : the desire to go to Cirencester before I died. Perhaps it is the essence of a real desire that it is irrational. So soon as one has a reason for doing a thing, it is so easy to find a reason for not doing it. Why Cirencester should have so struck my very earliest fancy I have no idea. Now that I have been there, I have even less idea. It is a delightful old place, but no more delightful than many another old place. Yet, all the same, I am conscious of a peaceful sense of fulfilment to which my life was before a stranger. Some people desire to go to Rome, others by a curious possession of their nerves — which they can no more explain than I my desire to go to Cirencester — find themselves drawn, magnet-like, to the Pole. I have a certain interest in the Pole, because a very noble man whom I was once privileged to shake hands with has left seven toes there — but, apart from that association, the Pole has never had such a siren-call for me as the mere sound of Cirencester (properly mispronounced). I think I must have had an ancestor who loved some one in Cirencester, and who was killed by the upsetting of the stage-coach on the way. Perhaps just outside Fairford, with its famous stained-glass. Maybe it is his unappeased yearning that has all these years haunted my nerves like a ghost — for is not each one of us a haunted house of ” heredity ” ? Two hundred years too late I have ridden into Cirencester, — but the face is no longer waiting at the window. It grew tired of watching, and the bright eyes are long since fast asleep.

Perhaps, again, my real, unconscious reason was a desire to find out by personal intercourse with actual Cirencastrians the absolutely correct way of pronouncing the beautiful name of their native town. Mr. Muirhead’s delightful Baedeker for Great Britain (which, after all, is the one book one really needs in one’s knapsack, poetry and such nonsense apart) says ” pronounced Cisseter.” Some people say “Cicester ; ” and it was so that Shakespeare evidently pronounced it. ” Our town of Cicester in Gloucestershire,” says Richard II. ; but the townsfolk themselves, feeling the need of living up to the times, assured me that all advanced thinkers, all the progressives of pronunciation, in Cisseter say Cirencester. On the other hand, a lady who spent most of her playhours as a child in the house of Lord Bathurst assures me that one should say ” Cisseter.” It is only democrats who say Cirencester. Still, the pretty parlour-maid who waited on me at dinner at The Fleece was quite sure every one nowadays says Cir-en-cester; and, seeing her public opportunities for observation, she ought to know. The final result of my investigations is that you pronounce Cirencester, like any other word, just as the person you happen to be with is accustomed to pronounce it.

One more suggestion : perhaps, after all, the most probable explanation of my desire to see Cirencester is to be found in my no less mysterious interest in Roman remains, — tesselated pavements and such like. From my childhood the phrase ” tesselated pavement ” has been to me as good as cake. Yes, in my heart I know that I went to Cirencester really for the sake of its tesselated pavements. In my boyish imagination the High Street at Cirencester was a beautiful carpet of coloured tesserae, fitted tiny bit by patient bit into a harmony of minute pieces of marble, like a child’s puzzle. When I came to Cirencester I found, however, that the original tesselated High Street of my dream had been taken up and placed in the museum, the Corinium museum, Cisseter, as Mr. Muirhead tells us, having been “the ‘Corinium ‘ of the Romans.” There are probably two reasons for this. One I realised, with a certain sense of contrast, as I sat at breakfast in The Fleece. It forced itself upon me, for it was an exceedingly able-bodied motor omnibus and carrier’s cart combined which had stopped outside the inn to take a brown-paper parcel to Fairford, eight miles away. Evidently the people in Cisseter are tired of being Ancient Romans —and having made up their minds to run one of the most impressive motor-cars I have seen (quite as big as two of Messrs. W. H. Smith and Sons linked together) they naturally decided to take up the tesselated High Street. To continue both was impossible. Besides, the past is rather in the way of a market-town which has its current eggs and butter to think of. Therefore, Cirencester made up its mind to put as much as possible of its past into the museum, and get a motorcar ; and—oh yes ! I must not forget that — a penny phonograph, which, when the motorcar had thundered off, appealed to me across the street, in the terms of an old music-hall song, to come and play with it. “0 won’t you come and play with me, and play with me, and play with me,” sang the penny phonograph in the Corinium of the Romans. But it had a mellow persistent rival on my opposite side of the street, a few doors below the inn, the belfried head of the lovely old Perpendicular church. For I don’t know how many years this clever old belfry which, naturally, does not approve of music-hall songs, has chimed the 113th Psalm every hour, not to mention other musical “selections” at all the other quarters. This too all night as well as all day. I have never been kept awake so beautifully in my life.

To the professional antiquary, with sufficient learning to read its romance, Cirencester museum must be one of the most fascinating places in England. To the lay imagination, however, the most interesting relic loses something of its suggestiveness by its being removed into a museum, cut off, so to speak, from the life-root of its original relation and significance. A tesselated pavement seen where it has actually been laid down for nearly two thousand years means a great deal more to the romantic cyclist than it means when it has been taken up and relaid in a museum, however carefully relaid. So the Roman poetry of Cirencester centred for me in the old floor still in situ at

Bartons,” the home of Earl Bathurst’s factor, just to the right within Cirencester Park gates. When Pope and Swift used to visit their patron Earl Bathurst, this old floor was still hidden under the turf surrounding the old Jacobean house. Now it is walled and roofed in, and as you approach the house looks like any other out-building. Inside, however, panthers and geese, still of vivid colour, pace round in the circles of a striking design, the floor curiously rolling in billows from the action of time and damp. There is a blithe schoolboy at an adjacent cottage who will, I am sure, be only too glad to show you the way down to ” Bartons.”

Having been to ” Bartons,” my interest in Cirencester faded. The church, beauful as it is outside, is not remarkable within, either aesthetically or historically. In fact the Corinium of the Romans is now an excellent example of a thriving hand-some old country town, a prosperous wool-market, and a popular hunting-centre, — which reminds me of Bædeker’s delicious summing-up of Faringdon in Oxfordshire : ” Once a residence of the Saxon Kings, now famous for its ham and bacon !”

One of the several disputed sources of the Thames is situated within three miles of Cirencester, — the source of the Thames seems hardly less mysterious than the source of the Nile — but it did not lie on my path to the Cotswolds, so I left it unexplored.

Before I speak of the Cotswolds, let me first copy down a nobly prosperous epitaph I found in Fairford churchyard. When I left Lechlade in the late afternoon, intent on calling in at Fairford church to see its famous stained glass, on my way to Cirencester, it suddenly struck me with a curious sense of surprise : ” Why, it is Sun-day ! It will be half-past six before I can reach Fairford. I shall find the church being put to its ancient use. The people of Fairford will be at evening service.” No one looks at stained glass on Sundays. But then what a unique opportunity to observe an ancient custom. The evening before, I had prayed to Astarte. This evening I would pray to another ancient God ! It was strange ! I arrived at Fairford in a great calm of sunset and mellow organ music laying a benedictory hand upon the beautiful old village. They were at prayers when I reached the porch, and reverently leaned my bicycle against a tomb. I was a little late, and must wait for some singing to slip in quietly. Meanwhile, I occupied myself with copying this epitaph of the successful dead. Blessed are the dead who die with a good opinion of themselves : —

” Beneath lies the Body of Yeoman, who died at Quenington, 10 Aug. 1805, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. Industrious and successful. Faithful in the discharge of his relative duties (To his Superiours, Inferiours, his Equals and his Friends) He pass’d through this life, with the firmness of a man, And clos’d it with the fortitude of a Christian : He was followed to the Grave by Ten children whom he trained in the path of strict integrity, under the influence of the Sovereign Maxim — that this world is only a Passage to another.”

Then, a hymn beginning, I stole in to where dim forms stood and sang in a painted dusk, and was much moved to assist at the beautiful old worship which still lingers on in certain remote parts of England. I listened too to a sermon of great antiquarian interest, on the text : “They shall come from the East and the West, but the children of the kingdom shall be cast out.” The rector warned us against the dangers of several thousand years ago with much eloquence, and, mean-while, I prayed to the painted windows.