Cirencester: a walk of 25,000 steps


Since our household includes two freelancers, October half term is usually a patchwork of projects and playtime. This year, we fitted in a two-night family stay in Cirencester. One of the aims of a trip westward was to see Corinium Museum, rich in Roman remains. The other was to spend a day on a countryside walk, taking in the views, air, sunshine etc, and generally being healthy – despite the ring of dread these words sound in the teenage ear.


Where was best to walk? We are not exactly long-range planners with our rambles (it took two of us six years to complete the Cotswold Way in tiny spur-of-the-moment sections, for example). Research into the possible routes for a Cirencester-based perambulation had so far been limited to a few Google enquiries. Our maps indicated several trails running nearby – the Thames Path, Wysis Way, Palladian Way and Monarch’s Way – and there are good sites with walk suggestions to make the most of these. We had almost too much choice.


So we decided simply to walk from central Cirencester, amble along Monarch’s Way, find the source of the Thames as our quest, and then return. I say ‘we decided simply’, but to be truthful this obscures a lengthy period in which rucksacks and water bottles were emptied and filled, gloves and coats found, trouser choices made and changed, and routes discussed, while one person (me) repeatedly looked out of the window and remarked ‘it’s still a beautiful day’ as if losing faith that we would actually leave the hotel room before night fell.

Sidequest one

Finally we were off, along Old Tetbury Road which rises out of town to the south west. ‘Things were going well’, to quote Gallaxhar in Monsters vs. Aliens (I am always one for especially impressive literary references). However, progress stalled after only a short distance, when we found an iPhone on the grass verge. It had a nice Cath Kidston case but no means of identifying its owner. We retraced our progress to take the phone to the nearest police station (after Tweeting our discovery of course – thanks to all those who retweeted). Suddenly, the phone rang – the owner, Ellie, had evidently realised it was missing and persuaded a kindly stranger to make a call to try to locate it.

We agreed to drop the phone at the leisure centre we had recently passed. They said they would keep it in their safe until Ellie came to fetch it. Sidequest complete! We could continue along Tetbury Way.

Sidequest two

We continued up the hill, joining the A429 which had terrifically heavy traffic, so we took a pedestrianised branch – a choice which led to our second detour. The quieter path joined us up with Stroud Road and away from our intended route – whoops – but happily towards Cirencester Agricultural University. Back in the 1980s, this was where members of Warwickshire County Youth Orchestra used to come for residential music courses, so for me it is bathed in a warm nostalgic glow. Or could that be the fuzzy-brained memory of too many giggle-fuelled late nights?


On the day of the walk the college was looking as lovely as ever along its avenue of trees. We decided to claim the sighting as a second sidequest. Achievement unlocked! But alas, it was a dead end. A footpath that should have joined us to the right route was overgrown and impassable, presumably because the combination of speeding traffic and lack of pavement means no one can really access it.

We therefore turned back again to try to pick up where we’d gone wrong, agreeing that perhaps this was a special kind of walk in which it was vital to complete every section of the journey at least twice. It was, however, still a beautiful day, as someone had not tired of observing.

Surviving the outskirts

As we regained the roundabout where we had made our wayfinding error, a characteristic of many British urban outskirts became clear: they are designed for cars and not for anyone else. Pedestrians seemed to have dropped off the planners’ list as far as any path to walk on, or anywhere to view oncoming traffic, was concerned.

We had been OK in the middle of the town. The centre of Cirencester is a lovely collection of winding streets with the golden-carved church of St John the Baptist rising in the main square. You can wander at leisure, knowing that while cars are present, they will be moving slowly and you can hop onto the refuge of a pavement at any time.


Deep in the countryside you are safe, too. Mostly you can follow a footpath across the fields and only encounter fast-moving vehicles at the odd road crossing. It is amazing and brilliant to live in a land where your right of way is not only shown on a map but indicated by regular markers on signposts.

But in the hinterland at the edge of a town, you don’t belong unless you’re inside a tonne of metal barrelling along at superhuman speed. It’s a strangely brutal experience to walk any distance next to a busy road – you can’t hear yourself think or any companions talk as massive lorries and trailers thunder by.

Escape to Monarch’s Way

After crossing the roundabout at last, and walking a stretch of the fast-moving Fosse Way, it was therefore a relief to duck off to the right and onto our walking route. Monarch’s Way, green and peaceful, crossed the Agricultural University’s expansive estate, where a sign provided an explanation of the walk’s name. King Charles II made his escape along this route after defeat in battle by Oliver Cromwell at Worcester. The king’s flight covered 615 miles from Stratford upon Avon to Stow on the World, Cirencester, Bristol, Yeovil, Brighton and then Shoreham-by-Sea where presumably he had a nice paddle (don’t worry, fact fans, I know he went to France before returning to star as the Merry Monarch in an episode of Horrible Histories).


Our transit along Monarch’s Way was considerably more leisurely than Charles’s (see fleeing figure above). We ate lunch after departing the college grounds, sitting on a flat-topped wall in the sunshine. Then it was straightforward walking across fields, over stiles – all different in design – through woods and up and down slopes. Fitbits were starting to register a surprisingly high number of steps for one day as we passed the usual 10,000 and headed up towards 20,000.

Main quest achieved

After some miles, and via a turning south onto Wysis Way, we found the stone that marks the source of the Thames. Strangely, there is no actual water here most of the time – apparently it’s only wet during particularly soggy winter months. There wasn’t any sign of the river flowing at all as we went on, picking up a part of the Thames Path. A grassy dip is the only hint at the river’s course, which goes on for over 180 miles to reach the Thames Barrier.


The original plan from this point was to walk the return journey along the way we had come – but that had been before all the detours added time and distance. More popular now was a proposal to continue until we reached a place where a taxi might take us back to our starting point. So we went on – and quickly reached impasse with a herd of cows that had gathered exactly where we needed to go next.


The cows had calves alongside and we didn’t fancy getting mixed up with them all – so the only alternative was to tiptoe along the side of an adjoining field of seedlings. We then had to try to find a way up a bank to cross our old friend the A429 again. Fortunately, the barbed wire was just about navigable, and the nettles not too fierce especially if you were walking behind a taller person (so I was OK). The walk continued south and we reached Kemble.

Back to Cirencester

The village of Kemble looked prosperous and inviting in a very Cotswoldian way, with ancient stone-built dwellings and rustic, tumbling rooflines. Even so, those with wet feet were happy to jump into the 21st-century convenience of an actual vehicle to return to dry socks and shoes at the hotel.

In the evening we ate our own weight in Chinese food at the Asian Lounge, and discussed Westworld (the two things not thematically connected). 


The next day we visited Corinium Museum. Here, we encountered Roman Britain’s most sceptical butcher: please consult the photograph below. There were marvellous mosaics, including the hare that gives modern Cirencester one of its mascots, and the chance to learn the Roman game tabula. We followed up with lunch at Piazza Fontana, which had the odd distinction of being the closest Italian restaurant to… Pizza Express. There didn’t seem to be a moment in the day when this was not heaving with customers.


Whether sceptical butcher would have agreed, we can only speculate. But we liked this smaller, family-run place down one of Cirencester’s typical alleyway streets – and enjoyed our couple of days in Gloucestershire very much.




Podcasts and voxpods

Did you know, I once did a work placement at the BBC’s World Service? It was a while ago, admittedly – one of the stories I reported on was the 1995 discovery of prehistoric DNA inside bees trapped in ancient amber.

William Smith's geological map of England

William Smith’s geological map of England

But however aged that makes me feel, I am delighted to be putting my radio skills back into action with various new podcasting projects.

I’m about to go to Edinburgh as part of this year’s writing team for The Sick of the Fringe, a project commissioned by the Wellcome Trust. For five days, I’ll pack in as many Festival shows as possible, making diagnoses about the conversations performers are having in relation to physical and mental health. Some of these will be in the form of podcasts – so check in at to find those.

Future World at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore

Future World at the ArtScience Museum, Singapore

I have also been working with Richard O Smith (writer on The Now Show and The News Quiz) to write and produce a 20-minute scripted podcast about the story of William Smith, the world’s unluckiest geologist. Find out about the ups, but mostly downs, of this pioneering map-maker’s life.

Shorter podcasts include a review of CLD: The Real Lewis Carroll, a musical full of songs and scandal that I saw in Oxford. Hear from director David Kettle, actor Stewart Briggs (Dodgson) and writer Jane Bramwell about the production.

And on a trip to see family in Singapore, I visited an ambitious new digital gallery at the ArtScience Museum, where my children effortlessly outwitted me at every turn. So listen in to that and hear me unwisely tackling a slide, among other things.