Cirencester is a busy English market town on the edge of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is often referred to as the capital of the Cotswolds. It’s a good example of a town that grew prosperous from the wool trade in the Middle Ages with its huge wool church, and today it’s one of the larger towns in the Cotswolds.
However, Cirencester has ancient origins and was also very important in Roman times. The Romans built Cirencester, or Corinium as it was then known, shortly after the invasion in AD43. At one point Corinium was the second largest town in England (after Londinium, of course).
In the local area you’ll find plenty of signs left by the Romans, and this post covers three Roman sites near Cirencester that are well worth visiting. Cirencester has a museum dedicated to its history, the Corinium Museum; you can also see the ruins of its Roman amphitheatre on the edge of the town; and nearby lie the remains of a Roman Villa at Chedworth.
We live near Cirencester and it’s one of our favourite towns in the Cotswolds. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve managed to get to these Roman places – it’s been a good follow up from our trip to Rome in December!
This post contains compensated links. Please see our disclaimer for more information.
Roman sites near Cirencester: Corinium Museum, Cirencester
On the surface, Cirencester doesn’t look like a Roman town – the old grid layout of the streets is long buried under the modern town. There’s no sign of its enormous Basilica or its Forum, and only a few grass covered mounds show where the Roman walls were.
Cirencester’s ancient importance means that a huge amount of Roman artefacts have been excavated over the years. Dotted about the town, you’ll occasionally stumble across a piece of pillar or similar that was used in the building of Corinium, but for the most part the evidence left behind by the Romans is found in the Corinium Museum.
The Corinium Museum charts the history of Cirencester, from its beginnings as Roman Corinium to the modern day market town. Corinium Museum lies near the centre of town, just past the main shopping thoroughfares. The museum is a lot bigger than it first appears from the street and you’ll probably be surprised at the amount of exhibits inside.
What to see at the Corinium Museum
As the Romans weren’t the first people to live in the area, the exhibition starts with some information on the local tribe, the Dobunni, and life before the Romans arrived. You can see examples of Roman coins, weapons and jewellery along with recreations of armour and their living quarters. My kids especially liked the life size models and trying to lift the heavy Roman armour.
In the main foyer you can see mosaics that were found in Roman homes in and around Cirencester, including one of a hare which has become a symbol associated with Cirencester (a local Hare Festival and trail runs every year). There’s also a small example of a Roman garden with statues and painted walls outside.
In the main hall you’ll find information on the layout and the public buildings in Corinium. Corinium had an enormous forum where people would have held markets, ceremonies and met their friends. The basilica would have been the administrative centre of Corinium.
You’ll also see recreations of Roman homes as they would have been with more amazing mosaics on the floors. There’s plenty of information about how the Romans and Britons lived together and went about their daily life, including examples of Roman shops, kitchens, and hypocaust central heating systems. Upstairs are more treasures; jewellery, statues of deities and stories of real people who lived in Corinium.
While the main focus of the museum is on Roman life, further rooms take you through Cirencester’s history after the Romans left and Corinium fell into decline, through Saxon life, medieval events and Cirencester’s importance during the Wool Trade and up to the present day.
While Cirencester has never again been anywhere near as important as it was in Roman times, it’s still got an interesting history and the rest of the museum is as well laid out and informative as the Roman section.
A detail that I found particularly poignant was that the faces of the models were reconstructed from skeletons found in the area – this is what these people really looked like.
Things for kids to do at the Corinium Museum
Museums can be a rather dry affair for small children but the Corinium Museum has plenty of things to keep kids informed and entertained.
The exhibits and information are accessible for older kids, making the Corinium Museum a great place to visit if your kids are studying Romans at school. Kids can complete mini games and puzzles as they walk around, which add variety so they’re less likely to get bored. You’ll find electronic interactive games on stands throughout the museum which teach you about Roman life and quiz you on what you’ve picked up.
The museum has plenty of hands-on activities dotted about aimed at small children. My kids enjoyed making mosaics, playing with Roman house building materials and touching Roman armour. And although they were a bit small to understand how to play the Roman and Saxon games, they still had fun playing with the pieces. They were fascinated watching a couple of older boys who were obviously experts at playing one of the Roman games.
A seating area with toys and books has been provided in each area so small children can occupy themselves while parents and older kids look at the exhibits.
Corinium Museum: Know before you go
You can buy your tickets when you arrive. Tickets cost £5.40 for an adult and £2.60 for children aged 5 and over.
Opening times are from 10am to 4pm, Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 4pm on Sunday between November and March. From April to October the museum closes at 5pm. You can check on the website before you visit to see if there’s a special exhibit on.
Corinium Museum is on Park Street in the town centre. By the museum’s entrance is a small gift shop with an art exhibit next door – you will also find the local tourist information office in this shop.
Sadly the cafe with access from the museum has closed so there are no refreshments on site – I’ll update if another cafe opens up. However there are plenty of cafes and restaurants in the town centre so you won’t go hungry.
I’ll shortly be posting a guide to Cirencester with more information on what to do and where to stay in the local area, so stay tuned… In the meantime we recommend looking for accommodation on booking.com.
Cirencester Amphitheatre is no Colosseum, so don’t visit expecting to see any standing buildings or stonework. I’d recommend visiting it on a sunny day after you’ve been to the Corinium Museum. If you go to the museum first you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re looking at and how it relates to the rest of Corinium. Entry is free.
Cirencester Amphitheatre was built sometime in the 2nd Century. It’s the second largest Roman amphitheatre in the UK which is another indication of Corinium’s importance. It was set just outside of Corinium’s centre and about 8,000 people could fit into it – so most of Corinium’s population of 10,000. Tiered wooden seats were set on stone foundations and there was also room for people to stand. After the Romans left, the amphitheatre was fortified as a defence against Saxon invaders.
Today the amphitheatre remains buried under grassy mounds and is a peaceful place for a walk. You can walk around and climb over it so you can still get a good idea of its size. The kids can tear about up and down the slopes of the amphitheatre (and it’s the best place in Cirencester for sledding after a rare snowfall). There are several information boards but you’ll still have to use your imagination to picture how it might have looked in its heyday!
The only other sign of Roman buildings in Cirencester is on the other side of the town, where you can see the remains of the Roman walls that surrounded Corinium. There’s not much left of them and like the amphitheatre they’re mostly covered in grass, however if you walk around them to the far side you can see some of the stonework. You’ll find them in the Abbey Grounds – they’re signposted and are near the duck pond.
Chedworth Roman Villa
About 10 miles north of Cirencester, at Chedworth, lie the remains of a grand Roman villa which is one of the largest ever found in the UK. The villa was inhabited for hundreds of years and had several buildings arranged around a courtyard, with views out over the countryside.
Nobody knows who lived there, but they probably had something to do with administering nearby Corinium. They would have been very wealthy as the buildings were large and the floors were decorated with beautiful mosaics.
What to see at Chedworth Roman Villa
The remains of Chedworth Roman Villa were discovered in 1864 and have been administered by the National Trust for some time so everything here is well laid out and preserved.
The best things to see here are inside the main building. This includes the principal living area of the villa; you can explore the entrance hallway which was paved with beautiful mosaics, the dining room and Roman baths. The building has been painstakingly excavated and restored. Clear walkways allow you to walk above the mosaics and see them up close. You can also get a very good look at how the hypocaust underfloor heating system worked.
The mosaics on the floors of the main building have survived pretty well – perhaps not as well as the mosaics that we saw in Madaba, Jordan though, which still go down as the best we’ve ever seen. However they are still beautiful and show how wealthy the owners of the villa must have been.
Although the main structure of Chedworth Roman Villa has long since disappeared, you can walk around the foundations of the buildings in the courtyard – look out for the hypocaust. In Victorian times the remains of the walls were capped with tiles which haven’t been removed. Outside there are more baths that are easily recognisable and the remains of the Nymphaeum water shrine which is still fed by the same stream today. There is also a small exhibit in the house in the centre of the site.
Things for kids to do at Chedworth Roman Villa
As with many National Trust properties, there are plenty of activities aimed at keeping children interested. If you’re visiting with your kids then make sure you pick up the kids’ information leaflet and treasure trail when you arrive. You could also borrow a family explorer pack or raid the dressing up basket.
Check to see if there are any craft lessons running when you visit – these sessions will keep little ones occupied for a bit! These usually run at weekends and in school holidays.
You might see some actors dressed as Romans – we met a doctor who was showing people how to grind herbs into medicines.
Our kids also had fun playing with items left out in the main room – they tried to guess what the little implements were used for and enjoyed trying to finish Roman puzzles.
Chedworth Roman Villa: Know before you go
Chedworth Roman Villa is administered by the National Trust, so entry is free if you’re a NT member. Otherwise entry costs £10.50 per adult and £5.50 for children aged 5 and above.
You’ll need a car to get to Chedworth as it’s tucked away in the countryside and isn’t serviced by public transport.
There’s a cafe serving lunches, cake and drinks on site. You can find more details on the National Trust website.
Map of Roman sites near Cirencester
Pin this post for later!