Cirencester Park, still full of ‘the amiable simplicity of unadorned nature’ 200 years after its creation

Fiona Reynolds strolls through Cirencester Park and beyond into the Gloucestershire countryside.

‘Consult the genius of the place’ — I’ve been quoting Alexander Pope since my first encounters with the National Trust in the early 1980s. They have long guided the Trust’s commitment to finding, celebrating and sustaining the special qualities of each place in its care and, when I was director-general, I used to love the conversations we had about what it meant, wherever we were. Imagine my delight, then, when we moved to Cirencester in 2002, to discover Pope’s Seat in Cirencester Park, near the house we rented on Cecily Hill.

Here, it’s said, Pope sat to survey the vistas in Cirencester Park he’d helped inspire, working with the 1st Earl Bathurst in the early 18th century. The park is a remarkable designed landscape, with long, tree-lined rides, occasionally broken by radiant ‘wheels’ giving views into the surrounding countryside, and interspersed with monuments.

Cirencester town centre is within yards of Cirencester Park.

I came to love walking there, entering through the iconic wrought-iron gates at the top of Cecily Hill. I soon discovered that you can walk in a straight line along the Broad Ride, the tower of Cirencester Church at your back, all the way to Sapperton, five miles away, where, in non-Covid-19 times, a welcome pint awaits at The Bell.

The architect Norman Jewson writes beautifully in his memoir By Chance I Did Rove about taking this walk in 1907, stopping for tea at The Wood House. He was on his way to meet Ernest Gimson and Sidney Barnsley, the Arts-and-Crafts architects who took him on as an ‘improver’ and with whom he worked for the rest of their lives.

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Recovered from my own Covid-19 encounter, I’m ready for a long walk. I want to reconnect with this beautiful landscape close to our home in Coates. By kind permission of the Bathurst Estate, the park, with its network of paths and tracks, dells and woods, is open to the public (no dogs) from 8am to 5pm.

Early one morning, I enter the park from the Stroud Road, the way into the polo ground. I walk east first, towards Cirencester, to see Pope’s Seat again; sitting for a moment where he did. Then I swing along the Broad Ride, relishing its ups and downs, until I reach the sentinel Horse Guards, roman-tic ‘gates’ marking the area’s historic core.

“The landscape Pope described as ‘the amiable simplicity of unadorned nature’ continues to inspire”

I turn off the main ride here, to walk through the woods to King Alfred’s Hall. It was built as a romantic Gothic ruin and now desperately needs repair; thankfully, the estate has plans to achieve this with income it hopes to earn from visitors.

I then strike north to meet Overley Ride, which I follow for a mile or more, crossing the road into Overley Wood and loving the sense of scale and space. It’s tempting to continue to the very end of the ride, but, instead, I turn west, out of the park towards the River Frome in its deep valley.

I enter the valley by Pinbury Park, the beautiful stone house restored by Gimson and Barnsley in the 1910s, and take the south-running bridleway through glorious countryside to Sapperton. The hawthorn is in full flower, the cow parsley riotous and I am in Heaven. Reaching Sapperton, I walk through the village, past The Bell, to pick up the far end of the Broad Ride, now heading back towards Cirencester.

My destination is Ten Rides, a huge clearing from which radiate no fewer than 10 delightful avenues. The main one leads back to Cirencester; a smaller one is Coates Ride, within which our lovely church is framed; and I take the most southerly, which leads me to the sawmill and a leisurely return to Coates.

Pope would, I think, be content. The landscape he described as ‘the amiable simplicity of unadorned nature’ continues to inspire, and its spirit of place is alive and well.