Cirencester carried a damp air of muted gentility. Rows of piggledy town houses led through narrow curving streets to the centre, windows haphazardly filled with bunting and colourful children’s frocks. The road into town boasted more hairdressers than will ever seem entirely reasonable to a baldy like me. Weathered, the yellow Jurassic limestone of the Cotswolds had lost its true edges, lending the town a soft and pillowy feel.
Cirencester is a town of independent shops, something to be found at both ends of the economic bell curve. In the poorest towns, independents provide the few services people have any money for, where the chains fear to tread. In Cirencester, they are expensive and bespoke. One sold hallmarked, sterling silver lids for condiments such as HP sauce, Marmite, and Colman’s mustard. Luxuries I didn’t know I couldn’t afford.
Finding a pitch was not easy. I try not to be a nuisance and so pick empty shops to play in front of. There were few of these. In 2017, there were barely 300 unemployed people in the whole of the Cotswolds, the lowest rate in England, and business was thriving. One or two shops were sold, awaiting a new tenant, and I found a spot near the church on the big open square. The rain had let up, and I slowly warmed up the fiddle, enjoying the acoustic of the high walls across the road. A huge man, bearded and at least 6 foot 5 came striding over to me with a grin, pushing his belly before him like an icebreaker seeking a Northwest passage. He strode right into my personal space, looked me straight in the eye, paused, and said ‘Nooice one, son!” before thrusting a fistful of boiled sweets into the pouch of my hoodie.
A woman came over to me and mumbled at me for a bit, before waving her hands at me whilst chanting. I decided she was casting a curse. I continued playing, wondering what would happen. It’s remarkable how no two busking pitches are quite the same. I suppose the day when I feel like I know what’s going to happen comes around is the day to stop and write up the book.
The curse took hold and the money dried up for a while. The square was damp, but little patches of dry started to form on the stone paving. The sky began to glow. After a soaked day, the sun had finally appeared in time for sunset, lighting up the thick clouds and radiating the golden stone of the church. People stopped in the square just to enjoy the few minutes of soft light. An American tourist was so overcome by it she felt it necessary to hand me a £10 note which I gratefully trousered. The curse had clearly not been a long-lasting one.
I packed down at 5pm. As I was putting the bow away, a woman gave me a pound coin.
“It’s nice here. I lived in South Africa and Zimbabwe for 40 years until I moved back to England. Only came here for 6 months, but I stayed. I suppose this is it now.” She concluded wistfully as she gestured round the square. “But it is pretty, isn’t it?”
I started again as early as I dared the next morning. The best weather of the week was due and I was determined to cash in while I could. The skies were clear, but a bitter wind barreled its shoulders along the streets. I wore several layers, topped with a very old and tired Barbour jacket and a woolly hat. I concluded that for a bloke at least, one path to busking success was to set your appearance just right so that you seemed a little down on your luck whilst leaving open the possibility of redemption, a redemption that one could contribute towards with just a few coins. A good deed done, oh thank you, sir.
I busked on, and the day quietly built around me. In front of a sign that said ‘Do not feed the pigeons’, an old man was liberally feeding a large and growing flock of pigeons with numerous fistfuls of crumbs from an oversize shopping bag. I wondered if he really ought to be doing that, but he won my silence by slipping me a fiver as he went past.
The well-heeled came and went about their business, wearing beautiful, expensive and understated clothes. Cirencester was a wool town, and that’s still what most people would wear on a day like this, from scarves to tweeds, fleece lined boots. Stylish and pastel coloured, all neatly fitting. It really was a very well dressed place, led by the small groups of plump, pink cheeked young men from the agricultural college. Older men gave me advice on better busking pitches. “Down the main street near Nationwide, that’s where they go. You’d do better there.” Maybe I would, but the acoustics in this square, backed by the church were wonderful and I didn’t want to leave them. “You must have cold hands.” was a recurring theme. Proud grandparents told me of grandchildren learning instruments and doing terribly well at them. “That’s great. Perhaps one day they could be doing as well as me.” I thought of replying, but it seemed cruel and I let them be.
At lunchtime I entered the church, mainly to get out of the wind for a bit. I was immediately handed a brochure by a grey haired man with a smile that managed to convey all of; “I know why you’re in here, but I’m far too polite to say so, so I shall pretend you’re an interested tourist and hand you this brochure, but I’ll look at you in a way that makes it clear that I know. And so does God.”
The brochure contained a map conveying the usual sorts of information, such as ‘Pulpit – 1450, in a rare and finely-worked wine glass design’ and ‘Garstang Chapel, Established in 1440 for the tomb of a local merchant.’ I was about to stop reading when one more piece of information caught my eye. ‘Tower – Erected in 1400 with funds taken from the rebellious Earls of Kent and Salisbury, arrested by the townspeople and executed in the market place.’
It couldn’t happen now of course, the heads of tax avoiding global corporations dragged out into the street, executed and their assets used to erect a huge tower just because, although we can all fantasise. I shook a few coins into the collection box with a tinkle. The welcomer raised an eyebrow over by his desk and I shot him a big smile right back.
I took the collective advice of Cirencester and tried the more commonly used busking pitch. I made a little more there in an hour than I had back in the square, but it was crowded, I felt in the way, and the acoustics were crap. Preferring to play for pleasure than money, I headed back to the main square and saw out the day, £79 in four and a half bitter hours. Staying at my friend Elspeth’s house, I got back and hugged the radiator in silence for a while, body cold right through to the middle.
The frost was melting away as I parked my salt-stained and unenthusiastic Volvo by the banks of the river Coln, across from the internationally renowned Arlington Row of houses, and stepped out onto a pavement already abundant with Koreans and their bulky cameras. Behind us, another row of houses, picturesque anywhere else were largely ignored, although garden gates had laminated ‘No Entry, Private’ signs all long, with multiple translations into East Asian languages beneath.
Arlington Row is a set of houses that represents the absolute essence of the Cotswolds. Set back from the road across a sparkling river, by frost tipped meadow, this terrace of not quite matching windows and doors is deemed one of the most important architectural assets in England. It’s on the inside cover of the UK passport, features in the ‘Mini Europe’ display in Brussels, and is preserved by the Royal College of Arts.
The first task of anyone wanting to use it for a period production would be to remove the hundreds of signs that decorate the place. It is a strictly controlled area. On close inspection, the cottages look damp and poorly lit. Nice to look at, but not my ideal home.
Elsewhere in the village, the architecture remains perfect, yellow stone houses set in perfect wintry gardens. Good order and simplicity. Driveways are chained off.
The church notice board gave notice of the ailing condition of a local ex cabinet minister and urged us to spend less time on our phones. On the grass of the well-tended graveyard, the immaculacy was only heightened by an impact circle of feathers around a little pile of bones and gristle where a bird of prey had taken breakfast. The old hall next door was cocooned in scaffolding, transforming into something new.
Walking up the hill again, past gates, ‘Private, keep out’ signs, and smartly Barboured dog walkers who couldn’t quite tell if I was a tourist or an invited visitor out for a stroll, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Bibury was the architectural equivalent of a strip club. Cheap to get in, but you can’t touch and the drinks are very expensive. And in truth, you know it’s not like the real thing. Inside the houses, worried residents put up cameras and signs, buy hairy dogs, and in the largest properties hire guards. Living in such a place is perhaps no more real than visiting it.
A small place of a little under 2000 people, Burford is a carefully cultivated Cotswold town, immaculate main street where every bespoke, handmade shop is exquisitely crafted by artisans to extract maximum tourist cash. The council estate is hard to find, tucked away out of sight down a back street. I passed an Olde Worlde sweet shop and a wooden brush manufacturer, where a glance inside revealed a young lady in an apron planing down a block for the next brush, soon to be sold to an American or a Korean as an accurate and representative souvenir of old England.
The lady in the Sue Ryder charity shop was called Diana, and filled me in on the town. The vast priory building at the bottom of the hill had recently featured in the divorce settlement of one of Rupert Murdoch’s children. I later took a look, and found a giant wooden gate covered in go away signs and cameras, surrounded by a 14ft stone wall. It was cold and stood alone from the town, as if a terrible tragic novel had recently concluded, leaving only a long series of blank pages before the endpapers.
The church has some serious history inside. A good portion of it is given over to the tomb of Sir Lawrence Tanfield (1551-1625) and his second wife Elizabeth. Their tomb came with an interpretation. I read it expecting a gentle summation of the great man’s life. Instead I got an excoriating biography, detailing how this Eton educated man had been utterly detested for his harsh practices and cruelty towards his many tenants, his vast corruption as Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and how his cynical enclosures of land had infuriated other landowners, all egged on by his equally hated wife. The tomb was immaculate and beautiful, with life-size and highly detailed painted wooden effigies exuding ‘who, me?’ innocence. It was clean and well cared for. I got the distinct impression that the town, in a safe Conservative constituency until recently represented by former PM David Cameron, was secretly rather proud of him. Elsewhere, I learned that the town only finally rid itself of their terrible presence when Lady Tanfield’s spirit was trapped in a bottle and sunk to the bottom of the river. Something to aim for there, I think. I know just the bottle.
At the other end of the church there was evidence of another sort of politics. In 1649, 340 deserting soldiers were imprisoned in the church, after mutinying and joining the Leveller movement. One famously scratched his name into the font whilst awaiting his fate, and I went to find the inscription but unfortunately lots of other people had had the same idea down the years, and the font was covered in scratches and patterns. I took their word for it. This revolt had ended with the ringleaders being shot outside the church, an event commemorated yearly when socialists descend upon the town to remember the executions and talk politics. It’s a connection that half the town wishes it didn’t have, an intrusion of outside politics into the otherwise safe and gentrified world of the Cotswolds.
It certainly seems to be the churches where the action takes place round here. Executed Earls, revolting soldiers being murdered, restless malevolent spirits being trapped in bottles.
On Diana’s advice, I also visited the gift shop ‘3 French Hens’. It was a narrow cavern of densely clustered souvenirs. On a quiet day in town, it was still surprisingly busy, with a steady throughput of people who didn’t know what they wanted, but felt sure this was where they could get it. I got talking to the lady behind the counter, who’d initiated the conversation by pointing at my fiddle case and asking me if the bow was longer than the violin. I have never been asked this before and I actually didn’t know the answer. I opened the case on the counter and we immediately discovered the bow to be significantly longer than the violin.
“Y’know, I’ve been playing it for 25 years and never thought about it before.”
She’s moved down from London a few years ago, as she put it. In the Cotswolds, one goes ‘up’ to London, despite London being to the South and East.
The soundtrack being played round the shop was strange electronic music with a certain hippy vibe to it. The female vocalist then transitioned from singing to having an orgasm, and clearly a good one too, filling the shop with cries of ecstasy. I looked round. None of the other customers seemed to have noticed, or perhaps they just weren’t fazed by it. Maybe this was normal for piped music in Oxfordshire, and the weekly shop at the co-op was similarly explicit.
Whilst I was transfixed by the audio, a customer arrived at the counter with a couple of signs for hanging up back home. They read “If a meal doesn’t have wine with it, it’s Breakfast” and “All of our visitors bring happiness. Some by coming, others by going.”
After the sale was made, the shopkeeper introduced herself as Angela. The music had returned to normal and I was able to concentrate again. She said I should approach the Warwick Hall for a concert, and I bought a small glass pig with googly eyes as a thank you. Another customer arrived at the counter with an 18 inch tall moulded plastic hare for which she parted with £34. I asked her what she had in mind for it.
“I’ve got a space in the conservatory that really needs something like this.” She stared into its eyes, smiled, and added “I think I’ve found him.”
Outside, a young couple were laughing without inhibition at the window of an estate agents, finding each new price funnier than the last. I sympathised. Burford is the sort of town where I measure house prices in units of careers, i.e. all the money I will ever earn. ‘This one is a 3 career house, and that’s a 5 career house.’
Either way, that figure wouldn’t be arrived at any sooner by me standing here complaining, so I decided to have a busk, despite the very quiet nature of the town out of season. Finding another gift shop that was closed for a fortnight, I set up outside and began to play. Heads popped out of the smattering of souvenir shops to see what the noise was, but nobody had seemed to mind. After a little over an hour, I’d raised £23, all of it in pound coins. A pound was clearly the lowest denomination of coin in Burford, anything smaller too trivial to bother with. I suddenly remembered receiving tiny tatty legacy bank notes in rural China in my change and asking the guide what they were. “Ah, you have ten nothings there.” he replied. Meaningful to the villagers but inconceivably small in value to me.
It was quiet today, but I could imagine a summer’s day, with the coach park full, and hordes of tourists on package trips being corralled round the shops until they’d hit their quota of traditional scrubbing brushes and woollen socks. It’s the same the world over, places that exist to sell tourists unnecessary things to give to relatives who don’t want them, delivering a percentage of the profits as kickbacks to the tour operators who shepherd them in. We all have a bizarre shelf of odd objects that represent the final stage of this powerful global economic process. Diana told me the locals do all their shopping in Witney. Burford is a pretty place, for sure, but oddly disconnected, and mistrustful of reminders of the wider world. Muttered grumbles about the small council estate and its place on the Socialist travel map speak to a desire to have things just so, without challenge. Tourists are welcome to come and consume the atmosphere and gifts, but ideas, like dirty shoes, must be left at the door.
Why is it all so beautiful? This was the question I struggled with as I pottered from village to village. The water-mill and central stream of Lower Slaughter, the low arch bridges of Bourton-on-the-Water. I sang “The Stow-on-the-Wold is all mine, all mine, the Stow-on-the-Wold is all mine” to myself as I drove through. Why do I, and so many others instinctively look at these places and consider them beautiful? There are some very nice houses here, for sure, but that’s true of many places. Some of the most ‘picturesque’ probably wouldn’t make great homes at all, being pokey and from entirely another era of central heating, not to mention the limitations imposed by planning regulations. Is there something inherent about a land like this? Sheltered, green, lush and watery, stone the colour of winter sun, that speaks to some ancient but unexpectedly activated need to find a safe and fertile place to make a home? Does it just simply feel right? Perhaps it’s also cultural? Is this the England we’d prefer to be proud of, instead of the pit villages, the manufacturing towns, the trading estates, the call centres? Is the England of work, toil, production a dirty secret that mustn’t be told? Do we have some innate cultural sense that really the hard work should be being done by someone else, far away and preferably brown, and if it is done here, then perhaps they aren’t really, truly English? Letting the side down, old chap.
The Cotswolds are a place to seek separation from the wider realities of England. There’s no unemployment here, and plenty of job opportunities. But the jobs are all in retail, with no hope of providing a realistic income to live here independently. The poor aren’t employed, they’re gone. Economics is selective, and drives out those who can’t raise the bond to stay. For the rest, it’s an untroubled horizon, shorn of real poverty, the poor pushed beyond the boundaries of their world. It’s an England of period dramas, postcards, good food and top quality clothing. The undulating land and short horizons allow one to believe it’s all like this, an unbroken England of happy peasantry and perfect squat cottages, still parasitic on the shackled body of Empire. It’s where cabinet ministers retire to convince themselves it was worth it, where the monied buy weekend homes to clear their minds for another onslaught at the world of finance on Monday morning, where foreigners come to taste a slice of an England that probably never quite existed. If it did, it also included mob-executed robber Earls, Levellers, the great industrial canal that finally safely linked East with West, and the lives and deaths of so many poor people who could never have believed that their simple homes would become internationally renowned, the subject of a million camera lenses that would never think of photographing a peasant house in another own land and never spot the similarity.
I finished my musings for the day on top of the enormous Roman amphitheatre back at Cirencester. It was not easy to get to. I knew it was opposite Waitrose and across the dual carriageway, but I couldn’t work out how to get to it. I tried going round to the right, crossing the road on a footbridge and ended up in some hospital grounds. I climbed a fence and strode through a field, trying to maintain the confident air of someone who’s meant to be there. Having scaled another fence, I was in.
And there’s no getting away from it. It’s huge. It held 8000 spectators, and was fashioned out of the stone quarry that had provided the material for the town’s walls. A measure of Cirencester’s immense importance in Roman Britain, this earthwork remains deeply impressive to this day, and would still make a great venue for all sorts of things, were it not stuck awkwardly out of the way between a council estate and the ring road. When the Romans left, the amphitheatre was converted into a fortress, to defend the locals from Saxon Invaders. It must have been a chilling and uncertain time, the collapse of an empire, the loss of lines of communication, and a country suddenly without a power structure, fragmenting into small towns of worried and unconnected people, not able to know what threats lay round the corner. I once heard a scholar say that the people of post-Roman Britain, collapsing away from civilisation, losing the continuity of literacy, had within a few generations found themselves wandering amongst the ruins of the great Roman cities wondering what race of giants had built it, why, and where they might have gone. I scrambled up and from the top of one embankment I gazed in to the ampitheatre and imagined lions, chariots, and gladiators in a great show, thousands roaring on their approval, all beneath a vast billboard proclaiming ‘This project was made possible thanks to European money.’
The official way in was at the other end, and I left with slightly more decorum than I arrived with, passing a 50ft obelisk in the dusk, whose interpretation board informed me that it was not known who had built it, when, or why. This seemed like an excellent wheeze.
On my fourth and final day, I headed into Cirencester a little later, having explored around the countryside a little further, and finding the East portal to the two-mile long Sapperton tunnel, the link between the Severn and the Thames, on the now long derelict and dewatered canal built to connect the two. Finding a cheap breakfast was impossible. Everywhere was fancy, and there wasn’t a Greggs to be seen. Having resigned myself to paying too much, I decided to do it properly and entered a very fancy cafe with a centralised open kitchen called ‘Made by Bob’.
“Ah sir, table for one?”
My dishevelled and scruffy look is not necessarily a disadvantage in Cirencester. There’s a chance I might be extremely rich.
“Regrettably, we only serve breakfast till 10:30.” I checked. It was 10:40. “And our Brunch menu is not activated until 11.”
“Ok, no rush.”
“But in the mean time, we have our in-between menu. Here it is.”
I had a very expensive sandwich. It was absolutely outrageously good.
Fortified and light of pocket, I returned to the streets. The rain was permeating everything. I wouldn’t be playing today. In the park where the abbey had stood, I followed the lines of the medieval culverts, streams networking out in all directions, an ancient managed landscape, scabbed over. A flyposted message promised “Free money and no catch whatsoever” with a phone number to ring. One culvert was close to being blocked by a rubberberg formed of hundreds of lost dog toys. I left Cirencester in the mizzle and started slowly heading my way over to Stroud where I had a gig that night.
Unable to busk and taken by a sudden fancy, I decided to find the other end of the canal tunnel, where the Severn and Thames canal bursts out of the escarpment after 2 miles of dripping and now partially collapsed tunnel, where ancient and exhausted boatmen would finally rest after hours of legging through. It was not easy to find, not being a tourist destination and not showing on Google maps either. I’d have to find it old school, reading the land. The canal bed has gone in places, built over, as it rises up many locks from Stroud, and I drove all round trying to follow it, through the tight sided valley, road clinging onto the side, where houses are packed tight in messy clusters above you and below you. Sometimes you get a glimpse into an attic room or a cellar. It was like driving through an old-fashioned children’s toy box, all put away for the night in a jumble of shapes.
Eventually when I couldn’t find any more roads, I struck out on foot. The rain continued to fall, too thin to make sound, and my fat footprints in the mud disturbed plump woodland birds who left in flocks, wings batting against winter branches. The abandoned canal sometimes made itself obvious, with vertiginous lock chambers, unprotected holes for the careless or drunken to fall into at night. Gates missing, maybe rotted away altogether leaving a scattering of fattening rusty brackets in shallow pools. Sometimes there was just a linear hollow to follow, willows pushing up through the cofferdam. You couldn’t go far wrong , as the valley was tight and the direction clear. After an hour in this perfect post-industrial wilderness with just my thoughts and the sound of tiny water droplets slowly combining on leaves and finding the next little step of their journey out to the Bristol channel, I popped up by a pub, a road I had somehow managed to miss, and the other tunnel entrance. The pub had a mound of dirty boots by the door, and unwilling to take mine off, I eschewed liquid refreshment and made my way back to my car.
Looking down at the muddy mess my legs had become raised an important point. I was due to play for a wedding reception and had no spare trousers. I glanced at the clock. 3.30pm. Time was against me.
I’d love to tell you about Stroud, but really all I saw was the inside of 6 charity shops, finally locating a pair of trousers vaguely in my size in Sue Ryder UK, five minutes before closing time. Strangers will have been taken aback by the sight of a large and animated man bursting out of the shop holding a pair of trousers aloft as if a military standard, shouting “Woo, woo, woo!” and sprinting to his car. I got to my gig exactly on time. The buffet was excellent, and best of all, someone else was paying.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!