It's not difficult to imagine the Roman army, in gleaming metal and great plumed crests, coming upon the spot that is now Cirencester, with a sense of awe.

Many of those soldiers would have felt exiled, forced onto a savage and wild island, away from the splendours of Italy. But here at last was civilisation - not in the strange peoples who lived here, but in the soft and beautiful rolling countryside. No wonder they made it their headquarters in the West Country.

Corinium Dobunnorum, as they named Cirencester, was second only to London in size during the 2nd Century. Its Roman heyday is now mostly lost underneath the more recent street lay-out of the town. But the excellent Corinium Museum is full of relics, including the "hare" mosaic, found in a local house in 1971.

The museum also pays tribute to the Dobunni, the tribe who pre-dated the Roman invaders. On show are some of their native art, including carvings from limestone depicting ancient deities, which were once worshipped in the Cotswolds.

Nowadays, the visible signs of Cirencester's past lie in the lovely architecture that has arisen out of the gently-toned Cotswold limestone indigenous to the area. Woollen merchants, grown rich on the profits of a once-expanding trade, ploughed money back into impressive houses, which still line the streets today.

In some of its narrow ways, you could imagine yourself back a few hundred years, so unchanged are they - apart from the hum of busy traffic which confirms Cirencester's claim as "capital of the Cotswolds".

Indeed, there is still a sense of gentle sophistication that pervades the town today. It was a favourite of the late Princess Diana, who loved its individual shops offering quality and excellence.

It has mostly resisted the modern fascination with chain stores - but, it has to be said, its branch of Waitrose was recently cited, in a national newspaper, as one of the top ten places in England "to be seen".

If you're new to the town - or indeed a local showing visitors around - there are spots that must not be missed. Perhaps begin with the small archway into Dollar Street, named after the "Dole Hall" of Cirencester's former Abbey. The Abbey Grounds spread out as the perfect place to "take the air" behind the tight core of the town.

The lovely building of the parish church, St John the Baptist, rightly dominates the Market Place. It's impressive from the outside, but even more so within. The nave seems to belong to that of a Cathedral, and its treasures include the Boleyn Cup, made for Anne Boleyn in 1535.

Breathtakingly beautiful Cecily Hill shows off some of the loveliest of the town's buildings - dating back to the 17th Century. At the end of the street are the wrought-iron gates that lead into Cirencester Park, home of the Earl of Bathurst.

The grounds are open to the public, and it's a lovely place to wander, in amongst the chestnut trees and the formal lawns, planned with meticulous care by the 1st Earl of Bathurst and the poet Alexander Pope.

Also fascinating is St Thomas's Hospital in Thomas Street, founded as an almshouse by Sir William Nottingham in the 15th Century for poor weavers. Another safe haven was St John's Hospital and Chantry, established in 1133 by Henry I to house weary travellers and the destitute.

If you need a safe haven nowadays, then you could do no better than to visit the Cirencester Workshops, a stone-built former Victorian brewery, which houses traditional craft workshops. It's the ideal place to sit over a cup of freshly-brewed coffee, and to peruse the local paper, the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard.

It has earned its place in town lore, chronicling the ups and downs of lives that are not always as quiet as facades may indicate. The paper's archives, now held at the library in the Waterloo, may hold more than a few surprises for those interested in delving back in time.

The Romans and the wool merchants are long gone, but their ghostly presences still linger in this beautiful town, which has allowed in the best of the new, without sacrificing the allure of the old. And it's that combination which imbues it with such character and grace.