Stepping out in Swindon
PUBLISHED: 15:41 19 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 February 2013
Jill Shearer talks of the hidden gems and open spaces to enjoy in Swindon, and the trio of towns – Cricklade, Highworth and Wootton Bassett – which encircle it
For a town its size Swindon bats well above its weight, competing on equal terms with much bigger cities across many arenas. Swindon has long been at the forefront of things, something that probably has a lot to do with its location half way between London and Bristol, within easy reach of Birmingham and the West Midlands and an ideal access point to the great South West.
The railway was born here, the town has long been at the cutting edge of computer technology and telecoms (Intel and Motorola have European Head Offices here); its home to big-league players in the financial services industry (Nationwide and Zurich), there are several major car manufacturers here, and on the culture front, the National Trust has their headquarters here, English Heritages National Monuments Record is here, and theres talk that the National Postal Museum will soon be following suit. Swindon is home to the UKs seven national research councils, the major part of the National Science Museums collection is here I could easily go on.
Swindon is full of hidden gems, but you have to venture beyond the roads and roundabouts to find them. The town is awash with acres of glorious open green spaces an incredible 200 public open spaces lie within the borough, from traditional urban parks such as Faringdon Park in the Railway Village, built as a community park for the original railway workers, and unexpected oases like Queens Park in the heart of the town centre with its beautifully planted slopes and shimmering lake, to The Lawn with its ancient manorial chapel, Italian sunken garden and extensive views out towards Highworth in the north.
Further afield theres the beautifully landscaped Lydiard Park and the breathtakingly lovely Coate Water Country Park, with the reservoir built as an overflow for the canals where engine drivers stopped to top up their steam engines, now a vast lake in a stunning landscape that inspired the writer and naturalist Richard Jeffries (theres a wonderfullyquaint museum showcasing his work here, too). And youd be hard pushed to find a municipal park anywhere in England to outshine the stunningly pretty Town Gardens in Old Town a perfect example of a Victorian public garden with its beautifully manicured flower beds, walled rose garden, aviary, pond and bandstand laid out on the site of the old Purbeck limestone quarry.
On the arts front, Swindon has much to recommend it, too: an Arts Centre, established Literary and Film Festivals, open studios events, a museum and art gallery with an impressive collection of 20th-century paintings and sculpture. Theres an excellent theatre here (the Wyvern), plus open-air festivals such as the Mela (an all-day celebration of all things Indian), as well as a vibrant music scene with regular gigs from new and up-and-coming bands at venues such as the The Beehive, The 12-Bar and The Vic. In a recent Performing Right Society survey, Swindon beat cities like Brighton, Liverpool and Oxford as one of the countrys top musical cities an honour which contenders from lower down in the ranking found very hard to stomach.
Get off to a good start
In so many ways, a visit to Swindon seems to start and end with the railway. Whether youre travelling by road or rail, its difficult to miss Brunels great railway works the vast industrial buildings that gave birth to Brunels Great Western Railway, the engine room both physically and metaphorically of Victorian Swindons prosperity. But Swindons origins go back much further than Victorian times; The Lawn, a stunning green 86-acre oasis just to the east of Old Town, can trace its history back to William the Conqueror and beyond indeed there is evidence from Bronze Age settlements and the remains of two ancient stone circles in Coate Water Park, one of which was partly demolished to make way for the reservoir.
Bear right along from the station, and youll come to the Railway Village neat rows of back-to-back Victorian terraces with their neatly clipped hedges and pocket-handkerchief front lawns that remain virtually unchanged since they were built for the railway workers 175 years ago. This little area is a testament to Victorian industrial philanthropy with its park, library and public baths, a neat grid of streets named after stations on the illustrious Great Western Railway Bristol, Reading, Exeter, Oxford but unlike some of the better known northern philanthropists, the GWR provided their workers with pubs. This area came to be known as Little London, with its migrant workers arriving from every corner of the world to work on the railways, and today Swindons population still reflects this demographic mix living harmoniously side by side.
A couple of hundred yards further south, youre plunged back into the 21st century via the pedestrianised heart of Swindons town centre. While no one would argue that the Brunel Centre was architectures finest hour, over 100 shops, stores and eateries offer everything from haberdashery to a family holiday.
Swindons town centre is very much a work-in-progress at the moment. Rapid development during the 1960s and 70s meant that old buildings were knocked down to be replaced without proper long-term planning, and the towns outward expansion left the centre behind in its headlong rush towards the future. Thankfully, this unhappy situation is now being addressed, and an urban regeneration programme is underway to put the heart back into the town, with ambitious multi-use projects bringing new shops, businesses, restaurants and a fabulous multi-screen cinema complex. An award-winning new library featuring the latest in green technology including solar-powered water heating, natural ventilation and rainwater plumbing is already complete.
To the north of the town is the little market town ofHighworth, one of the most charming and unassuming country towns in the West of England, according to John Betjeman. Once far larger than Swindon itself in the days before the railway, its lined with handsome Georgian houses and shopfronts, several fine Queen Anne homes and more pubs than you can shake a stick at. Highworth is reputedly one of the most haunted places in Britain boasting a haunted level crossing, a ghostly hunchback, at least one spectral monk and a network of spooky underground tunnels linking the Old Manor House, the inns and the church. Stay on after sunset if you dare!
The town that weeps
Just to the south-west, across the great swathe of the M4 motorway, lies Wootton Bassett, a place now known throughout the land as the town that weeps, as its people line the high street in silent reverence, come rain or shine, for each and every repatriation as Union-Jack-draped coffins make their way through the town from the military airbase at Lyneham.
Bassett (as its known locally) is a homely little market town, with an attractive town hall and museum, and a busy shopping high street. Visit on a Wednesday, and youll be able to stock up at the market with excellent sausages or cheese and locally grown veg. Afterwards, you can recharge your batteries over tea and cakes at the cosy Town Hall Tea Rooms.
Tucked away behind Wootton Bassetts church in Wood Street, under a neatly trimmed thatched roof, youll find the Five Bells a little gem of a pub. Choose from a regularly changing selection of guest beers and soak up the genial and friendly atmosphere in the cosy front bar or in the garden at the back. Theres great food here, too, and dogs and children are welcome.
About four miles north-west of Swindon, just along from the source of the Upper Thames, lies Cricklade, an ancient fortified town dating back to Saxon times with a handsome historic high street and the delightful town motto In Loco Delicioso (a delicious place). And it really is. Cricklade is particularly proud of its horticultural heritage, regularly winning Britain in Bloom awards for its burgeoning window boxes and colourful community projects.
Two jewels of particular note in Cricklades crown are Wiltshire Wildlife Trusts Blakehill Farm Nature Reserve with its profusion of summer meadow flowers and the unique North Meadow, one of the few traditionally managed hay meadows in the whole of Europe. Thousands of people flock here every spring to see the haze of rare purple snakeshead fritillaries around 80% of the entire UK population of this unusual flower can be found in this field. By June, North Meadow is ablaze with a cornucopia of native meadow flowers and the air is alive with birdsong and butterflies just glorious.