If you've never considered a day trip to Swindon, don't worry, this is normal. The main reason I'd never been before is the extortionate price of a train ticket (an off-peak return now exceeds £50, whereas a ticket to the previous station Didcot Parkway still leaves change from £30). So when GWR ran one of their occasional sales last month I grabbed a bargain and made the very best of it. All I have to do now is persuade you to follow.[15 photos]
Swindon, halfway between London and Cardiff, was a minor Wiltshire market town until the 1840s when Isambard Kingdom Brunel decided to build the Great Western Railway's main locomotive facility here. A considerable community grew up alongside, until eventually the New Town by the railway merged with the Old Town on the hill. Swindon has continued to expand, additionally boosted by postwar light industry and the convenience of the M4, and now has a population nudging 200,000. There is nowhere of comparable size between Oxford and Bristol.
Architecturally the town centre is weak, dominated by several midsize office blocks of varying design. One of these is Signal Point, the 1970s slab block above the railway station, long boarded up and awaiting transformation into something more welcoming. The tallest landmark is the Brunel Tower, an apartment block topping 20 storeys which dominates the retail side of the town centre. The tented market building has some panache, but closed three years ago and is quietly deteriorating away.
One of the longest shopping streets used to be the local canal, before that was blindly repurposed as a pedestrianised mall. The other wends south towards the Victorian town hall, a rare visual treat, but has been vacated by the council and leased to a dance school. Grey passageways thread through multi-storey car parks. A statue to municipal hero Brunel lurks in a drab square between an Iceland and a Poundland, facing the vast shopping complex that also bears his name. The Debenhams beneath brutalist New Falcon House may be the ugliest in the country.
The Old Town has a little more character, but still nothing that especially evokes a wider Wiltshire. What I did find here was Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, the former inside Georgian Apsley House, the latter inside an extension bolted on in the 1960s. The old building is a minor warren with as much emphasis on natural history and Egyptology as on local history (it seems Diana Dors and Polly Pocket both came from Swindon). Meanwhile the gallery has a top class hoard of modern art proudly displayed alongside contemporary canvases. Looking around won't take long, but I was impressed by the wide variety of temporary exhibitions cycled to entice return visitors (particularly the knitted tea party, complete with cupcakes and Jammie Dodgers, courtesy of Swindon Stitch and Bitch).
For conservation area gold you need to head west of the railway station to the site of Brunel's original Railway Village. These elegant streets were built to house workers at the original Swindon Works, there being insufficient local accommodation at the time, and are centred round a Mechanics Institute which served employees' social, cultural and educational needs. This fine old building is boarded up at present, but was once home to one of England's very first lending libraries. Behind each stone terrace are rows of short backyards faced off across a narrow alley, very much reminiscent of a northern industrial town. Of the several corner pubs, only one still trades. The Railway Village Museum opens on a select few weekends each year, kicking off this year on Saturday 4th April.
Swindon's largest tourist attraction is Steam, the museum of the Great Western Railway. This is housed inside a former machine shop where decades of locomotives were built and repaired, so has plenty of space for a good display (plus a conference centre, which helps bring in some income). Once inside you follow a weaving route past recreated workshops, classic locomotives, railway ephemera and innumerable mannequins before finally winding up amid an exploration of GWR's seaside portfolio. I got to pull signal levers to progress a royal train, ride a simulated steam footplate, walk underneath the wheels of the Caerphilly Castle and question the City of Truro's dubious 100mph speed record. It's a very fine collection, informatively arrayed, and with plenty to occupy visitors of all ages. I suspect you're very much target audience. Open daily, admission £9.80.
But most of those in the car park aren't here for Steam, they're here to roam a different disused railway shed which now houses Swindon Designer Outlet. It's both enormous and enormously impressive, if shopping is your thing, with over 100 brands selling bargains fools elsewhere previously paid over the odds for. Its twisted looping walkway reminded me of progressing forever around IKEA, but without that useful cut-through between bedrooms and lighting. London has nothing which compares. Also on site are the headquarters of both English Heritage and the National Trust, conveniently co-located, the latter organisation's shiny modern building suggesting a more comfortable level of funding.
Finally, I couldn't leave Swindon without visiting the Magic Roundabout. Its infamous five-in-one design originated in the early 1970s when the council's Principal Traffic Engineer attempted to decrease congestion at the roundabout by the football ground. A flyover would have been too destructive so instead a large area was tarmacked over and a tentative set of new road markings introduced. Around the edge were five small mini roundabouts and at the centre a ring which traffic would circle in a counter-clockwise direction. An asymmetric multi-lane alignment was discovered which increased overall capacity by 20%, and this has been in operation ever since. [aerialview][aerial video]
And it works, despite there being no directional signs to assist drivers after they've entered the roundabout. On first visit it must be terrifying, but all you have to do is aim for your intended exit and obey the road markings - the secret's all in the white lines. I watched during the evening rush hour as a ballet of cars, buses and lorries flowed effortlessly through, instinctively passing from one short section of road to the next. Someexits are busier than others, indeed one's since been downgraded to a residential cul-de-sac, but the traffic's irregular manoeuvres connect as smoothly as ever.
Swindon Fire Station sits on one corner, its occupants rarely called out to deal with disaster. Opposite is the Magic Chippy, where you can enjoy a celebratory salty bag, or better still head to the central library for exclusive Magic Roundabout souvenirs (including t-shirts, mugs, tea towels, postcards, even babies' bibs). A few other UK towns tried introducing similar multi-gyratories but only a handful remain, and only Swindon's is triumphantly lopsidedly magic.