Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, and while here, living in a very Respectable Street, I’ve written a book, acquired a second child, lost a second parent, been promoted, got a new job, but not quite turned 50.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when we first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when we moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.

 

 

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Local Culture I: Life in a Museum

Should anyone out there be stuck for something to do in Swindon in the next couple of months, you might try a newly opened exhibition at the Swindon Museum and Art GalleryBack to Black… and White is the product of a project that involved local schoolkids, working in a dialogue with an archive of photos of the town from the 1940s to 1970s. The details and background to the project are here.

I have to say that it was a complete accident that I found out about this. The Museum is just down the road from where we live, and it has recently come in handy as a place to spend half an hour with a 5-year-old and an almost-1 year old. But today I managed to drag the 37 year-old (oops) in, rather reluctantly. The Museum is in fact a terrible space – no lift, in a nineteenth-century house with multiple floors, which is no good for the pram-connected. You have to get the little one out and carry her – and she’s getting heavier by the day.

But, anyway, I didn’t know this ’til we (me and the two non-reluctant ones) wandered in just before Xmas, but it turns out that the Museum houses what is meant to be one of the best collections of twentieth-century British art outside of London. Who knew? It actually consists of one piece by just about anyone you might have heard of – a Lowry here, a Freud over there, an important Ben Nicholson, apparently. Another aspect of the town’s weird legacy of mid-century civic mindedness.

The art collection and the town’s public art (statues of Diana Dors, that sort of thing) have been the focus of projects by the local public-ish-private-ish booster organisation, Forward Swindon, to make more of these cultural assets – as I said, an effort that has to address the fact that the museum and art gallery is actually such a rubbish space.

The art gallery is not very big – the size of about three squash courts, so you don’t get to see the whole collection all at once. And this new exhibition is the first time I’ve seen them showing a range of the photos that they apparently hold – a few are pasted on the walls. The Council’s full collection is on Flickr. I’m not sure why old photos of Swindon are as fascinating as they are to me – I didn’t grow up here (lucky escape). I think it might be because Swindon is quite small, so that many photos of the town are of places vaguely familiar, already. It’s also that the historical geography of the place is quite transparent, ‘cos it’s not very old, so you can see ‘layers of investment’ quite easily as you walk/drive/ride (I have a new bike!) around. Whatever it is, it’s another worrying sign of a growing attachment I seem to be developing, at least to the idea of Swindon.