Sunday, October 28, 2012

Princes Street

Swindon has been a work in progress since Brunel and Gooch sited an engineering works for the maintenance and repair of locomotives here in 1840.  Of course the industrial new town grew bigger and was more successful than anyone could have possibly predicted.  Pretty much the same could be said for the development that came after the railway boom.

Victorian development on Princes Street, the site of construction work pictured here, began in the 1870s as building projects swallowed up fields of pasture right to the door of Eastcott Farm.  Among the builders at work on Princes Street were the entrepreneurial James Hinton, John Webb and one time publican at the Dolphin Inn, Rodbourne Charles Williams.

The street that stretched from Regent Circus to the canal was named in honour of Albert Victor, eldest son of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.  The scandalous Albert Victor, once in the frame for the Jack the Ripper murders, died  from influenza just a week after his 28th birthday in 1892.

By the time of the 1891 census Princes Street numbered 135 terraced houses occupied mainly by railway workers - engine stokers, fitters, riveters, platelayers - and their families. George Dibbs was licensed victualler at the Red Cow at the Regent Street end of the road while Thomas Garland was behind the bar at the canalside Whale Public House.

Today building continues apace on the first phase of the ambitious Union Square project.  Work begun in June on an 850 space multistorey car park and 45 apartments on the site of the old 1960s police station and this is only the beginning.  The whole caboodle has a 10-15 year time frame but then Rome wasn't built in a day.

1968 view of Princes Street courtesy of Swindon Collection see

Taken from Victoria Road

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Queen's Park

It is difficult to believe that this town centre parkland oasis was once a brown field site. Queen's Park is a twelve acre beauty spot with a Victorian industrial past, the site of builder Thomas Turner's brick works -  examples of his artistry stand close to the Drove Road entrance. Today the former derelict claypit, once popular with zoologist Desmond Morris and his girlfriend Diana Dors, is an award winning park and garden.

The park was developed between 1947 and 1962.  The first phase - a Garden of Remembrance to the fallen of the Second World War - was opened by Princess Elizabeth in 1950, the year of Swindon Borough's Golden Jubilee.  The second phase was opened by Sir Noel Arkell, Sheriff of Wiltshire, on May 30, 1953.

Unfortunately the glass Show House was dismantled following storms in the early 1990s.  Designed by Borough Architect J. Loring-Morgan and opened in 1964 a brick wall is all that remains of the structure that once boasted a pond surrounded by exotic plants.

Other garden features have also changed during the park's 62 year history.  Gone is the 1960s crocodile - created in homage to the Swindon Museum exhibit. Built entirely of succulents and measuring 16ft from prickly nose to tail the crocodile was carefully tended by head gardener Bill Wicks and filmed by Pathe News in 1961.

The long time resident gorilla took up his present position in 1994. The welded steel sculpture by Tom Gleeson was purchased by the Borough following an exhibition in the Theatre Square in the mid 1980s. Today he looked particularly fetching with a flower tucked behind his ear by an admirer.

In 2001 English Heritage awarded the garden a Grade II listing on the Register of Parks & Gardens and it is easy to see why. With birds gathered on the lake and a shy heron in the bushes, the park was a riot of autumnal colours, even on a damp and misty day like today.

The gorilla, the heron and a fairy all feature in drawings produced by local children for Tim Carroll's 2007 mural, a colourful backdrop behind benches overlooking the lake. Sadly the excellent volunteer run Park Cafe was closed today, the kiosk padlocked and deserted, but on other visits I have joined the regulars for a cup of tea and a piece of home made cake.

Queen's Park continues to be an area of remembrance with the Mesothelioma Memorial Garden opened by Mayor Stan Pajak in April 2003. The garden is a memorial to those railway men who have died from the 'Swindon disease,' caused by exposure to asbestos in the railway works. This beautifully secluded area is a peaceful place of contemplation in the busy town centre.

Mesothelioma Memorial Garden

Gorilla with recently repaired hand - and flower!

1964 view of the park

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Looking Down on the Civic Centre in the 1950s

Two buildings in this aerial view of Swindon fifty years ago are testament to the town's continuing record of expansion.

Clarence Street School on the corner of Euclid and Clarence Streets was build in 1897 at a cost of £12,091.  With accommodation for 885 children by the beginning of the new century the school was already overcrowded.

The building of Euclid Street Higher Elementary School in 1904 eased the pressure somewhat.  School log books reveal that around this time Clarence Street School was divided into a separate girls' and boys' section.

In 1907 J.J. Stafford was the headmaster with Miss C.J. Stiles in charge of the girls and Miss L.M. Kent, the infants' mistress.  Just two years later and the average attendances numbered 891.

Fifty years later and Clarence Street School accommodated the children of Swindon newcomers moving to the new estates at Walcot and Parks.  In 1958 there were approximately 1,000 children on the roll.

With a population topping the 60,000 mark the Town Hall building in Regent Street was proving to be inadequate accommodation for the increasing number of local government officers.  In 1936 a small recreation ground in Euclid Street was ear marked for the site of the new civic offices.  Designed by Oxford based architects Bertram, Bertram and Rice the Civic Offices opened in 1938.

Watering holes along this stretch of town included the Red Cow, closed and demolished in 1968.  Originally situated in Cow Lane, the Red Cow public house was rebuilt in Princes Street in 1879.  At the other end of Princes Street next to the Whale Bridge was the Whale Inn.  Terraced housing along Islington Street was demolished to make way for the Courts of Justice opened in 1965 while Cow Lane, reduced to a back way when Princes Street was built in the 1870s, disappeared altogether.

Civic Offices now and then

Clarence Street School

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Link Centre

Today the Link Centre in West Swindon is shrouded in scaffolding during a £1 million five month programme of much needed repair work.  Although the swimming pool will be closed until February 2013, the centre with its multiplicity of sporting facilities attracting more than 800,000 users a year, remains open.

Development at the West Swindon District Centre began in 1974 under Thamesdown Council. The Link Centre opened eleven years later in April 1985 with an evening at the ice rink for new residents.  The second stage of the project opened across the following two months and included a library, swimming pool, snooker hall, sports hall, community rooms and an art and drama studio. The name, chosen by public consensus, reflected the diversity of recreational facilities on offer at the centre.

The West Swindon District centre is built on the former Whitehill Farm, once part of what was known as the Charterhouse Lands. In 1611 high ranking civil servant Thomas Sutton founded a hospital for pensioners and a school for forty poor boys at a former Carthusian monastery near Smithfield in London.  He bought various properties, the rents of which funded this charitable venture, among them Whitehill, Mannington and Toothill Farms in the parish of Lydiard Tregoze.

In 1616 Thomas Sadler farmed 203 acres at Mannington and Robert Cole 188 acres at Toothill while John Lawe farmed 65 acres at the much smaller Whitehill Farm.  In 1799 Richard Dore King signed a twelve year Lady Day lease on the farm where the wealthy King family remained in residence for much of the nineteenth century.

The three farms continued in the ownership of the Charterhouse Trustees into the 20th century. They were eventually sold in 1919 to Wiltshire County Council and broken up into small holdings for the use of returning ex-servicemen following the end of the First World War.

With the adoption of the Town Development Act 1952 Swindon embarked upon an ambitious post Second World War development programme.  Further boundary changes added a large part of the old parish of Lydiard Tregoze and with it the former Charterhouse lands.

‘A 300 acre site at Toot Hill south of the A420 Swindon to Wootton Bassett road will provide the homes in a new urban village,’ the Advertiser reported on Wednesday November 17, 1971 as Thamesdown Council received approval for the western expansion of the town.

Today Whitehill Farmhouse stands on the corner of Beaumaris Road and Rowton Heath Way in Toothill, and remains a Swindon Borough Council owned property.

Whitehill Farmhouse today

Friday, October 12, 2012

Our Last Visit to Cheltenham Literature Festival

Too young for Beatlemania and too old for Take That hysteria, I've never queued for hours for a pop concert or screamed, cried and fainted in the presence of my idol.  But during our third and final visit to the Cheltenham Literature Festival I very nearly did all of the above mentioned, and it all began in Swindon.

Leah and I were sitting on the 9.54 train to Cheltenham eating our Danish pastry breakfast (we've got fed up with sausage baguette) when Lucy Worsley - yes the Lucy Worsley joined us.  When I say 'joined us' she didn't bring her own Danish pastry and sit with us but she joined the train and was a mere four seats away.

Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, based at Hampton Court Palace.  Star of numerous TV programmes including If Walls Could Talk; Elegance and Decadence, The Age of Regency and most recently Harlots, Housewives and Heroines Lucy was also on her way to the Cheltenham Literature Festival where she was due to speak at our first event of the day.

Having stared at the back of her head for the duration of the journey, I would have happily carried her bag to the Town Hall where she was due to speak, but of course Lucy was met at the station while Leah and I made the familiar twenty minute walk to the gathering of tents at the two town centre festival sites.

Lucy has an easy manner with her adoring fans who filled the elegant Grand Main Hall in the Edwardian Town Hall, peeping round the door and giving a wave as she checked to see if we were all seated.

The subject of her illustrated talk was the much maligned George IV, but was he the selfish, greedy and generally despicable character history would have us believe - Lucy asked.  She put up a good case for his redemption, citing his strict upbringing, loveless parenting and rigid education.  His thwarted military career and general lack of purpose all contributed to his decadent behaviour but I found it difficult to forgive his treatment of the women in his life.

Lucy then invited her audience to come and meet her at the Waterstones tent.  Clutching my copy of If Walls Could Talk, I rehearsed some clever comment I would make to her when my turn came to approach the table.  Of course I did nothing of the sort, but gabbled, blushed and said something worthy of an over excited prepubescent Justin Bieber fan. I'm sure Lucy, like JK Rowling with her 'I love you Jo,' fans has this happen all the time.  If not her meeting with me might turn out to be pretty memorable.

Next on our agenda was Mad Men to Moon Rockets in which Joan Bakewell, Juliet Gardiner and Sadie Jones explored the 1950s.  Joan Bakewell spoke fondly about the post war decade she remembered as far from dreary while Juliet Gardiner reminded us of events of the time and the burgeoning teenage influence on fashion, fun and finance while Sadie Jones told us how she had drawn heavily on her mother's memories of the time when writing her novel The Outcast. Each of the speakers brought their own extremely interesting take on the 50s and each agreed it was possibly the more exciting precursor to the much written about 'Swinging Sixties.'

The last event in our 2012 Cheltenham Literature Festival experience was Ladies of a Certain Age which took place in the Spiegeltent, a travelling wooden tent of mirrors, leaded glass and velvet, worthy of a visit in its own right.

Lucy Adlington of the History Wardrobe performed a series of readings featuring ladies of a certain age from the novels of Jane Austen, including the humiliating put down poor, dowdy Miss Bates receives from the eponymous heroine of Emma.  The audience also got to see the workings of the fashions of the day as Lucy showed us the underpinning of the Regency dress.

And so it was all over for us for another year!

The above image of the Spiegeltent reminded me of A Bar at the Folies Bergere by Edouard Manet

Lucy Adlington as Miss Bates

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cheltenham Literature Festival - 2nd visit

Our fourth and final event of the day.  First the lights went out then Hilary Devey was thirty minutes late.  Was she worth the wait? Frankly, no.  Five minutes into the interview and I was hoping for another power cut.

Inconsistencies and contradictions peppered her recollections in conversation with fawning award winning Times columnist Deborah Ross. I couldn't keep up with at which point her son went to the boarding school that introduced him to heroin or when she was wrapping him in tinfoil to keep him warm in the home she couldn't afford to heat yet where she employed a nanny.

Much was made of the men in Hilary's life but when asked which lucky Dragon might take her fancy - Duncan, Peter or Theo, she failed to understand the question.  Deborah also struggled with names and faces and referred to 'little Ewan McGregor' who apparently now introduces Dragons' Den.  I'm assuming she meant economist and journalist Evan Davis and not the Scottish born Hollywood actor.

Was she inspirational - eh, no?  Did she give me any tips on how to become a successful business woman - work hard - you don't say.  Thanks Hilary.

Opting out of the questions and answers opportunity at least we were nice and early for our train home this time.  An unfortunate conclusion to what had otherwise been an excellent day at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

We kicked off with Dan Snow who helped us distinguish fortified medieval castles built to intimidate and control warring communities to impressive confections with first floor windows and a knee deep moat.  He dispelled the myth that boiling oil was poured from castle battlements - way too expensive and plain old boiling water did the trick, but introduced us to the vision of plague ridden corpses catapulted into the castle confines, an early method of germ warfare.

Dan's talk was a prelude to his new series Battle Castles which begins on the Discovery Channel tonight (Oct 11) and his book of the same title.  He spoke with undeniable knowledge and exuberant enthusiasm.  He arrived on time, squeezed in as many questions as possible and left us all hungry for more - Hilary take note.

Next it was the turn of Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn, two out of the three Wartime Farmers.  Alex wore his signature wartime trilby and tank top, the latter he proudly told us came from his own personal prewar wardrobe.

In a well orchestrated double act Peter and Alex talked knowledgeably about wartime farming practices and Wartime Farm filming vagaries.  They were knowledgeable, interesting, engaging and funny - Hilary, are you paying attention?

Third on our list of speakers was Adam Hart-Davis who reminded us about some well known names in Engineers - a Dorling and Kindersley publication he has edited.  Extravagantly attired in a tribal print shirt and stetson, Adam told us how he was frequently accused of testiculating - gesticulating and talking bollocks at the same time - bring it on Adam!

Marching across the stage Adam spoke without the aid of notes, talking about famous engineering fathers and their sons - Brunel and Stephenson and forgotten names such as female mathematician, inventor and engineer Herthe Ayrton who designed a fan to combat gas attacks in the First World War.  He took us down sewers and stood us before the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, which he described as a monument to excrement - see comparison to Ms Devey's talk (my words not his.)  Adam spoke with authority and he was  funny, enthusiastic and interesting - get the message Hilary.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cheltenham Literature Festival

Swindon is most conveniently located for beautiful countryside, a whole host of heritage sites and some wonderful events, among them the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

On this year's pilgrimage Leah and I listened to Clare Clark, Juliet Nicolson and Frances Osborne describe several Women of Substance, the subject of their latest novels.  Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark is the story of Maribel Campbell Lowe, wife of a Victorian radical MP, who is a lady with a past, but not necessarily the one she tells polite society.  Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter, talked about her latest book Park Lane, an upstairs, downstairs tale of the Votes for Women campaign and one that particularly appealed to me.  The third panelist was Juliet Nicolson talking about her book Abdication and the set that surrounded Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson.  Three more books to go on my wish list.

In the Waterstones tent for the signing we rubbed shoulders, and I mean we rubbed shoulders, with Iain Banks who was standing next to us signing copies of his book to put on the shelves for late comers.

Next stop was a special Cheltenham Literature Festival recording of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Moral Maze.  Does public service broadcasting have a future, and if so how should it be funded, Michael Buerk asked panelists Michael Portillo, Claire Fox, Matthew Taylor and Anne McElvoy. In the hotseat were David Elstein - Chairman of Broadcasting Policy Group; journalist Robin Aiken; Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Steve Barnet Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster.

The highlight of the day though was seeing J.K. Rowling in conversation with James Runcie at the Centaur, an impressive venue at the Cheltenham Racecourse, but not without it's drawbacks - more follows.  Jo, as I now feel I can call her, was there to talk about her latest novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy.  The 2000+ audience comprised Potter fans old and young, so of course she wasn't going to get away without any reference to the famous boy wizard.  After some 45 minutes James turned to the floor for questions and answers and a forest of hands shot up.  Those lucky chosen muggles prefixed their question with 'I love you Jo,' to which our heroine graciously returned the sentiment.  Twentysomethings who had grown up with Harry Potter spoke in a tremulous voice and two young women delivered flowers and a letter to the stage where Jo stooped in her sky scraper heels to give her two devotees a hug.   There was a palpable air of awe in the auditorium - behind us a woman wept into her handkerchief, but you sensed that Jo was well used to such public displays of emotion. Great swathes of the audience left half way through the event to take their place in the line up for the signing.  However we had already been warned there would be no time for personal dedications or conversations and photographs.  A wasted opportunity to hear the author speak, I felt.

So what happened next?  Cheltenham Literature Festival organisers and the bus company failed to mention that although it was possible to catch a bus from the town centre to the venue there were none returning after the event.  We telephoned for a taxi but there was an hour and a half wait by which time we would have missed our train back to Swindon.  The only option left was to walk the two and a half miles.  We arrived at the station with less than five minutes to spare.  On board the 9.19 to Swindon there was a palpable air of relief, I can tell you.

Clare Clark signing copies of Beautiful Lies

Rubbing shoulders with Iain Banks

Waiting for Jo