Tag Archives: Swindon

Point – Point: The End of the Series

This is the last in a series of three posts about Swindon, a small city where My Friend Lauren grew up. The other two entries stemmed from the disagreements Lauren and I had as we explored Swindon together (she as a native, and me as a pedantic polymath interloper). While the other two entries have been point-counterpoint, this one is more just…reflections on the Railway Village, a historic and troubled neighbourhood downtown.

Swindon experienced a populations explosion in the 19th century (specifically 1841-1842), when it became a hub for the Great Western Railway.  This was accompanied by a colossal railway works and an associated worker’s village, both of which stand today in substantially altered form. Railway yards are not necessarily organised in a way that lends itself to adaptive reuse; the scale is enormous; the buildings are not organised at right angles and they tend to be extremely long (you know, like trains).  There’s too much space in between the buildings for traditional streets but not always enough for more buildings – and how much plaza space can you have? Plus, the Swindon Works – seminal as it is to British rail history – is a protected monument.

The Swindon Works can be divided into two parts, one of which is the historic railway yard, the other of which is the village built simultaneously to house all the workers.  Lauren’s mother works for the Swindon housing authority, and reported that the railway village has a reputation for being dangerous and especially low-income – today, the entire village is social housing.  A long tunnel connects the village (and the rest of Swindon) to the old rail works, which now also houses an event space, an English Heritage office, and a giant shopping centre, plus some new construction. This is really two separate posts – first, its about the railway worker’s village, a perfectly picturesque urban scene if ever there was one.  Second, there’s an assessment of the old Railway Works, the place where the trains were manufactured.

The worker’s cottages are just the cutest damn things you’ve ever seen.  Stone cottages arrayed along narrow streets with generous setbacks (by English standards) and wide sidewalks, the houses look like something out of a movie.  Small pedestrian pathways intersect the terrace houses and the corners have little three-story towers to add visual interest. Mature trees in the back create a domestic scene that delineates private space without closing the neighbors off from each other. The cottages are small – it was housing for poor people, after all – and the ceilings look low, but the experience of the railway village reminded me of some very successful social housing projects I’d visited in the US.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem like it should be social housing at all.  It was historic housing an easy walk to the train station, shopping, and a park…I mean, these things are just adorable.  And while they may be the product of another era, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorian terrace houses that have been modernized and appeal to the middle class – I live in one.


The only thing this place didn’t seem to have was any people. We were there on August Bank Holiday Monday – not typically a busy time – but I don’t think we saw a single person walking through the community. I’m hoping Lauren will contextualize Swindon for me a bit – why isn’t this place full of yuppies? Shouldn’t it be a prosperous place?  The workers’ village is the little grid to the right of The Park – you can see how close it is to the station (the red hash mark)

The Swindon Designer Outlet is sandwiched into a corner of the railroad, and you can see how huge the scale is from the size of the streets around it.  Up close it looks like this:

The eastern (right-hand) side of the railworks is weirdly empty.  Although the scale of the buildings is low and reasonably human-scale, the space between them is enormous,  and the wayfinding through the site is awkward, especially when you approach as a pedestrian (as I did).  There is plenty of room for new construction – even on a busy shopping day, many of the car parking spaces were vacant – but those new buildings that are there are, um, ugly.  It was surprising to me that a country that is so meticulous about conserving its historic landmarks should be so lackadaisical about what gets built next to and within those same landmarks.  There was one piece of new construction – a brick condo building with a blank facade.  It was obviously brand-new (some of the windows still had stickers on, and there was a sales sign outside the door).  Density is a good first step, but the place just felt sort of windswept and empty.  Like there should be tumbleweeds blowing across the plazas.

All of which made a stark contrast to the actual shops, which were jam packed.  My expectations for the mall were pretty low, because the rest of it was so awkward, but the interior of the mall struck me as an incredibly sensitive and intelligent adaptive reuse.  And the entire place was bumping – you’d have thought it was December 23rd – so clearly its popular.

Basically its a pretty standard shopping mall – but a really nice one, made cooler by the fact that its a historic building.

Lauren has her say: 

The points that Franny made in this blog are difficult to address directly; I think the best way to give the reader a view of how the Railway Village is now is to give some context of what the Railway Village was.

Without going into too much detail of the works’ history, its rise and fall is a beautiful and direct parallel to the trajectory of industry in the rest of the UK. From ‘glorious’ industry in the Victorian era, to thrilling modern designs in the early 20th Century it reluctantly closed in the 80’s.

 File:GWR map.jpg

Figure 1 GWR c 1930 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

When the works and village were built (in 1841 to provide the trains and track from Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol), the worker’s facilities were world leading; the Mechanics’ Institute held classes and housed the UK’s first lending library, there were 3 pubs (including one of my favourites, the Glue Pot), the Medical Fund offered health care (attributed as being the inspiration for the NHS) and houses were of good size and quality (testified by the fact that they still stand today).From its origin the GWR expanded rapidly into an efficient and prosperous industry and in the early 20th century produced thrilling designs (City of Truro was the first locomotive in the world to travel at over 100mph on 9th May, 1904). Its peak of 14000 employers was in 1920 and from there it declined (in 1960 Swindon produced British Railways’ last steam locomotive (Evening Star, number 92220)) and then reluctantly closed on the 27th March, 1986.

I have to mention the Mechanics’ Institute, (1853-55) which is by far the most beautiful building in Swindon. Today it is in ruins: it was nominated as in the top 10 most endangered Victorian Buildings, according to the Victorian Society. http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/mechanics-institute-swindon/

Working in the railway works was a given for lots of men. My grampy (see Point Counterpoint #2) was fortunate enough to have an alternative. When he was leaving school his father posed him the question:

‘Now boy, you can either work in GWR for pittance a week, or come flog fish down the market with me for £30 a morning.’

And even stinking of fish with frozen hands and chasing live crabs around he was glad not to have the fat controller as a boss.


Figure 3 The Fat Controller, Thomas the Tank Engine http://christmas-specials.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fat_Controller

There was always social unrest in the village: Daniel Gooch, Superintendent for GWR said in 1859 “It having come to my knowledge that many of the boys of New Swindon are very unruly and mischievous in their conduct, especially during the evening when property is frequently damaged and (as on a recent occasion) life endangered, I hereby give notice that any person in the service of the company reported to me as being disorderly, firing cannons, or making an improper use of firearms in the Village be discharged (…) ”

Figure 2 Workers leaving c 1910 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

I recently went to a gig by the Unthanks and their melancholic song Black Trade really captured the concept of underappreciated workers: ‘all you welders and riveters… you’re just black trade…’ These men put all their energies into producing the magnificent engines, tracks, carriages, but individually they are not given much recognition.

Today, ironically, the village has a low employment rate and is 95% owned by the local housing authority. The social problems that plagued the village in the 19th century still do today. I’ll illuminate this with a couple more anecdotes from a local housing officer: The electricity meters are in large cabinets; it’s usually fine and easy enough to read the meters, but on this occasion the door opened to a waft of smoke: among the drug paraphernalia and sleeping bag poked the head of a homeless man smoking a fag! Another time the officer was taking photographs of a pile of dumped rubbish when another homeless man started shouting abuse and vitriol, thinking his drug stash was disturbed he started throwing objects, when the officer turned around she saw he’d thrown chocolate bars at her!

Swindon has always been an innovative town: more recently we were the first to have a cable TV channel in the UK, and I think it is the history of the Railway Village that puts the ‘yuppies’ off the Railway Village.  I can imagine an aspiring professional thinking ‘No matter that these houses are cute, there’s still poky ex-council houses in a dodgy area.’ For those that can afford them, there are plenty of modernized Victorian terraced houses in Old Town, or as we saw in an earlier blog, fashionable new-builds in the suburbs.

The Railway Village, while being cute, it is not the calm, quaint village it appears. It is a place fraught with social problems, and either despite or perhaps because of this, it still has one of the best pubs in Swindon.

Figure 4 The Glue Pot http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorclanger/2260255446/

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Point-Counterpoint #2: Wichelstowe

This is the second in a series about planning observations of the town of Swindon.  Native daughter/My Friend Lauren spent a day looking at the city through a planner’s eyes with me, and then wrote about her impressions of The Triangle, an affordable housing scheme in a kind of a rough neighbourhood.  From there the pendulum swung, and we went to visit Wichelstowe, a new town on the periphery of Swindon.  Wichelstowe will ultimately comprise 4000 housing units, ranging from affordable flats to six bed houses.  Lauren wanted to show it to me because its built on a floodplain, and because its a really large-scale development (obviously) that has really changed the edge of the town. As with The Triangle, Lauren and I disagreed about Wichelstowe.  Not all of it, but some fairly fundamental stuff.

First: my perspective. I think Lauren and I agree that, on balance, Wichelstowe doesn’t have that much to recommend it.  Neither of us are going to be investing in it anytime soon.  But our opinion is clearly that of the minority, since we spoke to a couple sales officials and they said that most units had already sold – so other people are clearly taken with the place. While Lauren and I disagreed about the architectural merits of the building facades, I think we agreed that it seemed like a bleak and depressing place to live.  There is a huge about of space given over to tarmac and very little space given over to anything green (at least relative to the size).  There’s no children’s play parks or sports fields or open space interwoven into the development, although the constructed wetland (presumably constructed to mitigate the destruction of the floodplain) is very nice; we saw a bunch of ducks and a couple herons, which says to me that it is fulfilling its purpose in shoring up ecological diversity. Lauren and I also agreed about the only commerce we saw – a pub on the edge of the development where we had lunch.  It felt like a restaurant franchise called “The British Pub” accessed from exit 67 on the Pennsylvania turnpike.  There was a sign outside encouraging women to send their husbands to the “husband creche” (to watch sports on the weekend).  Everything that wasn’t offensive was bland.

Sidenote: I am The Hotness.

The houses at Wichelstowe were not of high design quality; they were a pastiche of neo-Victorian crap designed to look cutesy and appeal to the lowest common denominator.  The fact that I was impressed by them suggests that I’m more stuck in the development patterns of the US than I realised. But I was going to speak in defense of Wichelstowe and let Lauren trash it, so I’ll get on with it.  The thing that I liked about Wichelstowe is that the architecture was so much better than The Triangle, and so much better than it could have been.  And while many of the developers in cahoots on this development have done a lot of horrible things to the English landscape, you can see that they at least ticked a few boxes when they designed Wichelstowe.  For example, the houses are all different bricks, and have different facade detailing.  Affordable housing is worked in through the development and not obvious from the outside. There is a mix of sizes, widths, heights and window placement. And its dense! There is really a lot of housing crammed into a pretty small area (in part because there’s no commerce or industry or office space, but still).  So at least all this offensiveness is occupying a relatively small footprint, and people will drive less than they would in a more suburban settlement.

Each individual house is a pretty standard British style, and all the houses look….new, but not in a good way.  But I can see a world in which the development ages well.  When the bricks get a little stained and weathered, and the trees have grown in and maybe (fingers crossed!) someone’s installed some playground equipment somewhere, I can see how Wichelstowe could be a nice place to live. Minus the “British Pub” and its giant car park. And now its counterpoint time! My friend Lauren says:

In my last post I mentioned that sweet nostalgia I have for my home town. It’s where I did my growing up. And it’s where I still come with my thoughts and ideas and I realise that I am still growing up. You’ll see; here’s a mini-existential crisis for your enjoyment or embarrassment:

I spent a lot of my toddler-time tiddling about with my grampy. He would hold my hand on our adventures in the woods, down alleys and along the railway track. Today, we’re on the railway track. The sunshine is glistening on the rain-wet leaves, birdies are tweeting, that little stream is crying out
for me to jump in. We go exploring up the embankment, ‘come on Lauren, have look at this!’ and grampy helps me up the slip-slippy slope through the bushes. There’s a fence, and on the other side is open countryside; and in the nearest field, a donkey.

‘Hey, donkey, why’re you called Eeyore?’

‘I dunno, Heorways calls me that. ‘

Right. You can see where this is going. But I’ll spell it out anyway.

Wichelstowe was built on Eeyore’s field. Now that is the emotional base for all my reasoning, but there are plenty of rational reasons to hate Wichelstowe too. There’s the insultingly naff design, the sheer density of the place, the legally-obliged buses that run empty. And the fact that it’s built in the catchment of the river Ray flood plain. There’s also the ethos behind it, which Franny and I glimpsed when we posed as lesbian-potential-house-buyers …

‘Wow, the development is really coming along, how many have you sold now?’

‘Oh nearly all of them. We’ve made so much money here, I just don’t understand why there’s so much restriction on building on land like this; it’s a goldmine for everyone!’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a pretty ungenerous paraphrase]

‘uh huh. So how many are social housing?’

‘Don’t you worry about ‘horrible housing’, there’s none of them in this area. It’s allocated per development and one of the other companies took on the quota so we’re all owner-occupied.’ [blog editor sidenote: that’s a direct quote]

I hate it because I’m a ponce. Because I don’t live in a world where I think about profit or the income-source of my neighbours. Because I have an aversion to schemes like this: where the benefit to the stake-holders is dubious, and the motivation of the developer is purely bottom-line. Now, I can see that we need housing; yes, the developers are meeting a real need, but they’re hashing it up. These people really do live in risk of flood: the wetland area we saw had already flooded, and
one of the houses facing it had a ‘baby boy’ banner over the door. How old will he be when the water reaches his door?

I hate Wichelstowe because those houses represent something else to me, something malevolent that I can’t quite put my finger on. When the plans for Wichelstowe were announced, I grew up a little bit. I learnt that ‘donkeys’ years’ isn’t actually forever. All that is solid melts away…

Final blog editor note: Lauren did some research and found a Swindon planning doc about the site.  For more info, click here.


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Tour de Swindon, Part I: Point-Counterpoint

During August bank holiday, I went on a tour of Swindon, population ~200,000. Its a town (not a city – cities in the UK have cathedrals) in between London and Oxford in the southwest of the UK.  A friend of mine grew up there, and when she organized a birthday-weekend camping trip outside her hometown, I made the trek and was rewarded not just with a weekend of hiking but also with a tour of Swindon’s architectural highlights.  It was great to tour the city with a native, who showed me the best (and worst) of the new and the old. Not only did she ferry me around Swindon all day, she agreed to do a point-counterpoint on some of the schemes we saw.

We decided to start with The Triangle, a development I first encountered on the internet.  I was really excited to see the project, which was built into a triangle of land that had been a truck parking lot:

Point: The parking lot was replaced by 43 social/affordable units with low environmental impact and some beautifully considered details.  As you can see from the aerial above, the houses are jammed in to the existing neighborhood, and its amazing to realise how constrained the site actually is – because when you’re there, the corners feel awkward but the whole development feels spacious and open.  In addition, the Triangle has kind a shtick – there are allotment gardens at the points of the triangle and every resident gets a recipe book when they move in.

The site has a central plaza with drainage and play space artfully worked in; there is a large community garden at one of the points of the triangle, and wooden details in front of every door add visual interest to the houses.

There are definitely some redeeming features of the development, which makes use of what was formerly overlooked land; has visible and beautiful drainage features; and the housing is all eco-sensitive and low-carbon.

So what’s the problem? Simple: U-G-L-Y.  The open space, at least the central open space, is beautiful.  But the houses are boring and awful.  The whole place is painted slightly variable shades of beige in a repeating pattern, and the facades are totally unbroken except for a dull gray panel below each window that I think is intended for air-conditioning units (in the UK?).

So boring.

The other issue I have with the site is also a challenge to the whole ethos of the project.  I have nothing against gardens; they’re great.  but the gardens at the points of the triangle are jammed into overlooked space.  One corner has a bank of raised beds with no indication what belongs to whom; there were tons of delicious-looking vegetables but it wasn’t clear who owned them, if anyone.  The other corner had a couple of awkwardly arranged, mostly-empty greenhouses without any overlooking windows or lighting: 

The area was also gated and locked. I was not impressed.

IN SUMMARY: I appreciate that the architect, Kevin McCloud, did what he could with a constrained site, and I fully endorse the garden and environmental components of the project.  I just wish the houses weren’t so boring.


Dear readers of this wonderful blog, so far you’ve seen my face and my gingerbread  biscuits and now, you lucky things, you’re about to get some of my words too. Unlike Franny’s educated and considered entries, mine will be mostly opinion with a slight tinge of conjecture. Please enjoy:

Swindon is my hometown, so of course I have strong feelings about it. Having not lived there since 2004, my nostalgia is now greater than the desperate frustration I felt when I decided to leave. I still love it even when I return home to find the Old Town Corn Exchange has been set fire again and the Town Gardens Bandstand lead roof has been stolen by gypsies. Swindon occupies so much of my mental map that it comes up a surprising amount in conversation with Franny. It seemed that for every traffic-calming scheme she’d studied or drainage system she’d designed I had an example in Swindon. After a few months it was clear I had to show her this maelstrom of town planning initiatives. A rainy bank holiday Monday was the perfect day for us to do our Grand Town Planning Tour of Swindon!

First stop on the tour bus was the Triangle.

“You two better watch out wearing those anoraks in Pinehurst; someone’ll do you in!” Thanks, mum, for those words of wisdom. Childhood memories flashed through my mind:  driving through ‘tin town’ with my dad and he central-locks the car doors; my postcode-challenged schoolfriend complaining that no-one would visit him because he lived in Pinehurst… Hey, mum, the Triangle’s not even in Pinehurst!

Walking off the main road into the Triangle was like walking into a different country. No more double -fronted semis with pebble dashing: there are balconies on the flats and wood on the houses; we can’t be in the UK! I like the Triangle. Unashamedly. It was quiet. It was pleasant. There were children’s bicycles. We saw a few people talking to each other. There were trees and greenery in the central common. It wasn’t dominated by cars. There was no litter or graffiti or broken things. Then we poked our noses into the corners and there were greenhouses, with things growing in them; and allotments, with things growing in them; and an unused space with nothing growing in it (I was expecting needles and nappies). It was nice.

I consider Franny’s criticisms a bit unfounded. As they say in Swindon ‘you’re not from round ‘ere are you?’ She says the houses’ repetitive pattern is boring. All terraced housing in the UK is like this. I’m used to it. I even said that I liked the different shades of grey! (Ahem…) And it didn’t occur to me that the window-panels might be for air-con because we don’t do air-con in the UK.  She then complained that the gardens are not overlooked by anyone. I think this relates to the fact that the end terraced houses do not have windows on the outer walls. But not many end terraces do; it wouldn’t be fair to those in the middle! And as for the point that there is no indication of who gardens which plot of the allotment: so what if it wasn’t clear to us whose are the massive pumpkins and who’s pruning those apple trees;  the residents clearly know because it’s in order. I was just amazed that the allotments were being used at all.

In fact, that sums up my feelings about this site. I’m amazed that Swindon is the site of an award-winning eco-development and I’m even more amazed that people are using it as it is intended.

To balance these unsubstantiated observational comments, I must include some tenuous anecdotal evidence. A friend of a friend actually lives in one of the houses (that means she probably saw Franny and I playing on the decorative log-and-water-pump sculpture). She says they are nice houses (it’s not just me!), despite a few simple design no outside handles on the patio doors so you get locked out easily and the eco paint comes off when you clean marks off the walls. My favourite oversight is that the lovely cork floor insulates so well that the underfloor heating system has to be cranked up to 11 to work! Her heating bills are huge!

Despite these small teething problems (which are being sorted out) I think this housing project was a success. Perhaps this is an indication of my low standards, but I thought it had a good atmosphere. In my opinion, the buildings didn’t look boring or ugly or fashionable enough to date quickly (however Franny thinks they are already dated). The communal use of the allotments impressed me. I wish more building projects were built to these environmental standards (obviously not with insulated flooring and underfloor heating).  And at least it’s not Pinehurst.

Thanks so much to Lauren, both for the day and for the thoughts.  If I can prevail on her to keep this up, this will be the first in a three-part series, since we also visited Wichelstowe, a new town on the edge of Swindon, and the old railroad works (now a shopping mall and a low-income neighborhood, because it covers a huge area).

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