SWINDON: God’s Wonderful Railway, Wiltshire’s wannabe city

(from our summer events programme)

Saturday September 19th 2015
A tour led by Tim Mars

Swindon will not top anyone’s bucket list, but there is more to Wiltshire’s largest and fastest-growing conurbation than meets the eye. It has a rich and varied history, including a crucial rôle in the development of the railways—and the GWR Medical Fund Society, founded in 1847, provided Aneurin Bevan with a blueprint for the NHS 100 years later.

We will explore Swindon’s history through the buildings, streets and quarters that have marked its growth and development, from the Old Town on the hlll, through the massive upheaval following the arrival of the Great Western Railway at ‘New Swindon’ in 1840, to its hugely ambitious—and ongoing—post-war expansion after designation as an Expanded Town in 1952. 



There are many hidden gems, one or two real curiosities and a host of fascinating and unexpected nooks and crannies—including:

Swindon Railway Works (1841-1986): the works in 1928

Swindon Railway Works (1841-1986); locomotive powerhouse of the Great Western Railway where, during its heyday in the late 19th century, 14,000 people were employed and A-Shop, at 12.25 acres, was one of the largest covered areas in the world.


Swindon Railway Works (1841-1986) - now home to STEAM and a shopping mall

Partly preserved, the works are now home to (among others) STEAM (the GWR museum), the Historic England Archive, the National Trust, and a ‘designer outlet mall’—from Shops to shopping in less than 200 years.


The Railway Village (1846)

The Railway Village (1846); company housing for GWR workers designed by Brunel and Matthew Digby Wyatt—a grid of neat terraced houses built using stone excavated from the Box Hill tunnel. The completed village also provided the town with medical and educational facilities, plus St Mark’s Church and the Bakers Arms public house.


The Wilts and Berks Canal (1810) which ran from Semington on the Kennet and Avon to Abingdon on the Thames, with a branch to Latton on the Thames and Severn Canal.

The Wilts and Berks Canal (1810) - 'tube-map'

It was the canal (and the junction with the Cheltenham branch) that caused Daniel Gooch—aged 20 when recruited as Superintendent of Locomotive Engines by the 33-year-old Brunel—to recommend a site near Swindon as the location for the GWR works due to the potential plentiful supply of coal from the Somerset coalfields.

The Wilts and Berks Canal (1810) - artist's impression of restored canal

Abandoned in 1914, the canal is now undergoing restoration, with ambitious plans for a new route through the town centre that would pass beside the Railway Village.



The Renault Building (1982); Norman Foster’s hi-tech ‘Meccano’ masterpiece—its undulating yellow umbrellas inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building.

The Renault Building (1982)

It made an appearance in the James Bond film A View to a Kill in 1984. Despite (or because of) which, Renault moved out of their purpose-designed ‘iconic’ flagship building in 2001 and, after some years empty, it is now home to a motley collection of tenants, including a crazy golf course and Kidz About, an indoor soft play adventure playground.

The Renault Building (1982)

It was Grade-II* listed in 2013 (the building, not the adventure playground). Joining us on the tour will be Mike Putnam—described by the Architects Journal as ‘an intellectual glazier’—the man responsible for glazing it, who will explain the intricacies of the Pilkington Planar™ structural glass system, developed for and deployed here for the first time.


The Magic Roundabout (1972)

The Magic Roundabout (1972); widely regarded as one of Britain’s most terrifying, baffling and dangerous junctions, but—almost certainly as a result—with an impressive safety record and, 40 years on, with an unsurpassed vehicular throughput. It has been intensively studied and has generated a slew of academic papers in fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, emergent behaviour and fluid mechanics—as well as ‘I survived the Magic Roundabout’ T-shirts.

Old Town Hall (1852) and Corn Exchange (1866)


Old Town Hall (1852) and Corn Exchange (1866); gutted by major fires in 2003 and 2004, now the subject of ambitious regeneration plans spearheaded by Forward Swindon, the town’s urban regeneration agency.

The Motorola Building (1998)


The Motorola Building (1998); once known to taxi-drivers for miles around as ‘the Iraqi Supergun’, it starred as a Turkish oil platform in the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. Despite (or because of) which, Motorola moved out of their purpose-designed ‘iconic’ flagship building in 2010, and it is now home to French pharmaceutical firm Vygon.



New Swindon Mechanics’ Institution (1844); formed and constituted by employees up with help from the GWR ‘for the benefit and enlightenment of those employed by the GWR’.

New Swindon Mechanics’ Institution (1844)

It contained the UK’s first lending library. Non-GWR workers were allowed to join as outside members, making the Institution an open body. Grade-II* listed but currently derelict, there are ambitious plans for its restoration, incorporating a cinema, theatre, meeting rooms, shops and a restored GWR Buffet Car offering light refreshments.

Heelis (2005)



Heelis (2005); built on the site of a former GWR rolling mill demolished in 1964, the National Trust’s award-winning HQ. Naturally lit (by sawtooth north-facing rooflights), ventilated and cooled—a ‘cardigan culture’ is promoted—with 1554 photovoltaic panels and an array of ventilation ‘snouts’ on the roof.

It was built using timber from NT woodlands and a bespoke carpet woven from undyed Herdwick wool from sheep grazed on the trust’s own farmland.

Heelis: Cross section showing how the building works

Cottage Hospital (1871)

Cottage Hospital (1871); opened in the Railway Village by the GWR Medical Fund Society in the former Armoury of 1862, it employed nurses, two surgeons and two qualified assistants. It was followed in 1887 by North Wiltshire Victoria Hospital in Okus Road, supported by voluntary subscriptions.

The GWR Medical Fund Society Dispensary (1891)


The GWR Medical Fund Society Dispensary (1891); built as a comprehensive health centre, with consulting rooms, dispensary, slipper baths, dentist and a hairdressing salon—together with Turkish and Russian baths and two swimming pools which, as the Health Hydro, remain in use to this day.

The Triangle (2011); Kevin McCloud’s first attempt at ‘humble design’—or, as he prefers to call it, ‘excellent ordinary’—42 high-ceilinged, low-energy homes with ventilation chimneys and lime-rendered Hempcrete external walls—the precursor of Applewood at Cashes Green.

The Triangle (2011)

'Catalogue houses' (1889)

‘Catalogue houses’ (1889); three cottages built in front of his works by brick and tile manufacturer Thomas Turner to advertise his wares, displaying every brick and tile, every finial and moulding, made in Turner’s works, topped off with terracotta acorns, crests and rosettes.

David Murray John Tower (1976)


David Murray John Tower (1976); Swindon’s tallest building, named for the town clerk who masterminded the town’s spectacular postwar growth. The 21-storey town centre building is mixed-use, with several floors of offices and 72 council flats. It is one of Jonathan Meades’s five favourite buildings—’a sleek, slick return to the smooth white grace of Twenties and Thirties Modernism … a mini-skyscraper that has affinities to a design of Frank Hampson’s for Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future’.

Wichelstowe (2001)

Wichelstowe (2001); Swindon’s new ‘sustainable southern urban extension’—the largest housing project on publicly-owned land in the country, with pedestrian, cycle and bus priority, and no on-street parking for residents. And Waitrose, to ensure the development attracts ‘aspirational’ home-buyers.

East Wichel (2008)


East Wichel (2008); the first phase of Wichelstowe, is being built to strict design codes drawn up by ‘new classicist’ John Simpson and supposedly informed by local architectural traditions. The result is more Poundland than Poundbury—a jumbled pastiche of brick, stone, render and black shiplap cladding, with illiterate detailing, clip-on porches and fake chimneys.

The Oasis (1973)


The Oasis (1973); Britain’s first leisure pool, a shallow GRP-glazed dome enclosing a beach-style walk-in pool, slides, water cannon and a wave machine—the Domebuster flumes were added later, so-called because they start outside the dome and then ‘bust’ in. Now undergoing a £1.5 million refurbishment and redevelopment that will see it joined by an indoor ski slope and a 9,000 capacity arena.


GWR Barracks (1855)

GWR Barracks (1855); built as accommodation for single men, it was unpopular from the outset and was closed and converted to a Wesleyan chapel in 1869 and from 1962 was home to the GWR museum until the opening of STEAM.

Regent Circus (2014)


Regent Circus (2014); is Swindon’s new leisure and retail complex at the top of the town centre—a six-screen cinema, eight restaurants and a Morrisons supermarket in a welcoming well-designed landmark building that puts the lumpen Merrywalks behemoth to shame.


West Swindon; the borough’s hugely ambitious New Town-style expansion, initiated in the 1970s and heavily influenced by the example of Milton Keynes but, undertaken with none of the powers and financial clout of a development corporation, the result is—for better or worse—MK-lite.

West Swindon

West Swindon District Centre

West Swindon District Centre; includes a covered shopping centre attached to (and dwarfed by) a huge ASDA superstore. its acres of flat roof unconvincingly disguised by acres of fake tiled pitched roofs, plus a pub, health centre, the Link Centre and a (now closed) police station.


The Link Centre (1985)

The Link Centre (1985); west Swindon’s award-winning multi-purpose leisure centre, a high-tech design incorporating an ice rink, swimming pool, gym, games pitches and a library, its profiled metal cladding now artfully distressed by the boots of satisfied patrons.


Shaw Village Centre; is one of west Swindon’s purpose-built local centres, with a clock tower, church, pub, Tesco Express, Lloyds Pharmacy, hair stylist, estate agent, doctor’s surgery, a vet’s and a kebab shop—all the things that go to make up the quintessential English village.

Shaw Village Centre

Tim Mars has enlivened previous tours of Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford and Birmingham with his knowledge, enthusiasm and humour. In 1962, Betjeman declared he had come to love Swindon because of its people. Fifty years later, Tim has come to love it in spite of them.

Coach departs Stroud Leisure Centre at 9am (8.45am at Eastcombe), returning 6.30pm. There will be a break for lunch in the town centre—or feel free to bring a packed lunch.

Price: £25.00 members, £30.00 non-members, to include coach travel and guided tour.

Booking essential – to book use the booking form HERE.