In 1841, Swindon was just a peaceful little Wiltshire village of Saxon origins, but its geographical position was to see it transformed into a major industrial centre: it was halfway between Bristol and London on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway (GWR).
It was the ideal place to build workshops to manufacture and repair locomotives and rolling stock. Swindon works became a vast complex where everything the railway needed could be made: from the axles of steam locomotives, to the carriage luggage racks, woven out of string. The works finally closed in 1986, but the buildings have been preserved and one now houses STEAM, the GWR museum.
The modern station
The obvious starting point is the railway station, greatly changed over the years. It was a compulsory stop for refreshments, but Brunel was not impressed – he complained about the standard of the coffee.
From the station, turn right up Station Road towards Emlyn Square, and take the second underpass on the right, once used to get the workforce under the railway to the old works. Continue past the building now housing the National Monuments Record Centre and continue on to the museum.
STEAM tells the whole story of the GWR, from reconstructions of the workshops and films showing the trains and stations when they were teeming with activity, to some of the great locomotives of the steam age that were built here. There are lots of interactive exhibits and this is one railway museum where you can actually get up on the footplate of an engine. But it is only a part of the story.
New Town terraces
The new GWR works needed a large workforce, and they had to have somewhere to live. The old village was never going to be able to supply enough houses and amenities for the workers, so the company built Swindon New Town, rows of terraced houses laid out in a neat grid. To visit the site, head back through the tunnel under the tracks to Station Road. Turn right and the village is on your left.
Head off towards the church of St Mark the Evangelist, just one of many facilities provided for the workforce. It was designed by a then young and unknown architect, George Gilbert Scott, now better known for a much grander building, the gothic extravaganza of the railway hotel at St Pancras, London. Scott also designed the Albert Memorial, which is situated in London’s Kensington Gardens.
From Church Place, turn left down past the park, also provided by the company, then left down Exeter Street, which has been beautifully restored in recent years. It’s worth looking down the back alley, and in each back yard you will see a ‘necessary’ as it was politely known. The street ends at Emlyn Square and the Mechanics’ Institution, a Grade II-listed building which was built in the 1850s and, now derelict, is the subject of a campaign to restore it. From here, return to the station.
HOW TO GET THERE
Swindon is around 80 miles west of London on the M4. By train, the town is well served by the Great Western Main Line, which connects the town with Bristol Temple Meads, Bath Spa, Reading and London Paddington.
FIND OUT MORE
Kemble Drive, Swindon
Open 10am-5pm daily in spring, summer and autumn; 11am-4pm in winter. Adults £6.60, children £4.40.
Platform One Café
Fleming Way, Swindon