This time of year has a number of important dates for me, but one that I often overlook is that it was 37 years ago this month that I moved to Swindon. Since then I have lived at two addresses in the town and, for a year, one in Chiseldon so I have spent more than half my life in and around the town. I seem to have put down roots here, especially if I tell you that I have lived in this house for 32 years.
Swindon was part of my life for any years following my earliest memories. I was born about 25 miles away and, although we gradually moved further and further away, our crockery at home was always referred to as having be bought at Swindon market as were one or to other things around the home. In fact my mother still had some of that stuff when she died and it ended up in the recycling centre over at Cheney Manor.
As a family we moved East through Berkshire and Buckinghamshire to Surrey and then to Essex. I continued that migration through the latter county after I left home and on a rough reckoning had lived at 14 addresses by the time that I decided to take the advice, “Go West, young man”. But Swindon had crossed my path on various ways over the years.
In 1972 I got a job at Brown Brothers in one of their Essex locations at a time when the head office had just moved out of the Great Eastern Street site in London. The admin functions had all gone to Swindon and there was regular contact with people down here, (the central stores operation had moved to Wolverton, another railway town that was to become a big part of my working life a decade and a bit later).
Towards the end of the seventies the railway involved me briefly with the town. The first was when on a day out to the West the locomotive pulling our train failed and we were stuck at Swindon waiting for a replacement for long enough to mean that my day out was effectively wasted and I ended up going straight back to Essex after grabbing a bite to eat at my destination. The following year I was on my way back on the train from Bristol when we were stopped at a signal shortly after passing under the M4. As we waited I could see the new housing development of Toothill, little knowing that I would own one of those houses about 7 years hence.
So what bought me to Swindon? By 1984 I was living in North East Essex, but working in London. I had a three hour round trip commute and so was gone from home before the children were up and home after they went to bed. My marriage was dying as we became strangers and so I wanted a job nearer home and there was nothing much that I could find locally at that time, but the firm that I worked for were expanding their Swindon operation and so I threw my hat into the ring.
A job offer came through and so I moved down here, staying initially at the Swandown Guest House on Victoria Hill, but then moving in with a colleague until the sale of my old house and the purchase of the new one came through in about the November. We lived in Toothill and I had about a 30 minute ‘bus ride to work on the Outer Circle with an annual season ticket that cost me £99 (a weekly rail season ticket from home to work at my previous address had been £127).
It was to be the move that launched my career and gave me much more besides, but initially I felt that I had made a dreadful mistake. As is often the case in business the project that I was due to work on was running late and I had little to do. My first two or three weeks were a round of induction sessions and introductions to people in various departments that I would have to work with, most of whom were really too busy to spare me the time. They had their own language of acronyms and such that baffled me and the organisation’s IT department, the London end of which I had just moved out of, seemed to resent me as a deserter of the cause.
One of the only joys that I had was exploring the industrial heritage of the town after work and one one of those walks I happened to look up at the right moment to see Concorde heading out towards the Atlantic, hearing it seconds later. The evening Concorde became my talisman in those lonely days before the family moved down to join me.
Things got better though. We had a bigger house here and we settled in. The children made new friends and I got my first promotion which eased things financially for us. We exchanged our old banger for a relatively new second hand car and started to have a annual holiday. Life was not too bad; West Swindon was not a bad place to live with the Link Centre within walking distance, the big Carrefour supermarket (now ASDA) as almost our corner shop and plenty of ‘buses to get us into and out of what was then a decent town centre. Swindon was a good place to live in and you could often spend most of a Saturday in town.
As the town spread West and North the council seemed to lose the plot. The genius of the fifties and sixties in reinventing the town faded and somehow it all went wrong. It’s odd, because it is thriving town with plenty of employment and new opportunities coming in regularly, yet the town centre has been allowed to decline to a point where it is hard to see how we can ever get it back. Forward Swindon was a catastrophic failure and odd projects have been allowed to proceed with no apparent cohesive plan while the urban sprawl continues into what was, when I moved here, sacred green belt land.
I do appreciate an element of hypocrisy on my part; all three of my Swindon area homes have been built on what was, fifty or so years ago, open fields. It’s what happens and we have to accept it. The population has been allowed to grow out of control and people have a tendency to breed. All off these people want homes and there are not enough to go around so we either have to cull the population or build more houses; guess which one will happen. High-rise is acknowledged to be unpopular for all sorts of reasons and so more of the fields will have to go. At least here we are using a reasonable amount of brownfield space too, but the spacious developments like to one that I live in, built in the 1970s, are a thing of the past.
Times change and the world now is not the same as when I moved here. There is no sense of community, but, from my perspective, there hasn’t been one at any of the places I had lived at down here. We have lost the vibrancy of the town centre though. Out of town superstores, shopping centres and strip malls have taken care of that in the same way as they have in most American towns; why pay to park in town when you can park for free around the edges and the shops there are better?
I still live and work here though, and am happy enough to stay. Seventy is creeping closer and I have no idea how many more years I have on this planet, but I see little likelihood that I will move anywhere else now. The town has been good to me; my career exploded after I moved here, I met the love of my life with whom I have shared 32 happy years now and I am very grateful that things conspired to bring me here.
All in all Swindon is OK. You can get to other parts of the country easily from here, some of the most beautiful countryside is a few minutes drive away and the place keeps growing so there are opportunities for those who live here and for their children. Sure there are negatives, but there are more positives. Forward Swindon may be a thoroughly discredited phrase now, but maybe Go Swindon will do instead.