Swindon: A tale of two towns
PUBLISHED: 12:13 20 September 2016
There are two very distinct faces to Swindon – the modern town developed around the railway, and the older part up the hill. Tracy Spiers decides to spend some time getting to know the timeless and vibrant Old Town
Back in the 1850s a Swindon jeweller won a timing contract for the Great Western Railway. All train times were set to his regulator clock, which is still in the same place two centuries later - on the wall inside Deacons the jewellers in Swindon’s Old Town. And it still keeps perfect time.
The reason I mention this is because it represents longevity, a fascinating history and in many ways a timelessness, synonymous with this special part of Wiltshire.
Up until today, my memories of Swindon consisted of occasional trips to the Oasis swimming pool and getting lost in the main shopping centre, going back to the days when the Wimpy chain existed. I was meant to meet my parents in Wimpy at a certain time, but failed to realise that there were three such cafés. As it was in pre-mobile phone era, it took a while to be reunited.
Swindon could well be described as a Tale of Two Towns - the more modern Swindon at the bottom of the hill which developed around the railway; the older part on the top of the hill, dating back to Roman times. Indeed, there is evidence that underneath Wood Street and Bath Road, lies a Roman road, and excavation at Okus quarry revealed a Roman villa a couple of decades ago. It is now a geological Site of Specific Scientific Interest.
It is the Old Town I want to highlight today. A few years ago it may well have been forgotten by those favouring the lower ground, but for those seeking to boost trade and raise the profile of this significant part of Swindon, the hard work has paid off. This is indeed a special place. The sense of place is almost tangible; its deep history sings through the walls of the eclectic mix of shops - all independent family businesses offering a personal service. I honestly felt as if I was on holiday here as I enjoyed meeting traders, particularly in Wood Street - the heart of Old Town, which is old-fashioned charm fused with modern liveliness. There is definitely a cosmopolitan feel about it.
“I think it is the jewel in Swindon’s crown. It is like a village inside a town. It has a very diverse economy, both day and night time,” explained Richard Deacon, chairman of Old Town Business Association (OTBA).“You tend to find we have small independent businesses in Old Town offering retail and services not often found elsewhere. One of the Old Town’s strengths is that it has a very strong community spirit. Business has been challenging over the past decade, no matter what size the company is, but we have been working together here and it is much stronger than it was 10 years ago.”
Evidence of this close-knit supportive community comes out through celebratory social events. A big day in Old Town’s annual calendar is the Sausage and Ale Trail which takes place on Sunday, September 4 (12 noon-5pm). It’s now in its third year and is a prime example of day and night-time businesses celebrating with residents and visitors everything good about this part of Swindon. Wood Street will be shut to traffic and instead lined with stalls of sausage and ale-related stalls.
“We have also just held a Tenner Festival whereby lots of our businesses offer something for £10; it might be a two-course meal, a £10 off clothes deal or taster treatment sesssions. Last year we ran a Foods Around the Worlds Festival and on Sunday, November 27 is our Christmas Light Switch on. This is another big event for us, we have a stage with entertainment, traditional carols, modern music and a Santa’s Grotto,” said Jan Wojtowicz, who is OTBA vice chairman and event organiser. He is also a Thai masseur and runs Wood Street Well Being, which he set up five years ago.
“As a businessman it is great to have the support of other businesses. We often help each other out and there is a real sense of community within the traders. As someone who uses the town, I find it very relaxed, I enjoy the quality of the restaurants and the produce and the fact the shops are independently owned is fantastic. The passion comes through in their business to make the Old Town look great and make it feel great too,” he added.
Six years ago Nick Smith opened his delicatessen and cafe, Balula, named after his young daughter.“We were sitting in the restaurant opposite one day. I loved the front of this shop and fell in love with it. My initial was even on the doorstep. It was empty so we decided to contact the landlord, we came and had a look, took the lease on and started trading a few months later,” he said. Balula combines his love for interior design, passion for artisan foods, Spanish and Italian products and good coffee in a relaxed interior (and a lovely courtyard at the back). While Nick and his staff serve chorizo and ciabatta with aioli at September’s Sausage and Ale Trail; staff at Egg-e-licious will be serving their gourmet offering in format they know best - hearty and wholesome wraps.
For a small community, the quality and quantity of restaurants, cafes and eateries is high. Traditional and unique shops and services also feature such as The Wood Street Food Hall, a butchers, grocers and fishmongers in one; Run, a shop for the energetic athletic types; Ray’s Homemade Icecream and there’s also a Museum and Art Gallery. The day we visited, people spilled out on to the streets enjoying their coffee and conversations or were picnicking in Old Town’s long-established park, which still has its original metal gates, rose garden and bowling green, reminding me of Stroud’s Stratford Park where my grandfather worked as park superintendent. Pockets of the past add character to Old Town, which has many a story to tell. Wood Street is still very much a Victorian Street with its original high curb stones still in tact.
There has also been so-say tales of smuggling in underground tunnels, something I mentioned when talking to Adam Sykes, manager of Egg-e-licious. “My friend’s house was on Homes Under the Hammer and they discovered that there was a secret tunnel underneath,” he told me.
Opposite The Bell, a former pub built in the reign of Henry VIII; one of Swindon’s oldest and most neglected buildings, the former Locarno (also known as The Corn Exchange), will have an injection of new life in the next two years. A major regeneration project to turn it into a mini Convent Garden style destination has been welcomed by planners which will help further the vision of Old Town Business Association.
Even the OTBA has a historic significance. It dates back to 1871 and was set up by Richard Deacon’s great great grandfather Hubert Deacon and is Swindon’s oldest business association. And so we return to Deacons jewellers shop, which has been trading thanks to six generations of the Deacon family. Now in the hands of Richard and his sister Sara, it epitomises the passion, dedication, friendliness and personal service which has continued over the centuries.
When Deacons - Swindon’s second oldest business (Arkell’s Brewery is the oldest) - celebrated its 160th anniversary a few years ago, Richard received a phone call from a farmer asking if he would like to buy a clock he had. Amazingly it turned out to be the very piece the founder of Deacons, Richard’s great great great uncle had made during his apprenticeship. And still on the subject of time, this year marks the 175th Anniversary of the Great Western Railway and to celebrate the part Deacon’s regulator clock played in the railway’s history, Richard and his talented team produced a limited edition of 175 skeleton pocket watches with King George V on the dial.
Time has moved on for Swindon Old Town since the original Mr Deacon started his business, yet the magic of this place is maintains a timelessness which gives it distinct character, charm and personality. I highly recommend this delightful oasis of Swindon. It is trendy, fresh, vibrant and yet its walls and very foundations hold secrets which go back into Roman times.