Swindon is a large town within the borough of Swindon and ceremonial county of Wiltshire, in South West England. The original Saxon settlement of Swindon sat in a defensible position atop a limestone hill. It is referred to in the Domesday Book as Suindune, believed to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon words swine and dun meaning ‘pig hill’ or possibly, ‘Sweyn’s hill’, where Sweyn would be the local landlord. Residents of Swindon are known as Swindonians.
The landscape is dominated by the chalk hills of the Wiltshire Downs to the south and east. The hill that makes up what is known as Old Town consists of Purbeck and Portland stone; this was quarried from Roman times up until the 1950s. The area that was known as New Swindon is made up of mostly Kimmeridge clay with outcrops of Corrallian clay in the areas of Penhill and Pinehurst. Oxford clay makes up the rest of the borough. The River Ray and River Cole tributaries of the River Thames form the Eastern boundary of the town.
Swindon was named an Expanded Town under the Town Development Act 1952 and this led to a major increase in its population. In the 2001 census, the population of the Swindon urban area was 155,432, while the wider borough of Swindon had a population of 184,000. The 2001 census shows there were 180,061 people and 75,154 occupied houses in the Swindon Unitary Authority. The town has an area of approximately 40 km² (25.33 mi²). It was Highworth which originally held Borough status: this town retains its identity (and town council) within the combined Borough. Swindon Borough Council is a unitary authority independent of Wiltshire Council since 1997.
The town is famous as the former home of the Great Western Railway, and is on the London-Bristol main line. There was once a Midland & South Western Junction Railway station in the old town. The tracks ran from Andover (for Southampton), via Marlborough and ended at Andoversford (for Cheltenham), via Cricklade and Cirencester. A length is preserved by the Swindon & Cricklade Railway. The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust is spearheading the restoration of Swindon’s canals, which once linked the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington, near Melksham, to the River Thames at Abingdon; and to the Thames and Severn Canal at Latton near Cricklade.
Swindon is midway on the M4 London-South Wales motorway – which passes close to the South of the town – between Bristol, 40 miles (64 km) west and Reading, 40 miles (64 km) east. London is 81 miles (130 km) east. The building of the M4 resulted in the A420 from Oxford and Faringdon losing its identity from Swindon towards Wootton Bassett, Chippenham, (Bath) and Bristol; it also replaced the A4 as the main route to Newbury, Reading and London. The A361 from Ilfracombe via Glastonbury, Frome, Trowbridge, Devizes and Avebury is also renumbered around the town but continues to Highworth, Lechlade, Burford and Chipping Norton and Banbury, towards Daventry and Rugby. The A417/419 from the M5, Gloucester and Cirencester, passes to the East of the town but no longer goes to Hungerford but crosses the M4, continuing as the A346 to Marlborough and towards Salisbury.
Swindon is close to the Avebury World Heritage Site, and was prominent in the now lapsed proposal for a Great Western Railway World Heritage Site. Swindon is a gateway town to the North Wessex Downs AONB (including the The Coombes NT site at Hinton Parva). Barbury Castle is a hill fort and country park in Swindon, which is on Ridgeway national trail. A few miles West is White Horse Hill, which includes the bronze age Uffington White Horse, and another hill fort, also on the Ridgeway: the monument is in the care of English Heritage and the National Trust. Close by is Wayland’s Smithy, in the care of English Heritage. Swindon is home to Heelis, the headquarters of the National Trust, and the English Heritage National Monuments Record Centre. Swindon is home to the Bodleian Library’s book depository, which contains 153 miles (246 km) of bookshelves. Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Swindon include Coate Water, Great Quarry, Haydon Meadow, Okus Quarry, Old Town Railway Cutting and Lydiard Country Park.
A 2007 report by Endsleigh Insurance says it was the second safest place to live in the UK after Guildford, Surrey. This was based on the number of insurance claims made and burglaries and accidents reported. Endsleigh said: “Swindon is a great example of where local authorities, working hand in hand with the community, have played a key role in bringing down crime.”
After the end of World War II, Polish refugees were temporarily housed in barracks at Fairford RAF base about 25 km (16 mi) north. Around 1950, some settled in Scotland and others in Swindon rather than stay in the barracks or hostels they were offered. The 2001 UK Census found that most of the Polish-born people had stayed or returned after serving with British forces during World War II. Swindon and Nottingham were parts of this settlement. Data from that census showed that 566 Swindonians were Poland-born. Notes to those data read: ‘The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, which was designed to provide help and support to people who wished to settle here, covered about 190,000 people … at the time Britain did not recognise many of the professional [qualifications] gained overseas … [but] many did find work after the war; some went down the mines, some worked on the land or in steel works. Housing was more of a problem and many Poles were forced to live in barracks previously used for POWs … The first generation took pains to ensure that their children grew up with a strong sense of Polish identity.’ In 2004, NHS planners devising services for senior citizens estimated that 5 percent of Swindon’s population were not ‘ethnically British’ and most of those were culturally Polish. The town’s Polish ex-servicemen’s club, which had run a football team for 45 years, closed in 2012. Barman Jerzy Trojan blamed the decline of both club and team on the children and grandchildren of the original refugees losing their Polish identity.
Major employers include the Honda of the UK Manufacturing car production plant at an old Vickers factory site on the former World War II RAF base of South Marston, BMW/Mini (formerly Pressed Steel Fisher) in Stratton, mobile phone company Motorola, Dolby Labs, international engineering consultancy firm Halcrow Group Limited and retailer W H Smith’s distribution centre and headquarters. The electronics company, Intel, has its European head office on the south side of the town. Insurance and financial services companies such as Nationwide Building Society and Zurich Financial Services, the energy company RWE (which includes the well known retail brand npower), the fuel card and fleet management company Arval, pharmaceutical companies such as Canada’s Patheon and the United States-based Catalent Pharma Solutions and French Medical Supplies Manufacturer Vygon (UK) Ltd have their UK divisions headquartered in the town. Swindon also has the registered Head Office of the National Trust.
Swindon businesses include banks such as Barclays, Natwest, HSBC, Lloyds TSB and Handelsbanken, all having a commercial presence. The town also has a number of professional legal firms such as Clarke Holt, Thring Townsend, Lemon & Co, together with accountants such as Dennis & Turnbull and RSM Tenon and IT companies including Emnico Technologies and iSys Intelligent Systems.
Other employers include all but one of the national Research Councils, the British Computer Society, Alcatel-Lucent, eCommerce provider Shopatron, divisions of Tyco International, consumer goods supplier Reckitt Benckiser and a branch of Becton Dickinson.
At the junction of two Roman roads, the town has developed over the centuries, with the assistance of the GWR and the canals, into a transport hub. It has two junctions (15 and 16) onto the M4 motorway and is on the ex-GWR main line to London.
Swindon railway station opened in 1842 as Swindon Junction, and, until 1895, every train stopped for at least 10 minutes to change locomotives. As a result, the station hosted the first recorded railway refreshment rooms.
Swindon bus operators are Thamesdown and Stagecoach. The local council acknowledges the need for more car parking as part of its vision for 2010. Swindon is one of the locations for an innovative scheme called Car share. It was set up as a joint venture between Wiltshire County Council and a private organization which now has over 300,000 members registered. Despite the name, however, it is a carpool or ride-sharing rather than a car share scheme, seeking to link people willing to share transport.
The town contains a roundabout called Magic Roundabout. This is not one roundabout but five, the central point of which is a contra-rotational hub, on at the junction of five roads: (clockwise from South) Drove Road, Fleming Way, County Road, Shrivenham Road and Queens Drive. It is built on the site of Swindon wharf on the abandoned Wilts & Berks Canal, near the County Ground. The official name used to be County Islands, although it was colloquially known as the Magic Roundabout and the name was changed in the late 1990s to match its nickname.
- Swindon hosts a number of festivals such as the Swindon Festival of Literature, the annual Swindon Mela (an all-day celebration of South Indian arts and culture) in the Town Gardens — an event which attracts up to 10,000 visitors each year.
- The Summer Breeze Festival has been held annually in the town since 2007 with headliners ranging from Toploader to KT Tunstall. The family-friendly music event is run by volunteers on a non-profit basis with any funds raised going to charity.
- An annual Gay Pride Parade called Swindon And Wiltshire Pride is held in the town. The parade has been held in the Town Gardens since 2007. Popular Swedish DJ Basshunter performed in the 2012 celebrations in which approximately 8000 people attended.
- The town has a live music scene, venues such as The Beehive, Riffs Bar, The 12 Bar, The Furnace and The Victoria attract local acts as well as touring national acts. Collectively they host an annual music festival the Swindon Shuffle. The Oasis Leisure Centre and the County Ground are used for some major events. MECA is a 2,000-capacity music venue in the former Mecca bingo hall.
- The Arts Centre is a theatre in Old Town which seats 200 and has music, professional and amateur theatre, comedians, films, children’s events, and one-man shows.
- The Wyvern Theatre has film, comedy, and music.
- The Brunel Centre and the Parade are shopping areas in the town centre, built along the line of the filled-in Wilts and Berks Canal (where a canal milepost can still be seen).
- Swindon Tented Market located in the Town Centre, close to the Brunel Centre, was built in 1994. It reopened in October 2009, having been closed for several years.
- Retail parks include Greenbridge, West Swindon Shopping Centre, Stratton and the Orbital Shopping Park with shops ranging from Marks & Spencer to Comet and Mothercare. Food outlets include KFC and Pizza Hut, as well as Frankie and Bennies and Starbucks Coffee.
- McArthur Glen Designer Outlet is an indoor shopping mall for reduced price goods (mainly clothing), using the buildings of the disused railway engine works. The outlet is adjacent to the Steam Museum and the National Trust headquarters. The Swindon Designer Outlet has around 100 shops and is the biggest covered designer outlet centre in Europe.
- Craft shops within Studley Grange Craft Village, inside Blooms Garden Centre, just off junction 16 of the M4 motorway.
- Small specialist shops within BSS House in Cheney Manor Industrial Park and Basepoint Business Centre.
- Public parks include Lydiard Country Park, Stanton Park, Barbury Castle, Queens Park, Town Gardens and Coate Water.
- Shaw Country Park currently being developed in West Swindon.
- The National Monuments Record Centre, the public archive of English Heritage, is based in Swindon.
Swindon has a daily newspaper, the Swindon Advertiser, with daily sales of about 21,000. Other newspapers covering the area include Bristol’s daily Western Daily Press and the Swindon Advertisers weekly, the Gazette and Herald. ‘ The Wiltshire Ocelot (a free listings magazine), Swindon Star, Hungry Monkeys’ (a comic), Stratton Outlook, Frequency (an arts and cultural magazine), The Great Swindon Magazine, the Swindon Business News and The Swindon Link (for information on the goings on in Swindon).
Swindon is the UK’s largest centre of population without its own university (by comparison, there are two universities in nearby Bath, which is half Swindon’s size). In March 2008, a proposal was put forward by former Swindon MP, Anne Snelgrove, for a university-level institution to be established in the town within a decade, culminating in a future ‘University of Swindon’ (with some touting the future institution to be entitled ‘The Murray John University, Swindon’, after the town’s most distinguished post-war civic leader). However, Oxford Brookes University has its Ferndale Campus in North-Central Swindon, containing its School of Health and Social Care since 1999.
- Artsite Ltd. The Post Modern gallery. Contemporary art organisation providing affordable studio space, exhibitions, workshops, education and support for creative people.
- National Museum of Science & Industry, Wroughton.
- Railway Village Museum.
- Richard Jefferies Museum, dedicated to the memory of one of England’s most individual writers on nature and the countryside.
- Steam Railway Museum.
- Swindon Collection, Central Library. Extensive local studies and family history archive.
- Swindon Arts Centre, a 212-seat entertainment venue located in the Old Town of Swindon.
- Wyvern Theatre, the town’s principal stage venue
- Swindon Museum and Swindon Art Gallery, next to each other.
- The Museum of Computing the first computer museum in the UK.
Swindon Town F.C. play at the County Ground near the town centre. They have been Football League members since joining the then new Third Division (southern section) in 1920, and won promotion to the Second Division for the first time in 1963. They won their only major trophy to date, the Football League Cup, in 1969 beating Arsenal 3-1, at Wembley Stadium, and won the Anglo-Italian Cup the following year as the Football Association forbade Swindon from competing in the European Cup because they were in Division 3. They won promotion to the First Division in 1990, but stayed in the Second Division due to financial irregularities, only to reach the top flight (by then the Premier League) three years later. Their spell in the top flight lasted just one season, and then came a second successive relegation. A brief spite saw them promoted at the first attempt as champions of the new Division Two, but they were relegated again four years later and in 2006 fell back into the fourth tier for the first time since 1986, although promotion was gained at the first attempt. They were relegated again four years later. Under the charismatic reign of manager Paolo Di Canio, Swindon became League Two champions in 2011-12 and currently play in League One, the third-highest tier.
- Swindon Robins — a speedway team competing in and the current champion of the Elite League. The team has operated at the Abbey Stadium, Blunsdon since the mid-1949. There are proposals to redevelop the stadium. Speedway operated at a track in the Gorse Hill area of Swindon in the early days of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Swindon Robins ended a 45 year wait for a league title by winning the Elite League in 2012 following a 95-89 aggregate victory over Poole.
- Foxhill motocross circuit is 6 miles (9.7 km) south east of the town and has staged Grand Prix events.
Swindon is officially twinned with Salzgitter, Germany; Ocotal, Nicaragua; and Walt Disney World, Florida, United States.
Books set in Swindon include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde. Fforde’s Thursday Next novels feature an alternative-universe Swindon that includes a parodic “Seven Wonders of Swindon”. Robert Goddard’s Into the Blue, Out of the Sun and “Never Go Back” feature the central character of Harry Barnett from Swindon, and all three novels start in the town. Terry Jones, the former Monty Python member gave Swindon a backhanded reference in one of the short stories in his 2011 collection, “Evil Machines”. The story “The Lift that Took People to Places They Didn’t Want to Go” ends with the section “…But actually… the evil elevator hadn’t changed at all. In fact it went on secretly taking people to places they didn’t want to go. For every time the lift took the inhabitants of Swindon back down to the ground floor, they stepped out of the department store and onto the streets of Swindon, and so found themselves somewhere they didn’t want to be.”
Swindon was a small market town, mainly for barter trade, until roughly 1848. This original market area is on top of the hill in central Swindon, now known as Old Town. The Industrial Revolution was responsible for an acceleration of Swindon’s growth. It started with the construction of the Wilts and Berks Canal in 1810 and the North Wilts Canal in 1819. The canals brought trade to the area and Swindon’s population started to grow.
In 1840, Isambard Kingdom Brunel chose Swindon as the site for the railway works he planned for the Great Western Railway. Eastwards towards London, the line was gently graded, while westwards there was a steep descent towards Bath. Swindon was the junction for the proposed line to Gloucester. Swindon Junction station opened in 1842 and, until 1895, every train stopped for at least 10 minutes to change locomotives. As a result, the station hosted the first recorded railway refreshment rooms. There were three storeys to the station in 1842, with the refreshment rooms on the ground floor, the upper floors housing the station hotel and lounge. That building was demolished in 1972 and replaced by an office building with a single-storey modern station under it.
The town’s railway works were completed in 1842. The GWR built a small railway ‘village’ to house some of its workers. People still live in those houses and several of the buildings that made up the railway works remain, although many are vacant. The Steam Railway Museum and English Heritage, including the National Monuments Record, now occupy part of the old works. In the village were the GWR Medical Fund Clinic at Park House and its hospital, both on Faringdon Road, and the 1892 health centre in Milton Road – which housed clinics, a pharmacy, laundries, baths, Turkish baths and swimming pools – was almost opposite.
From 1871, GWR workers had a small amount deducted from their weekly pay and put into a healthcare fund – its doctors could prescribe them or their family members free medicines or send them for medical treatment. In 1878 the fund began providing artificial limbs made by craftsmen from the carriage and wagon works, and nine years later opened its first dental surgery. In his first few months in post the dentist extracted more than 2000 teeth. From the opening in 1892 of the Health Centre, a doctor could also prescribe a haircut or even a bath. The cradle-to-grave extent of this service was later used as a blueprint for the NHS.
The Mechanics’ Institute, formed in 1844, moved into a building looking rather like a church and included a covered market, on 1 May 1855. The New Swindon Improvement Company, a co-operative, raised the funds for this path self-improvement and paid the GWR £40 a year for its new home on a site at the heart of the railway village. It was a groundbreaking organisation that transformed the railway’s workforce into some of the country’s best-educated manual workers.
It had the UK’s first lending library, and a range of improving lectures, access to a theatre and a range of activities from ambulance classes to xylophone lessons. A former Institute secretary formed the New Swindon Co-operative Society in 1853 which, after a schism in the society’s membership, spawned the New Swindon Industrial Society that ran a retail business from a stall in the market at the Institute. The Institute also nurtured pioneering trades unionists and encouraged local democracy.
When tuberculosis hit the new town, the Mechanics’ Institute persuaded the industrial pioneers of North Wiltshire to agree that the railway’s former employees should continue to receive medical attention from the doctors of GWR Medical Society Fund, which the Institute had played a role in establishing and funding.
Swindon’s ‘other’ railway, the Swindon, Marlborough and Andover Railway, merged with the Swindon and Cheltenham Extension Railway to form the Midland & South Western Junction Railway, which set out to join the London & South Western Railway with the Midland Railway at Cheltenham. The Swindon, Marlborough & Andover had planned to tunnel under the hill on which Swindon’s Old Town stands but the money ran out and the railway ran into Swindon Town railway station, off Devizes Road in the Old Town, skirting the new town to the west, intersecting with the GWR at Rushey Platt and heading north for Cirencester, Cheltenham and the LMS, whose ‘Midland Red’ livery the M&SWJR adopted.
During the second half of the 19th century, Swindon New Town grew around the main line between London and Bristol. In 1900, the original market town, Old Swindon, merged with its new neighbour at the bottom of the hill to become a single town.
On 1 July 1923, the GWR took over the largely single-track M&SWJR and the line northwards from Swindon Town was diverted to Swindon Junction station, leaving the Town station with only the line south to Andover and Salisbury. The last passenger trains on what had been the SM&A ran on 10 September 1961, 80 years after the railway’s first stretch opened.
During the first half of the 20th century, the railway works was the town’s largest employer and one of the biggest in the country, employing more than 14,500 workers. Alfred Williams (1877–1930) wrote about his life as a hammerman at the works.
The works’ decline started in 1960, when it rolled out Evening Star, the last steam engine to be built in the UK. The works lost its locomotive building role and took on rolling stock maintenance for British Rail. In the late 1970s, much of the works closed and the rest followed in 1986.
David Murray John, Swindon’s town clerk from 1938 to 1974, is seen as a pioneering figure in Swindon’s post-war regeneration; his last act before retirement was to sign the contract for Swindon’s tallest building, which is now named after him.
In February 2008 The Times named Swindon as one of “The 20 best places to buy a property in Britain”. Only Warrington had a lower ratio of house prices to household income in 2007, with the average household income in Swindon among the highest in the country.
In 2001 construction began on Priory Vale, the third and final instalment in Swindon’s ‘Northern Expansion’ project, which began with Abbey Meads and continued at St Andrew’s Ridge. In 2002 the New Swindon Company was formed with the remit of regenerating the town centre, to improve Swindon’s regional status. The main areas targeted are Union Square, The Promenade, The Hub, Swindon Central, North Star Village, The Campus and the Public Realm.
The local council was created in 1974 as the Borough of Thamesdown, out of Swindon Borough and Highworth Rural Councils. It was not initially called Swindon, because the borough covers a larger area than the town and encompasses villages and land. It was eventually renamed to Borough of Swindon in 1997. The borough became a unitary authority on 1 April 1997, following a review by Local Government Commission for England. The town is therefore no longer under the auspices of Wiltshire Council.
There are nine conservation areas in Swindon. Much of the centre of the Old Town is broken into different conservation areas: the Old Town area covers High St (and the area between this road and The Lawns park) and Wood St; this is almost contiguous with the Devizes Road area which covers the junction between Devizes Road and Newport St; the Town Gardens area covers the Victorian park of this name, and neighbouring roads of Bath Road, Westlecot Road, The Mall and Goddard Avenue; the Prospect Place area also includes Union St and King William St.
The most prominent buildings in the Old Town centre are mid-C19: the sadly ruinous Locarno ballroom (opposite the Co-op), which also previously functioned as a town hall and corn exchange; the former Belmont Brewery in the car park (in the car park behind the Co-op), and Christ Church (the original parish church to be found in the Lawns public park behind, once the grounds of a mansion, still including a sunken garden, fish ponds and ice house). Many of the buildings fronting High St, Wood St and Bath Rd are listed, including the Bath Rd Methodist Church and the Seymour Clinic hidden away by the roundabout at the far end of Bath Rd. Perhaps the finest building is Villett’s House, 42 Cricklade St, just off the end of the High St towards the Church. Towards the top of Victoria hill are the offices of the Swindon Advertiser which originally contained a steam printing works. Listed pubs are the Royal Oak on Newport St, the Pig on the Hill on Devizes Rd, the Kings Arms on Wood St; and the Goddard Arms, and the Bell on the High St. The gates, bandstand and kiosk in Old Town Gardens are listed.
The Railway Village and the Railway Works are separate conservation areas. Swindon was prominent in the now lapsed proposal for a Great Western Railway World Heritage Site. The Railway Village includes Brunel’s station (partially redeveloped), church, chapel, school, a baths/swimming pool, former railway museum (built as a GWR lodging house), cottage hospital, rows of workers’ cottages, and – at its centre – a famous Mechanics’ Institute. This building, Grade II* listed, contained a theatre, lecture hall, reading rooms and market stalls, fresh produce not being easily available. The Works include several Grade II* listed workshops, including a chain test house with original Victorian test gear. The Works was once the largest factory in Europe, and a sizeable chunk survives as a ‘designer outlet’ shopping centre – preserving many original features – and a railway museum. The English Heritage National Monuments Record Centre and the National Trust head office are within the Works curtilage. Listed pubs are the Bakers Arms (currently closed), Cricketers and Glue Pot – which were built as shops in the centre of the railway village; and the Queens Tap and Great Western built as railway hotels.
The other conservation areas in the town are the centre of Rodbourne Cheney, the centre of Stratton St Margaret (both including the church); and the area around the Arkells Brewery in Kingsdown.
Other notable buildings include: The Richard Jeffries Museum and the Spectrum Building.