Ten (Other) Things To Love About Swindon « Tom Faulkner

Ten (Other) Things To Love About Swindon

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The Tom Faulkner workshop is located in the heart of Swindon in Wiltshire, just by the train station. It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate HQ for an innovative British designer working primarily in metal. The building in which Tom and his team craft their furniture formed part of the locomotive works of the greatest engineer in British history: Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

But what else is there to love about the ‘Railway Town’? Here are ten things you didn’t know about Swindon. Or if you did, they bear repetition:

1. The Fateful Ham Sandwich

According to legend, the decision that transformed Swindon into one of the fastest growing towns in Nineteenth Century Europe was made on the basis of a half-eaten ham sandwich. In 1840, Brunel and his superintendent Daniel Gooch rode in a carriage along the proposed course of the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol, looking for a place to build the repair workshop that they knew would be required. The tiny market town of Swindon looked promising, but they couldn’t agree on a precise location. Eventually, an exasperated Brunel announced “I’m going to throw this sandwich out of the window. Wherever it lands, that’s where we’ll build the workshop”. It landed more or less on the site of Tom’s workshop.

IKB, indulging his 48-a-day cigar habit

2. Socialist Utopia

The workers who flocked to the burgeoning new railway town needed somewhere to live, so Great Western commissioned Brunel to design a model village for them. It consisted of two blocks of four streets, reminiscent of two four-carriage trains passing each other. The village featured innovative services like the UK’s first lending library, located in the Mechanics Institute, and the Medical Fund Hospital, which provided health care to the residents on the basis of a small deduction from the GWR workers’ pay packets.

Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the National Health Service, openly acknowledged the debt his baby owed to the town. “There was a complete health service in Swindon”, he said. “All we had to do was expand it to the country.”

Visiting the Railway Village is like stepping back into the mid-nineteenth century. It is now a conservation area featuring a museum and several listed buildings. It was nearly demolished in the 1960s, though, but was saved by a campaign by the future Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, of “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!” fame.

Tom finds the community philosophy that underpinned the Railway Village very inspiring, and endeavours to recreate it in his own company.

3. Swine’s Town

If the sandwich story is true, it is singularly fitting, because Wiltshire is famous for the excellence of its ham. The name Swindon, in fact, is derived from the Old English for ‘Pig Hill’.

What is not true, sadly, is the story, solemnly reproduced on several internet sites, that the great Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem about the pigs of Swindon. He is alleged to have been inspired by a non-existent tradition of letting the animals run through the streets of the town on the fifth New Moon of the year. The key lines supposedly run as follows:

Fill for me a brimming bowl
And in it let me drown my soul:
T’were pigs are running up and down
And soon shall fill Swine’s Town

The first two verses are authentic Keats, but the last two are hogwash. This (sub)urban myth does, however, illustrate a surreal streak in Swindon humour that brings us nicely to Jasper Fforde.

4. Jasper Fforde’s Seven Wonders of Swindon

The Elgin Llamas [Image: jasperfforde.com]

Paradoxically, one of our wonders of Swindon is a completely spurious list of the town’s tourist attractions, compiled by local author Jasper Fforde.

Among the marvels described by Fforde are the Alexandra Road Lighthouse, constructed during the Great Global Warming Scare of 1832 on the assumption that the town would soon be submerged by rising sea levels, and the Elgin Llamas, a group of urbanised South American ungulates that allegedly roams free in the eponymous suburb. Most intriguing, though, is the site of St Zvlkx, “the only medieval cathedral of any importance of which no trace whatsoever remains”. Now occupied by the Tesco’s Superstore off Ocotal Road, it is said to be the only World Heritage Site where you can do your weekly shopping. Guided tours are offered around the car park and through the aisles.

5. The Magic Roundabout

Swindon is home to a bewildering constellation of mini-roundabouts that has achieved (inter)national infamy for giving motorists heart failure. How would you feel if you were driving along, wanting to turn right, and were suddenly confronted by this sign?

Help! [Image: Wikipedia]

It actually works very well, once you get your head around it, but the average answer is to point your car in the right direction, close your eyes and surrender to fate.

6. Oasis

The Britpop band Oasis is named after Swindon’s leisure centre. Liam, the less monobrowed of the Gallagher brothers, got the inspiration when he saw the centre listed on a poster as one of the venues at which the fellow-Madchester scene band Inspiral Carpets were due to play on a forthcoming tour.

Tom used to go to the Oasis Centre as a boy, as he grew up about 20 miles away. The pool there had (and still has) a cool wave machine.

7. Diana Dors

Often described as the British answer to Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors was a blonde bombshell with a flair for publicity and a talent for one-liners. Born Diana Fluck in the Haven Nursing Home in Swindon in 1931, she changed her surname for her film debut because “they [the producers] were afraid of what would happen if my real name was in lights and one of the lights blew…”

Although she initially made her name through risqué films and photo shoots, Diana wasn’t just a pretty face. At 14, she became the youngest ever student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, having lied about her age. By the time she was 17, she had made more than 20 films for the Rank Organisation. Her early career culminated in a starring role the Palme D’Or nominated Yield to the Night (1956), based on the case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Unveiling of the Diana Dors statue at the Shaw Ridge cinema complex in Swindon, 1991

After Diana’s success at home, it was inevitable that she would have a crack at Hollywood. Unfortunately, it was orchestrated by her exploitative and violent husband Dennis Hamilton. At the party held to launch her US career, the pair were pushed into the swimming pool by a surge of photographers. When Hamilton emerged, he beat the nearest photographer into unconsciousness. The National Enquirer responded with the headline “Miss Dors go home – and take Mr Dors with you”. So she did.

Her film career never fully recovered, but in her later years Diana became a much-loved TV personality, forever in demand on chat and celebrity game shows. She died tragically early, in 1984, but not before starring as the Fairy Godmother in the Adam and the Ants video of Prince Charming.

Diana is commemorated by a life-sized statue of her wearing a revealing dress outside Swindon’s Cineworld cinema in Shaw Ridge. She also appears on what is arguably the most famous album cover in history, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing just to the right of George.

8. The Naked Ape

In 1967, a book appeared that changed the collective human consciousness. Its author, Desmond Morris, comes from Swindon, or at least he moved to the town when he was four, having been born in 1928 a few miles away in Purton. His grandfather founded the local paper. He was even a childhood friend of Diana Dors (see above).

In The Naked Ape, Morris turned the lens of evolutionary biology back on human beings. His central argument was that Homo sapiensis still in essence the hunter gatherer of 10,000 years ago, living in a world that is now seriously at odds with our genetic inheritance. The book enraged feminists, who saw it as reinforcing the idea that women are solely designed for child-rearing, but it has gone on to sell almost 20 million copies and has unquestionably been a game-changer.

The Arena 1976, Desmond Morris

Morris is pretty good on animal behaviour too, having developed a childhood fascination with the subject by observing the wildlife around the lake in Swindon’s Queens Park. He hosted 500 episodes of the Granada TV series Zoo Time and 100 of the BBC’s Life in the Animal World,before becoming the Zoological Society’s Curator of Mammals in 1959.

To round off his CV, Morris was also an important surrealist artist back in the 40s and 50s, who exhibited with the likes of Joan Miro.

9. The Secret Agent Postmistress

People who popped into the Highworth Post Office, six miles from Swindon’s town centre, for some stamps during World War II would have been surprised to learn that the nice grey-haired lady who served them was on Adolf Hitler’s hit-list. Yet the truth was that Mabel Stranks, who held the post of postmistress there for more than 25 years, was a vital cog in a secret guerrilla army set up by Churchill to fight back in the event of a German invasion.

Mabel Stranks (Image sourced from Calyx Picture Agency)

The HQ of this crack outfit, which went by the inconspicuous name ‘Auxiliary Units’, was Coleshill House, which stood 2 miles outside Highworth. To preserve the secrecy of the operation, it was vital that people on official business didn’t just pitch up there. That is where Mabel came in. Her job was screening visitors. They would be told to go to the post office when they got to Highworth and ask for her, whereupon she would give them a password and tell them to wait while she made a series of phone calls.  If she decided they were pukka, a car would eventually show up and drive them to Coleshill House by an indirect route. If she smelled a rat, they would be driven elsewhere.

Some 3,000 individuals recruited by the Auxiliary Units passed the Stranks test. Her involvement came to light in 1968, but she refused to take part in a documentary about the project and died three years later. But in 2013, a plaque was unveiled above the old Post Office in Highworth in her honour.

10. XTC

Swindon has produced several notable musicians, among them Rick Davies, vocalist of David Cameron’s favourite band Supertramp, Justin Hayward, lead guitarist of The Moody Blues, and Gilbert O’Sullivan, who had a number of conceivably somewhat bland hits during the early ‘70s. Pride of place, though, must be given to XTC, the cult post-punk band best known for the single Making Plans for Nigel(1979).It details the concerns of a pair of anxious parents about the future of their young son, which they intend to solve by pushing him into a career with British Steel. The company responded to the song by interviewing four Sheffield employees named Nigel about their levels of job satisfaction for its trade magazine Steel.

Coincidentally, Nigel is the first name of Tom’s chief engineer, a highly skilled man who says he’ll make his own plans thanks very much.

I heart Swindon, by Tom Faulkner