The 2013 poetry bus and community poet Tony Hillier

The 2013 poetry bus and community poet Tony Hillier – Picture courtesy of Festival Chronicles

The moment I saw the double-decker bus in the car park of The Sun Inn at Coate, I was transported back to my formative years. The colours were different, this bus being blue and cream, whilst the Retford 1 and the Sheffield 3 (I think that was the number) were red – ‘proper’ bus colours in my opinion.  But all the other features were pretty much the same: the long strip along the ceiling that was the bell, the anything-but-ergonomic vinyl upholstered seats with chromium handles across the back of them; the steep steps to climb onto the bus – no wheel-chair friendly, push-chair friendly, hydraulic platforms lowering to pavement level in those days I can tell you. Something I am quite bitter about actually…

So what was this double-decker TARDIS then? This, dear readers, was the 2013 poetry bus and surely a fixture now on the Swindon Poetry Festival timetable as it takes its annual venture into versification?

We were a mixed bunch of passengers waiting to board Thamesdown Transport’s vintage Daimler double-decker bus, ranging in age from dotage to babyhood. Rather than a peaked cap the ‘conductor’ on this journey, community poet Tony Hillier, wore a Panama hat and, instead of a ticket-machine, was equipped with boundless enthusiasm with which he guided us passengers through two hours of word juggling and heritage. Aiding and abetting, like a modern-day ‘Mr Memory‘, with his wealth of historical knowledge of Swindon was Graham Carter, editor of the splendid Swindon Heritage magazine.

The time-machine analogy is an appropriate one. Not only were we treated to, and participated in, songs and poems as we majestically motored along – causing some fabulous traffic chaos to boot – Graham Carter’s knowledge of Swindon past took us on a figurative if not literal, journey back in time.

So as the bus pulled out of the Sun Inn car park and we began our mystery tour we were treated, by one of the older passengers, to a comic song bewailing the desire to travel and the pleasures of staying on the farm. Following swiftly on from that, the conductor got everyone involved in the first of several ’rounds’ of ‘The Wheels on the bus’. Well, what else could it be?

With a great deal of historical information being shared as we made our way, one of the first physical places we stopped at was 210 Marlborough Road which was the home of one Diana Fluck – later to be transformed into Britain’s own blonde bombshell, Diana Dors. From there we were soon in Swindon’s Old Town where we took a look at the statue of a ram standing where the cattle market used to be. It’s a curious thing that the name ‘Swindon’ essentially means ‘pig hill’ from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Swine’ and ‘Dun’, yet most of the livestock trade was actually cattle.  This stopping point led to much reminiscing from passengers old enough to remember, about how, on market days, the pubs opened at 4am for the drovers. And yet binge drinking is apparently a new thing? I think not.

The ram sculpture on the site of the cattle market

The ram sculpture on the site of the cattle market

So on we went, past the ruins of a once lovely building that has, at various times in its history been a corn exchange, a town hall, the Locarno ballroom, a cinema and a roller-rink: a place where many great names have played in years past. Similarly in the much-missed McIlroy’s dept store. The historical information was flowing fast on this Thamesdown Transport time-machine.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog how rich Swindon is in parks and green spaces but I didn’t realize just how rich; I learned that there are 200 green spaces in the town and moreover, we are never further than one street away from a green space. So if nothing else smashes they myth that Swindon is a soulless urban conurbation that fact should. On the subject of green spaces, as we drove past such a one at Mannington we were all quite excited to hear that none other than Buffalo Bill Cody took his show there in 1903. Imagine that? From the Wild West to West Swindon!

And so we went on. Learning and singing ‘We’re all going on a Summer Holiday’ – well it had to happen didn’t it? A ride on a vintage double-decker bus without that is unthinkable.  In between songs and poems we were fed a varied diet of all things Swindon related. We heard about Alfred Williams the ‘Hammerman’ poet; the unpleasant odour that some of GWR staff carried round with them from working on the upholstery; that in 1860 the first UFO was spotted in Taunton Street and how 1819 saw a flag-pole riot when: ‘…..A mob of disgruntled ex-soldiers burned the flagpole down and at one stage were seen marching down Regent Street, intent on using the remains of it as a battering ram……’ I won’t lie – I rather like the idea of that. Then there was The Magic Roundabout, Steam Museum; Heelis, the HQ of the National Trust; a song about Arkell’s beer and a story and a nursery rhyme from young Milo.

As our journey ended and we pulled back into the Sun Inn car park we were treated to a final song, with audience participation of course, called Grandfather’s Ale which went to the tune of ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’.

I have it on good authority that there will be another poetry bus in Swindon’s 2014 poetry festival so, for the ride of your life, in the immortal words of Sir Fred Pontin: ‘book early’!

NB: You can read much more about the  Swindon of yesteryear on ‘Swindon in the Past Lane’ and ‘Goodgentlewoman’ – two excellent historical blogs as well as, of course, the Swindon Heritage Magazine.

For an alternative account of this event and for reviews of other events of the 2013 Swindon festival of poetry check out the fab Festival Chronicle.

Go here for Sabine Coe’s picture gallery of the trip.