Wednesday 14th May 2014

Swindon Arts Centre: The Bradford Hall

Last night I was in the Arts Centre for the first time in ages for a Swindon Festival of Literature event. And I haven’t attended anything in that for 3 years as it’s always clashed with summer exam time. But having sat my final, final exam the previous day I was up there! As ever, when I visit either of the theatres in Swindon, the Wyvern or the Arts Centre I have cause to reflect on how fortunate we are in Swindon to have two such fabulous theatre venues.

So long is it since I was in there and so absorbed have I been in my degree studies that the transformation of this 200 seater, intimate theatre into a local cultural hub had passed me by.  There is now an improved cafe and bar area and the Old Town library is now located in there too. In addition a new studio space has been created for small-scale cultural events. Much more can be read about all of that on Swindon Web.

So it’s all really great to see the Arts Centre at the hub of the local community and I can see how positive that is for all concerned. But I can’t lie. I do really miss the old bijou, unreconstructed Arts Centre that had a vintage condom machine dispensing boxes of art for £1. I flipping loved that. I still have several of those bits of art from that vending machine randomly arranged in a 3D box with a perspex front. Please can we bring back the art boxes?!

applause arts centre
‘Applause’ – at Swindon Art’s Centre

Management of the Arts Centre has recently been moved from Swindon Borough Council to the same hands that manage the Wyvern Theatre – so here is a complaint: £5.70 for a glass of wine?!! Seriously – this is Swindon not the bloody Home Counties. It’s too much and it’s taking the p!ss.

But over-priced vino collapso aside the Arts Centre is well worth a visit as they have an excellent programme of events. There’s parking only 5 minutes walk away and Old Town has a plethora of bars, cafes, and restaurants. Who knows – you might get a glass of wine somewhere that costs less than the price of a bottle…?

Opened in 1956 as the Arts Centre it’s as old as me in that particular manifestation- blimey! But being the home of the Arts Centre was not the building’s first role in Swindon life. The Bradford Hall, as it was known, was originally a dance hall. Other than that though there is a some interesting wartime history linked to the building.

Swindon local have a picture of a ticket to the opening ceremony which you can see here.

Swindon Web carry a great article in their Swindon History section about the presence of Amerian Servicemen in and around Swindon during the war. It’s a really interesting article which I urge you to read so I won’t quote it verbatim but will just share this snippet of information about the military unit, the 203rd General Hospital which was set up to tend to casualties of the second world war Normandy campaign: Its staff of more than 600 stopped off in Swindon for a month in the run-up to D-Day (June 6, 1944), and their written memories, which were first published in print in the 1990s but are now partly available online, paint a vivid picture, from an American perspective, of life in Britain during the war … While personnel were dispersed to their billets, an administrative headquarters was set up at 25 High Street (which no longer exists). But the Bradford Hall in Devizes Road – then a dance hall and destined to become Swindon Arts Centre in 1956 – became the staff’s main focus, particularly as three tents were erected as a temporary mess, on land behind the hall.’ 

So knowing that, the next time I visit the place I will have a whole new perspective on it.