A New World in the New Town; the Cultural Heritage Institute
By Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons)

Swindon’s Cultural Heritage Institute

Swindon is Britain’s only large town with no university. There is a university in Gloucester, a university in Reading and TWO universities in Bath. And they even have a university in Oxford – who knew?

But not in Swindon. Yet that has now changed.

Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute
Swindon’s Cultural Heritage Institute

The Cultural Heritage Institute

Just recently the Cultural Heritage Institute opened. This is the Royal Agricultural University’s new branch dedicated to heritage and its environment.

They offer a selection of postgraduate courses. The courses on offer range from the conservation and management of historic buildings, to the historic environment management.

The Royal Agricultural University

The Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, founded in 1845, had an initial aim of improving the efficiency of agricultural yields. These being the years after the Irish potato famine.

At the present time this aim has undergone modification in response to future potential problems. Issues such as climate change, sustainability and conservation. Heritage is also a conservation discipline and so is a natural continuation of such schemes.

The Locale and Environment

Windows inside the carriage works - Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute
Windows inside the carriage works

The Carriage Works are part of the globally famous GWR Railway Works. Built in the 1870s, the Carriage Works, as the name suggests, existed to construct the railway carriages in. Their purpose was not so much heavy ironworks, but woodwork and upholstery. The workers wheeled the carriages through the department on tracks. The bare frame went in at one end and the completed product came out at the other end.

This was in fact, an early production line system – forty years before Henry Ford’s innovation.

Another innovation was the roof, prefabricated from iron and bolted together. It is a fast and lightweight construction. This interesting modern roofing is open for all to admire.

Roof space in Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute
Roof space in Swindon’s Cultural Heritage Institute

One of the buildings was demolished many years ago to make room for Bristol Street car park. Sad yes, but parking spaces are lacking in the area. Yet Shops Number 7 and Number 8 are still intact and currently used by light industry.

The Carriage works enjoys a convenient location between the retail Outlet Centre and the railway village, filing in this gap. It is within convenient reach of organisations such as the National Trust HQ, Heelis, and the offices of English Heritage. It is an ideal spot for such a specialised institution.

Redeveloping the building has been a seven year journey. One that has only recently come to an end. Or, should I say, a new beginning?


The inside is set out in boxes. There’s a laboratory and classroom, surrounding a lecture hall. On top there is an IT suite and a class dedicated to mapping and drawing. You could say the hall runs around the outside with seating areas and a library. This arrangement centralises the space while providing spaces dedicated to different activities, including tea breaks and socialisation.

Library area Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute
Compute space in the CHI - Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute


Technology is at the forefront of the work of the CHI. Since archaeology has recently got official recognition as a STEM subject. I studied archaeology as a science, whereas most students take it as a humanity.

This wonderful new development has cost £1.35 million. That’s a fraction of what a new purpose built property would have set back the RAU. But reusing a redundant building is not only good for Heritage aims and environmental costs, it saves money too.

Lecture space in the CHI - Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute
Lecture space in the CHI

This building is being redeveloped as part of the wider Heritage Action zone. To press, only the CHI have settled in their comfortable new home. Other organisations with similar aims, such as the University of Bath will be moving in soon.

The location of the CHI is central in Swindon being convenient to the town centre, the railway and bus station. It also has plenty of free parking. Further, the flat above the Baker’s café is being refurbished for short term lets for young people. Thus providing accommodation for students.

The future

What does this new institution mean for the people of Swindon? Well, as yet it is only postgraduate courses on offer, in collaboration with the wider field of local heritage. There will be even more adventures in heritage in future. When will I see you there?

The official opening of Swindon's Cultural Heritage Institute
The official opening of Swindon’s Cultural Heritage Institute

All pictures by the author except the last.


Carriage Works No. 7 Shop CARRIAGE WORKS NO 7 SHOP, Central Swindon South – 1023506 | Historic England

Cultural Heritage Institute Cultural Heritage Institute | Royal Agricultural University (rau.ac.uk)

Royal Agricultural University Royal Agricultural University (rau.ac.uk)

Swindon Heritage Action Zone Swindon Heritage Action Zone | Historic England

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