19th August 2017
The David Murray John Tower
Modernist lines stand proud on Swindon’s skyline
Back in 1950, in his ‘Studies of Swindon’, John Betjeman wrote, apropos of architecture in Swindon, that there was ‘very little architecture in Swindon and a great deal of building’. He then went on to say that ‘Swindon, instead of being a West Country town, looked on its outskirts at any rate, like any industrial town anywhere.’
Implicit in Betjeman’s observation is, I think, the suggestion that Swindon, by sheer dint of its position rubbing shoulders with Bristol and Bath and Cheltenham, should be architecturally similar. But why should it and why would it?
Those three places grew out of very different circumstances to Swindon. The point that Betjeman appears to miss is that Swindon – well the ‘New Swindon’ at any rate – is an industrial town. It was the great GWR industry that brought it into being and it’s its industry that has breathed life into its lungs ever since. So why would it have sweeping Georgian crescents or Regency arcades? Why do we expect it to?
Betjeman made that observation two decades or more before Swindon gained the modern buildings that qualify, in my entirely non-expert opinion, as ‘architecture’. If nothing else their designers are people I’ve heard of: Sir Norman Foster and Sir Hugh Casson – responsible for the Spectrum Building (still known to many as the Renault Building despite Renault being long gone from it) and the Wyvern Theatre respectively.
Betjeman was a lover of, and passionate advocate for, Victorian architecture. And thank goodness for that. Otherwise the nation and the world would have lost the glory that is St. Pancras station in London.
We also have him to thank for the continued existence of our Railway Village. As this 2017 article from The Swindon Advertiser points out: ‘… by the 1960s there were plans to raze the area. And it was only saved following a campaign by famous poet and architecture buff, Sir John Betjemen.
Yet it’s a moot point whether he would’ve approved of the Wyvern Theatre, the Link Centre and Foster’s Spectrum building. Tension structures such as those were of their time. Nevertheless, all of them are architecturally interesting. But perhaps none more so than my particular favourite: the David Murray John Tower.
The DMJ: Modernist Lines on the Swindon Skyline
Often referred to as the Brunel Tower due to its location in the Brunel Centre, this behemoth of a building is in fact named after David Murray John – Clerk of Swindon Borough Council from 1938-1974. Murray John was an energetic politician and his efforts contributed to the influx of small Industry into Swindon following WWII.
It’s an exuberant exclamation mark of a building that proudly proclaims itself across the Swindon skyline. At 83 metres high, the DMJ (along with Old Swindon’s Christchurch) is the master of all it surveys.
The building struck me when I first moved to Swindon and I love it to this day.
Knowing even less at that time about architecture than I do now (and that’s not to say a great deal) it seemed to me to have something of a futuristic feel to it – though I couldn’t pin it to anything more specific than that. It’s only now, having researched the building a little, I understand what my subconscious was relating to.
The architect responsible for the DMJ tower was Douglas Stephen. Sadly, Stephen is now dead, though his name lives on in the Douglas Stephen Partnership.
If your response to that nugget of information is ‘Douglas who?’ you’d be in good company.
Back in 2004, Jonathan Meades (essayist, broadcaster and architecture writer) published an article on Building.co.uk entitled: ‘Five great architects … you’ve never heard of’ in which he writes about a number of architects, Douglas Stephen included, on why they’re so good – and also so neglected.
On the subject of Stephen, Meades has this to say:
‘Yet there was something about the details … The Mount was the first of Douglas Stephen’s buildings I saw. It was completed in 1965, and was entirely out of step with its time: it was at odds with both the fey Festival style and with the sculptural brutalism that was the conventional reaction to the Festival style (and which Stephen had essayed). But Stephen belonged to no school. That, I suspect, is why he is overlooked. The Mount retains its extraordinary freshness. So does his David Murray John Tower in Swindon, that town’s most (only?) striking building, a mini-skyscraper that has affinities to a design of Frank Hampson’s for Dan Dare, Pilot Of The Future.’
I think now that it was the Dan Dare influence that was ringing a very quiet bell in my brain when first my eyes alighted upon the DMJ tower.
Looking to the Future
In 2012, Meades wrote in The Telegraph, about his five favourite buildings
The David Murray John Tower is on that list. He wrote of it: ‘Designed by Douglas Stephen and built in the Seventies, this tower is a sleek, slick return to the smooth white grace of Twenties and Thirties Modernism. It’s a mixed-use building, incorporating social housing, offices and retail, which is rare in Britain. Stephen was a communist and believed in architecture as a power for social good.’
As to whether Stephen’s building achieved that lofty aim I’m not sure. Its intended mixed-use was innovative in its day. But it’s arguable that it turned not to be so workable.
So, with no knowledge of what it’s like to live and work in that building I base my affection for it on its aesthetics and what is so clearly stood for: the future.
It was the intention of the building’s futuristic look to reflect the forward-looking aspirations of the town at the time.
With its curved corners, the design of the building is sleek and sophisticated. It’s clad in stainless steel – an expensive material even then. It makes historical references with its nods to Art Deco and Modernism. Everything about the building makes a statement – it screams at you to look it. Indeed, you can’t avoid looking at it – it’s visible for miles. At night when lights are on inside it, it’s like a land-locked lighthouse.
And some great black and white photos from Chris Eley:
Compare and contrast
Think now to the Whalebridge car park at Kimmerfields in the town centre. Every time I look at that building I think of a stockade, a fort, in a western film. It’s all pointy edges and sharp protruding angles. Even the steel decorative panels inserted into the walls remind me of barbed wire.
side panels in Whalebridge car park – photo by Swindon Driver
This is a structure that’s doing the opposite to the DMJ. Where the former stands proud and tall and proclaims itself, the latter is a building on the defensive. Arguably much like society at the time of writing (2017): austerity, Brexit and more. Pathetic fallacy in architecture.
Kimmerfields car park – photo by Daniel Webb
A Wonder of Swindon
Mr Meades isn’t the only one to find favour with the David Murray John Tower. When talking about this building I ought to mention that the author Jasper FForde, famously invented ‘The Seven Wonders of Swindon.’ And taking the top spot on his list is the ‘Tower of Brunel’:
“Give me a tower to touch the sky!” With those words, city elder Mr David Murray John proposed the building of a skyscraper to give Swindon the skyline it had lacked since the destruction of the Cathedral of St Zvlkx almost five centuries before.’
Given that Fforde’s Seven Wonders of Swindon are set in a futuristic/alternative/parallel universe it’s not hard to think that he knew/recognised what niggled at me: the futuristic look of the thing.
Now. Okay. So the real ‘Tower of Brunel’ doesn’t quite reach the vertigo-inducing heights of Mr Fforde’s invention but a skyline it does give. And yes, there’s an argument that the architect’s intentions didn’t quite come to fruition.
But I still feel that there’s much around this edifice we should laud and applaud. There’s Murray John’s energetic exhortation for a tower to touch the sky. There’s the shining optimism it was built to represent and Ffordes T-I-C yet affectionate tribute.
Then there’s the singular fact that Jonathan Meades, a respected authority on architecture, placed the DMJ on his personal list of five extraordinary buildings. In the world. Keeping company with Marseille Cathedral, the Walhalla Temple in Bavaria, Cothay Manor in Somerset and Edinburgh’s Stewart’s Melville College,
In the year that the Switch on to Swindon campaign launched, the David Murray John Tower is surely a reason, all on its own, to do just that?
12rh August 2017
7 Reasons to Switch on to Swindon
Hello listeners. Here we are in August already. Aargh! Where is the year going to?
Anyway – here we are with another guest post celebrating our lovely town. This time from Julie Nicholls. Julie lives in Old Walcot and runs two businesses: Body Mind Coaching: http://body-mind-coaching.co.uk and Bilingual Babies: https://www.facebook.com/J.K.Nicholls.BilingualBabies/?fref=ts
What I love about this post is that Julie has picked a range of aspects that go a long way to highlighting what is so great about this place. And who knew that Swindon is a brilliant place to home educate your children?
So here’s Julie’s 7 reasons to be switched on to Swindon:
‘I didn’t choose Swindon as a place to live. Rather, I chose my ‘husband to be’ and this is where he lived.
When it came to be time for me to settle in England (which I had wanted to do since I was a child) after an 8-month long distance relationship – and it was long distance back then.The Internet didn’t exist and it took a week for mail to reach Switzerland. So Swindon is where it happened to be.
I was told Swindon was the fastest-growing town in England if not Europe. And though that didn’t appeal to me much, what was welcome was it’s proximity to places I needed to travel to: Blackpool, Belgium and later on Brighton and Devon.
Though I did not choose Swindon as such, I’m happy to call it home – something I never felt in my native Belgium. To be honest I can’t think of anywhere else I could live that gives me what I need in my life right now in the way that Swindon does.
Country lover enjoying town life
I’m not keen on cities. I much prefer being out in the countryside. But as I prefer getting around on my pushbike I don’t want to live out in the middle of nowhere either. Swindon enables me to do just that. I can cycle to most of the places I want to go. The town centre, Old Town, to my gym in Greenbridge, as well as the green spaces which I will expand on later. All this is done mostly off the main roads, even if the cycle tracks are not as well signposted as I’d like. This is a good test of my navigation skills and I always get home though sometimes not the way I was expecting!
1. Swindon: Brilliant business support
When I came to Swindon in 1993 and I could finally start my business, Body Mind Coaching, two things were important then and still are.
Fist was the support I got for my business. It started with Great Western Enterprise and the Chamber of Commerce. This support continued with a whole host of networking groups, especially one I joined more recently, despite knowing about it for almost 10 years: Business Village. In addition there’s been lots of mostly free business training along the way.
2. Swindon: a green town
I mentioned above that one of the great things about Swindon is access to green spaces. So evening walks around The Lawns and cycling to Coate Water are things we do regularly.
3. Swindon an accepting town
Thinking about it now, I realise that although I was a foreigner, (and still get asked where my accent is from) I have felt accepted by the people, even if I might be considered a little strange. This was something I hadn’t felt growing up in Belgium as I was considered a foreigner there for being British.
4. Swindon: a town with lots happening
It’s been wonderful to find groups in Swindon that support my interests outside of work:
– A choir,
-Full moon Relaxation and other activities at Lower Shaw Farm which I discovered through a lovely health food store Pulse
-The death café, which born again Swindonian had mentioned before and which meets every second Tuesday of the month. The death cafe is run by Sue Holden, a civil celebrant and grief recovery specialist.
-And to keep in touch with my French, the Anglo-french club de Swindon, the French Language meet up where Francophiles meet up in Rudi’s bar every other Thursday night for conversations. Then there’s the occasional French film at the arts centre organised by the Swindon film Society for the best in world cinema.
5. Swindon: a great place to raise your family
Swindon has also proved to be a wonderful place to bring up our son.
Thanks to a friend I discovered storytime at many of the libraries, though Central library was the favourite. I got to learn and share some English nursery rhymes with my son as well some stories and other activities. Unbeknown to me at the time, this turned out to be the start my second business, Bilingual Babies ~ Bébés Bilingues.
We make lots of use of all the different play areas and green spaces scattered around the town. The one in Eastern Avenue in Old Walcot and Cambria Bridge along the canal track in town were regular haunts when my son was little. Now that he is able to cycle, Coate water, Lydiard Park, and Angel Ridge are among his favourites.
6. Swindon: great home education network
Last year, we began to consider whether to home educate or not. We were told by a parent in one of the groups that Swindon is one of the best places to home educate as there are loads of activity groups going on where children can socialise and learn all kinds of things depending on their interests. A year on, this has proved to be a great decision and we’re so grateful that Swindon home education has so much to offer.
7. Swindon: offers wide ranging education opportunities
It’s easy to offer a wide education thanks to:
– Art: the museum and art gallery in Old Town which regularly changes its exhibits. And we are looking forward to Swindon Open Studios in September having much enjoyed the Marlborough one this July.
-History and architecture: its railway heritage at the steam Museum and a wonderful tour around the railway village during Heritage weekend.
-Music: Concerts in the Town Gardens and Queen’s park events.
The Mechanics’ Institute Trust: https://mechanics-trust.org.uk
Swindon Civic Voice: http://www.swindoncivicvoice.org.uk
Finally: A child’s perspective
On this note, from a child’s perspective, I’ve been told to mention that Swindon is one of the best places to be, because the Swindon buses have names and my son is very pleased that the new company has kept that going.’ Good work Thamesdown Transport: you’ve got a fan!
27th July 2017
Overview of Swindon’s theatre scene:via Wyvern Theatres’ blog
I have, as you know, over the lifetime of this blog, banged on ad nauseam on here about Swindon’s theatre scene. And arts. And heritage. Culture in general to be honest.
293 posts worth of banging on in fact! And they’re all in here: https://swindonian.me/category/artscultureheritage/ – so take your coat off, make yourself a cuppa and have a root through!
Which is why it’s super fab to share this blog post from the people at the Wyvern Theatre: https://insideswindontheatres.wordpress.com It’s a great blog that deserves a round of …
The blog highlights a stack of Swindon’s theatre activities: the summer youth project – been to some of those. The festival of literature – been to LOTS of those! Panto – #obvs – went to that last year.
Here’s an extract and the link to the rest of the blog is below:
‘We are a proud ambassador of the Switch on to Swindon Campaign, at Swindon Theatres we wanted to share the work that we do and how you can get involved with Swindon’s thriving arts scene. Swindon Theatres is the Wyvern Theatre and The Swindon Arts Centre, we programme 250+ shows including concerts, comedy, dance, drama, musical theatre and local amateur productions every year across both of our venues’
Here’s a direct link to the blog in question:
Find out more about Swindon Theatres here: https://swindontheatres.co.uk/Online/
Follow the Wyvern Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
Follow the Swindon Arts Centre on Facebook, and Twitter
Find out more about Switch on to Swindon here: switchontoswindon.com/
Watch the Switch on to Swindon video here: https://youtu.be/HqBHsjlODDo
23rd July 2017
Poetry in motion: Swindon Diamonds
Oh I love this!
Idly scrolling through Facebook as you do, I came across a video. It’s made by CREATE studios and features Swindon Community poet, Tony Hillier and his poem ‘Swindon Diamonds’. I somehow managed to miss it – never mind, I’ve found it now.
It’s wonderful! Share it far and wide. It needs to be seen!
This article from Swindon Link magazine has a link to the video in it so you can see it and hear it for yourself.
Tony wrote the poem for 2016’s 175 celebrations but now it’s been made into a film by Swindon’s Create studios.
‘A new poem celebrating Swindon in its 175th year as a railway town has been released with an accompanying video.
Swindon Diamonds is read by its creator, community poet Tony Hillier, who performed at many of the key locations mentioned in the poem.
The poem, a celebration of Swindon and its achievements, was commissioned by Swindon and Cirencester-based motor dealer, Pebley Beach as part of the firm’s support of Swindon 175, which marks 175 years since the railway arrived in the town.
It was first performed as part of Swindon Festival of Literature back in September.
The video was filmed and edited by Swindon-based Create Studios.’
Well done to Tony and to CREATE studios. Super, fab, stirring stuff.
21st July 2017
Here we go with another guest post, in the spirit of Switch on to Swindon, written by my AA Editorial Services client Reshma Field – aka Ishbel’s Wardrobe.
Aside from Reshma’s feelings about the town centre I couldn’t agree more! So thanks Reshma for a super positive post about Swindon’s retail offering. Love it.
Swindon shopping – seven reasons why it’s rather good!
Not many people think of Swindon as a great place to shop. So, I’m going to let you all into a little secret … it really is!
And here are seven reasons why:
THE McARTHUR GLEN DESIGNER OUTLET
Swindon is lucky enough to have a great McArthur Glen designer outlet. It’s located in the sympathetically restored Great Western Railway works. And it’s a great place to bag a bargain from some of the high-end high street shops.
It’s all indoors so it’s a lovely shopping experience whatever the weather. If you’re visiting with young children it boasts a brilliant play area – and there’s a mini land train, the Hooter Express.
The shops include: Hobbs, Jigsaw, Reiss and the White Company to name but a handful. Find out more about the brands available at Swindon’s outlet village here, on the McArthur Glen website.
The key, I find, is to go there on a regular basis as you never know when you’ll find a great bargain and the stock changes on a regular basis. There’s a great choice of restaurants and it’s easy to spend the day there.
If you want a small distraction from shopping the area also houses the Swindon Steam Railway Museum and Heelis, the Headquarters of the National Trust which has a delightful coffee shop and, of course, a gift shop.
The terrace of Heelis looking towards the Outlet Centre
NB: The outlet centre is linked to the town centre by a tunnel. It used to be used by the railway workers leaving their homes in the railway village to get to the works.
It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the outlet to the town centre via the tunnel. So, if you’ve the time, the inclination and the energy it’s easy enough to do both. Plus, the tunnel boasts some rather cool art/light picture/sculptures of railway workers across the years.
2. THE ORBITAL SHOPPING PARK
The Orbital in north Swindon is another favourite shopping spot for me. Next, New Look, Marks & Spencer and Outfit all have a presence here.They are large stores so you tend to find great choice in each of them. The Orbital also contains one of the largest Asda Walmarts in Europe. The George at this Asda is huge so there’s always a high chance of grabbing a bargain.
Once again, it’s a pleasant shopping experience and parking is free.
3. GREENBRIDGE RETAIL PARK
This is another firm favourite of mine. If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I love all things Laura Ashley and this is where you will find Swindon’s Laura Ashley as well as a huge Home Sense, Boots and Matalan. I tend to visit for homeware but can’t resist popping into Matalan to make sure I’m not missing out! Again, parking is ample and free.
THE TOWN CENTRE
This is last on the list for Swindon as it’s my least favourite place to shop. However, once you do venture into the town centre and ignore the layout, the parking fees and the lack of ambiance, the shops are more than adequate!
There’s a fab and huge H&M opposite an even larger Debenhams. The River Island is a pleasure to shop in and the New Look and Primark are also huge. I keep mentioning the size of the stores because it means that they have a wide range of stock (something you of course can’t have in smaller branches). It does mean you’re spoilt for choice.
And, when you need some refreshment, there are some super independent coffee shops to rest your legs in. Friend of Ishbel’s Wardrobe, Born again Swindonian has written about some of them on her Swindon blog.
Paolo’s Italian deli – & coffee!, Swindon
By now I hope you’re getting the point! Swindon is a fab location for shopping. The combined retail offerings of the town are jolly good! But what if you want to spread your wings a little and go out and about for your retail therapy?
Out and about
The beauty of Swindon is that it is also close to so many other great places to shop. Marlborough is a favourite for me.
Marlborough is a beautiful, historic market town with boutique shops as well as the likes of Joules, Mint Velvet, Monsoon and Phase Eight to name but a few.
I LOVE a day out in Marlborough broken up by the obligatory cream tea. And now that Rick Stein has opened a restaurant there it’s a firm favourite for me as a location to shop – not that I’m food driven at all!.
Only an hour away, by car, is the Bicester Village Designer Outlet.
This McArthur Glen set shopping location boasts over 130 boutique outlets including All Saints, Burberry, Gucci and Jimmy Choo. I’m drooling already! So, if you want a real treat, this is the place to go and grab yourself a designer bargain. It’s also a great place to people watch!
BATH, CRIBBS CAUSEWAY & CABOT CIRCUS (both Bristol), THE ORACLE (Reading), OXFORD & LONDON
With Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Reading and London not much more than a stone’s throw away you’re never far from a wonderful shopping experience when you live in Swindon. In fact, you’re spoilt for choice. I often have to flip a coin to decide where I’ll spend my day enjoying a little retail therapy!
For other posts in this ‘I’m in a great place right now’ see: https://swindonian.me/category/switch-on-to-swindon/
Sandra Trusty, The Fab Gift Boutique: https://swindonian.me/2017/07/15/discovering-swindon/
Jo Rigden, 4Points Leisure: https://swindonian.me/2017/06/29/dragon-boat-racing/
Carol Aplin, Pink&Green: https://swindonian.me/2017/06/24/nature-in-swindon/
Tim Perkins, Wild Goose Gear: https://swindonian.me/2017/05/29/kings-farm-wood-walk/
12th July 2017
With the Switch on to Swindon initiative in mind I’ve been asking friends and clients of AA Editorial Services to write guest blogs for me sharing their Swindon stories. This time we have Sandra Trusty who is owner of the Fab Gift Boutique, an event/wedding venue stylist and personalised gift shop.
I think it’s fair to say that some people pitch up in Swindon because it turns out to be the only place for miles around where they can afford to buy. This, I think, was the case for Sandra. But don’t quote me on that!
As she describes, she came up against the prejudices about Swindon with which we’re so familiar. But! Sandra has been out and about getting to know Swindon.
She’s discovered Nordic walking on The Lawns – who knew?! Sandra is also a big fan of Fenella Elms’ flow pot. I can’t lie – it gives me the eebie geebies. *Shudders* Though I can appreciate its technical brilliance. You can see the flow pot below in the rather fab image she did for the recent Civic Day ‘I care about where I live campaign’ run by Swindon Civic Voice.
I’m rather fond of that Swindon Jubilee clock too I have to say.
Thanks Sandra for your delightful account of discovering Swindon. It’s just the sort of thing we Born again Swindonians love to hear!
Carol Aplin, Pink&Green Skincare: Nature on my doorstep – Swindon’s abundance of nature
Jo Rigden, 4Points Leisure: https://swindonian.me/2017/06/29/dragon-boat-racing/ – the charity dragon boat racing event on Coate Water
Tim Perkins, Wild Goose Gear: http://swindonian.me/2017/05/29/kings-farm-wood-walk/ – a walk near Wroughton
‘We moved to Swindon back in 2014. We had lots of comments about why were moving here, there is nothing in Swindon except the Swindon Outlet Centre, so what were we going to do with ourselves. How wrong were these detractors!
We settled in and went through the painful renovation process. Oh the dust and dirt and many many trips to the local DIY shops. One consequence of being a frequent visitor to any establishment is that they get to know you. Because of this we were able to get help with a multitude of issues we faced in our new job as “excited fixer-uppers” Thankfully it’s over now and we can now get time to explore Swindon and its localities.
I love Yoga and have found a fab class located in the Dojo Café. The class is run by Eunice, a really caring teacher who can make my joints and limbs think and do wonderful things
At the launch of one of the Swindon Open Studios I discovered the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and was transfixed when I saw the display cabinet containing a piece by Fenella Elms. I could stand and stare at her flow pot for hours, following the ebb and flow of the lines and images and forms the pot creates. My imagination runs riot as I stand and explore the forms of this pot. It’s totally beautiful and I’m so glad the Swindon museum and art gallery has acquired it. Pop along to the museum and have a look. See if it floats your boat.
I’m amazed that I can just walk into someone’s garden and find street art. And this is in fact what you can do. In West Swindon, part of the West Swindon Sculpture Trail, there’s a front garden with a stone carving of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle” on show. You can drive or walk past and admire it. I’m told you can go right into the garden to get a closer look. I haven’t done that yet, but one day!
The countryside in and around Swindon is amazing. I love driving around and not being surrounded by concrete. I drove from Swindon to Pewsey recently and discovered some fabulous countryside out there. We’ve also discovered the Cotswold water park and took a long leisurely Sunday afternoon walk along the towpath and getting sort of lost.
There’s some excitement in not knowing where you are going to end up. Then finding your way and joining the dots to link one place to another and realizing you weren’t lost after all. I hope I never become de-sensitised to the beauty around me.
Talking of the outdoors and countryside, I’ve also discovered that Swindon has a Nordic Walking group that meets on a Saturday morning and also twice in the week. I first heard about this sort of walking exercise about 10 years ago but only just had the opportunity to take it up. I’ve met some lovely people in the group and discovered The Lawns – a fabulous green space right in the middle of Swindon. It has hills and valleys and lakes, woodlands and wildlife right here in the middle of town. So I Nordic walk up and down and around on a Saturday morning and then retire with the rest of the group for a very restorative coffee/tea/hot chocolate. We sit outside a coffee shop at the top of Wood Street in Old Town, enjoying our drinks and spend the next five minutes putting the world to rights.
It’s a great way to start a Saturday and leaves me energised for the rest of the day. The people I’ve met have been open and welcoming and have amazed and delighted me with their kindness and generosity. From my neighbours who welcomed us to the area to total strangers. There was the lady who bought a teddy for a little girl in the queue behind her and the young man who gave me his phone charger because he had just bought a new phone – I needed a charger and he had one spare.
I have lots more to discover about Swindon and am looking forward to it.’
Here’s some super pictures from Sandra of her yoga class and her comrades in the Nordic walking:
The website for Nordic walking UK: https://nordicwalking.co.uk