Great Stones Way 1 - Swindoniad
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
Swindon, I suppose, is a town not entirely without its small reserves of cultural capital. Aside from its importance as a railway centre, it was home to the inexplicably neglected Victorian writer, Richard Jeffries, features in the novels of Jasper Fforde and spawned XTC. Still, its reputation for being boring, ugly and dull - Arthur Sullivan's description of Parsifal , as it happens - seems impregnable.
I am resuming Typee Valley activities from a Swindon hotel room, just across the road from the Richard Jeffries Museum, which is lodged in his house on the edge of Coate Water Country Park. In a moment I will offer up my modest attempt to prove that those who pass through Swindon on their way somewhere else, or merely stop off to do business in the uninspiring centre, are as wrong about the place as the composer of The Mikado was about late Wagner.
But first, a quick explanation / grovelling apology for two months of total silence. It seems that I simply can't get into the swing of doing diary-like blog posts. The pieces I have started - and I did start something about the cult of Virginia Woolf, something intemperate about cinematic depictions of dementia, and something about the current state of the musical - all began brightly enough, before rambling away at unseemly length. This might not have mattered had I had the leisure of late to give them concentrated attention and shape them properly. Alas, work and other commitments have come crashing down about me in a vengefully disruptive manner.
But, back to Swindon. And for me, back to Swindon for the first time in over half a century. On the last day of the 1960s - yes, that very same sleety day that Withnail and anonymous friend motored back into London from the wretched wilds of Wales - my father moved the family from Swindon to Sunbury-on-Thames, where my mother still lives. I was nine years old at the time and I'm not sure I have ever entirely forgiven him. Sunbury is a harmless enough place, I suppose, close to the capitol but still retaining some village atmosphere. As a teenager, however, I found it stultifying. Even going back there as an adult, I fail to find much of charm or interest. There are two long parallel roads leading down to a modest stretch of riverside, much of the view obscured by houses whose basements flood every time the river rises - which it does quite often. There is a muddy, flat island accessible by footbridge and an attractive 18th Century church, whose graveyard features in Oliver Twist. The former grounds of Hawke House, home of the Admiral who defeated the French at the battle of Quiberon Bay, now have cows grazing on them and a well tended walled garden with a cafe and gallery housing a tapestry made by local ladies. Of the pubs along this stretch, one refused to serve me until I was well into my 20s (perhaps I should have felt flattered); another (very Irish) establishment refused to serve my Vietnamese friend, presumably because he was Vietnamese. I know this was a long time ago. The back bar of the Magpie Hotel, where Edward Windsor used to hold assignations with a pre-Mrs. Simpson mistress, used to have a certain seedy appeal. Now it is less seedy, but also less appealing.
And that's the tolerable bit. Walk away from the river and all roads lead to Sunbury Cross, which boasts what, for all I know, may still be the largest motorway roundabout in Britain. And if that doesn't thrill you sufficiently, you can promenade beneath it through what must be the safest set of subway passages in Britain. The supernatural stench down there would deter the most desperate of muggers.
Now, I have no doubt that Swindon has its fair share of drabness and desolation. The centre reminded me a bit of Peterborough, where I was the other day, but without the historic buildings to offset the prevailing post-War functionalism. Walking further out, I passed by what looked like some pretty grim brick terraces. However, over the so-called Magic Roundabout in front of Swindon F. C.'s County Ground, things start to improve. I remember being taken here by my father back in 1967 to welcome the then Third Division squad back from Wembley, after their famous defeat of Arsenal in the Final pf the League Cup. The great Don Rogers, whose two extra-time goals secured their victory, ran a sports shop in the town centre and my first pair of miniature football boots proudly bore a copy of his signature. Strolling on, you start to notice that you are in a pleasingly green town, the pavement/cycle-path fringed with sward and trees until, after about half an hour, you arrive at the Lawn Estate. Ascending the mild incline of Windsor Road, I was astonished by how much Proustian "involuntary memory" flooded over me. The current occupants of the house we used to live in will thank me for not identifying it - though I recalled it in startling detail. I do feel free, however, to enthuse about The Lakes - a generous expanse of alternating grassy mounds (still I notice, home to moles) and dense woodland centring on two rather magical tree-fringed pools where I used to catch small aquatic creatures with my fishing net.
It is obviously fruitless to speculate as to how my life would have been different had I continued to grow up here. I can't help feeling, however, that I would have developed far earlier a feel for nature and landscape. It is no accident that Richard Jeffries, whose near mystical evocations of wilderness make him a distinctive - and prophetic - literary voice wandered these spaces. Bevis, the Story of a Boy, still had some currency as a children's classic within my time, whilst After London has a strong claim to being the first ecological disaster novel. F. R. Leavis considered Amaryllis at the Fair a masterpiece, far superior to anything by Thomas Hardy in similar vein. How extraordinary that in this age, when the most banal nature effusions provoke outbursts of gushing critical hysteria, these three books languish out of print. Perhaps it's just that Robert Macfarlane hasn't got around to puffing them.
I wasn't quire as feral as Bevis, but was still lucky enough to have the sort of uninhibited childhood where I could go off on my own, playing outside till dusk during the summer holidays, and later exploring the environs on my first bike. From the age of five I was also doing the short walk from home to school completely on my own, passing a square of green with an oak tree at the centre of it that, I'm pleased to say, appears identical to the image so long stored in my head. I was far from outstanding as a pupil, though lessons generally interested me and I was aware that the school's standards were extraordinarily high. (At school in Sunbury, by contrast, I instantly found myself top of the class. Not a good thing at all, as it encouraged my worst tendencies of arrogance and indolence.)
By the front entrance to my old school, there is still the side-passage that leads onto the top of Windsor Road as it winds out towards the edge of town and Coate Water. Just before reaching the park - again boasting woods, and lakes, as well as a memorably monstrous Art Deco diving platform - there is another glorious expanse of open field, where I remember fairs, circuses, donkey races and other festive gatherings taking place. This evening it glowed in the waning autumn sunlight.
And beyond, the mysterious prehistoric hills of Wiltshire...
Even as a child, I was well aware that this was a special part of the country, with its proximity to some of the most remarkable Neolithic monuments in Europe - if not the world. Avebury 12 Miles proclaims the way-mark just across the road. Tomorrow I will actually walk closer to 16 miles on my way there, as I hope to take in the Iron Age fortress at Barbury. It will form the first part of my trip along the Great Stones Way to Amesbury, just down the road from Stonehenge, where I will be participating in the ongoing excavations at Blick Mead and, yes, even blogging about them.