Secret Swindon by Angela Atkinson Amberley Press, 2018 95 pages, includes bibliography, paperback ISBN 9781445683386 £14.99
The aim of this colourful publication is to prove that Swindon is so much more than you might think; a multi-layered, unique and vibrant town. As a reader you are invited to discover things you never knew, aided by ‘Did you Know’ fact boxes to guide the way.
The book begins with an interesting synopsis of the history of the town before the railway. The stories of Swindon’s major families, writers such as Richard Jefferies, Edith New, Swindon suffragette and houses now lost figure here, alongside secret locations and tips on how to while away a happy hour in the town on a historical theme.
Travel back with the GWR and the amazing feats of its employees to create a healthcare system and some wonderful works of culture; also included are the origins of the Mechanics Institute and Swindon’s aviation history for good measure. Modern Swindon is not overlooked, with architecture, the magic roundabout and the strength of today’s cultural activities being investigated.
Angela’s style is witty, snappy and easy to read, weaving information with a conversational tone reminiscent of her origins as a successful blogger.
The content is a lovely mix of old and new on a multitude of topics that goes to the heart of the character of the town. The images reflect the content and complement the text well.
The aim of the book has indeed been met. It will prove an eclectic revelation to both Swindonians and non-Swindonians alike.
It is available to view at here at the History Centre under ref: SWI.940
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
We are used to looking at a wonderfully rich source of materials in our Local Studies Libraries, Archives and Museums, but how many of you have ever wondered how those books, photographs, newspapers, archive collections and museum objects got there? Some material of course has been collected over many years, some of it gifted and others purchased; while for Archive services material is often deposited but still owned by the depositor. When material comes up for sale, usually at auction, a decision whether to attempt to buy an object or an archive collection is made on case by case basis (with the help of grants from various bodies raised at short notice). Now this can work well, but as you might imagine this is a reactive process rather than proactive; consequently gaps in our collections can emerge. This means that the heritage for future generations is incomplete and does not tell the full story of our communities past and present.
In Wiltshire and Swindon we have been thinking about this problem and looking at how libraries, archives , museums and art galleries can work together to identify and fill significant gaps in our collections; thinking about what we should collect, what do local communities think is important to their heritage, what would we leave for future generations? In particular we have been looking at the heritage of our local creative industries, something that is part of our everyday lives now and has been for past generations, but not always given the full attention it deserves. Now, with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are able to take a strategic approach to collecting materials for our creative industry and, importantly, we have a significant fund to purchase items.
Our Heritage Lottery Funded project to uncover and share stories of the First World War Home Front in Wiltshire http://wiltshireatwar.org.uk/ is now moving into its second phase. Over the summer we have been out and about meeting people, making contacts and starting to identify some of the stories that we will be sharing and preserving. This month, we will be showing volunteers from across the county how to do this work so that they can find out and record more stories from their communities.
Places are filling up fast, but if you are interested in coming along to one of these workshops they are taking place at:
Malmesbury Town Hall, 15 Oct 2pm The Rifles Museum, Salisbury 21 Oct 2pm Trowbridge Town Hall, 27 Oct 2pm
Meanwhile, behind the scenes museum education officers are planning the schools element of the project, which will be starting next year and we are looking at the best options for how we present all the stories. This will be done through exhibitions in libraries, museums, village halls, churches etc as well as on a dedicated website.
That Wiltshire opened its first purpose built library in the town of Melksham. And it was 43 years ago last month that a young Michael Marshman took over as the third town librarian. It was pretty much state of the art at that time – wooden shelves, dark wood block floor, lots of divisions and underfloor heating. When I returned to give the 50th birthday talk I found it transformed into a bright, friendly, and welcoming modern library.
Before launching into my local history talk I reflected on library life in the early 70s. Just like today there were lots of children’s activities – with the help of Children and Schools Librarian, Valerie Fea, I ran a twice weekly Puffin Club for about 70 children with lots of literary activities, competitions and games. We had top children’s authors such as Leon Garfield and Philippa Pearce visiting filling the then exhibition room with an attentive audience.
As part of activity taking place across Wiltshire commemorating 100 years since the First World War, museums in the county have been successful in getting Heritage Lottery funding to deliver an exciting project.
Wiltshire at War: Community Stories will invite communities from across Wiltshire to share their stories, memories and artefacts of the impact the First World War had on the county. Working with local museums and heritage centres these will be recorded, stored and shared to create a picture of how Wiltshire life was affected by the conflict.
Stories will be presented through a series of travelling exhibitions and also a website.
Alongside this schools and libraries will be hosting activities, talks and events, inspired by the stories from the exhibitions.