Some recollections of an “old” Swindonian
Tuesday 6th January
Happy new year listeners! I hope that the festive season was kind to you and that 2015 will bring you some good things.
So here we are at the start of a new blogging year for Born again Swindonian. Last year was a successful one for this Swindon-centric blog, amassing 30,000 views in 2014 and 40,000 since it began. I’m kicking off this new blogging season with a guest post from Gill Thomas of Contemporary Botanicals. I met Gill at the German style Christmas market at Freshbrook Evangelical church – and a very lovely event it was too. Anyway, I was chatting to Gill at her stall and telling her all about the blog etc and she agreed to do a guest post for me. As an actual Swindonian she has written a delightful ‘memoir’ of some of her recollections of growing up in Swindon. I love the idea of the GWR hooter going off at New Year’s Eve. I’ve long thought it would be wonderful to have that sounded again for special occasions. And how sweet that there used to be illuminations in Queen’s Park – back in the day before fairy lights and garden lights were commonplace. That sounds just so delightful. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m sure you will too. Thanks Gill.
‘Genuine Cockneys are said to be born within the sound of Bow Bells and I believe that genuine Swindonians are born within the sound of the Great Western hooter! I was. I put in my first appearance in the Kingshill Maternity Home and from the top of that hill you could see the machine sheds of the works all along the far end of Wootton Bassett Road behind the rec’. Every day, over a wide area (even in Lydiard), you could hear the hooter; it summoned men to work in the mornings, declared the dinner break and return, then finally the end of working day at 4:30. At 12:30 my grandfather, who was a boilermaker, walked briskly from the works through the alley from Dean Street and up Kingshill where his cooked dinner was waiting for him. Just before the hooter went again just after 1:00 for the return to work, he’d put on his cap, tuck a mint called a Long Tom in his mouth and walk briskly back to work. He did this without fail every day until he retired at 65.
The other unique thing about the hooter was that on New Year’s Eve it would sound at midnight and there were detonators placed on the line at the works which would explode. Weather permitting, all the house doors would be opened to hear this – wonderfully exciting big bangs for a child who was allowed to stay up late for that one night! Then Dad would Act as First Foot, letting out the old year and inviting in the New Year.
As a child growing up in the town in the 50s and early 60s, virtually everyone you knew had a family member “inside”. This didn’t mean that the town was a centre of criminality – “inside” was shorthand for the Great Western works. You kept clear of Sheppard Street, Rodbourne Road and Park Lane when the hooter went otherwise you’d have been mown down by thousands of bikes as the men left work.
Our summer holidays started earlier than most other English schools because of “Trip”. We broke up on the first Friday in July because “Trip” was the annual factory shut down which began then. A lot of works’ employees received free passes or “privs” – rail tickets they used for their holidays. My grandparents went to stay in far off locations (ha!) such as Blackpool and Llandudno and I remember vividly meeting them on the station when they returned when there was always a stick of rock for me. Despite all the changes to the town in the years since then, walking through the tunnel at the station to get up to the platforms remains exactly the same experience – it even smells the same.
During the summer holidays we played out all day, every day. We had trikes, bikes, roller skates, home-made stilts and lots of trees to climb along the old canal which, of course, is now Fleming Way from Jury’s Hotel to the Magic Roundabout. I once got stuck up a tree and was humiliated when my mother had to come and rescue me. I drove past that tree for many years often thinking of that little six year old tomboy. By the way, there was a small farm where the fire station is now – can you imagine!
I had a wonderfully happy childhood. Marvellous teachers in our local schools gave me a classical academic education that has stood me in good stead ever since. The town itself was bustling with a variety of shops –the old Regent Street was a world away from the current one – such memories! I was an avid member of the Junior Library which was situated at the top of Regent Street behind Martins bank and I have the dubious claim of being asked to leave on one occasion when I was found guilty of having a mouthful of Black Jacks! The Reference Library situated in the Town Hall was highly revered and way beyond a child’s reach. Saturday morning pictures at either the Gaumont or the Savoy were an absolute must, lustily belting out Land of Hope and Glory every week!
Then there was the Queens Park. Every September, it staged illuminations which were simply lights among the plants, something which a great many have in their gardens these days but back then it was a real event. We would dress smartly – best clothes – and walk around with our parents at dusk, quite entranced by this spectacle.
In terms of history, these years are merely a heartbeat away but these recollections read like something from the “olden days” and I suppose to the younger generation that’s exactly what they are and long gone. Some things, however, do remain from my childhood and I’m very happy to report that the specimen that was a must-see is still in residence in the Museum – the stuffed crocodile! It’s nice to know he and I are still here.’