Sunday, 28 December 2008

Stained Glass in Christchurch

Out walking around Old Town today, I happened past the Old Lady on the Hill, the familiar landmark of Christchurch. I wrote about Christchurch on Christmas Eve last year see: so will not duplicate that again. Today, however, I wandered into Swindon's most famous church with the intention of looking at any stained glass that may be inside. I quietly walked around and what a treat it was. Most of the glass is traditional; there is a magnificent nativity window, a detail from which is above; also a beautiful contemporary window which was made by stained glass artist John Hayward in 1987 to replace a window which had been vandalised.

Posted below is a selection of the windows - one of Swindon's hidden treasures which I recommend to anyone who wishes to spend a few reflective moments in this lovely church.

The above window was made and donated in 1987 by stained glass artist John Hayward FSMGP. He has beautiful windows in churches all over London and in Sherbourne Cathedral where he lived until his death in May 2007.

A detail from a window made in remembrance of Fitzroy Pleydell Goddard - it was the Goddard family who donated the hill-top site for the church built in 1851 (architect Sir George Gilbert Scott).

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Lydiard Park - archaeological survey

The view of Lydiard House (West Swindon) from the wooded area on the far side of the park.
English Heritage are currently undertaking a full archaeological survey of Lydiard Park using their Total Station Theodolite which takes measurements with millimetre accuracy from which it is possible to draw a map of the archaeological features in the park. The Lydiard Park project aims to restore the 18th century landscape but in order to do so it is important to understand all the earlier and more recent phases of the park's evolution. So far they have discovered evidence ranging from agricultural use during the Medieval period to hut platforms, roads and boundaries associated with the World War 2 military which once occupied the Lydiard events and sports field.
Reflections - from the bridge leading to the wooded walk

The frozen lake at Lydiard Park - a flock of seagulls sitting on the ice in the cold sunlight

The painted window at Lydiard House

The exquisitely detailed painted window can be found in the apse of Lady Diana Spencer's dressing room at Lydiard House. The window is truly beautiful as each diamond shape contains a unique painting of intricate detail. Created by Dutch artist Abraham van Linge in the 17th century who also made the stained glass window in St Mary's Church at Lydiard Tregoze; to view the window in greater detail click on picture to enlarge it. Under the window stands a rare and beautiful Socchi desk - there are apparently only three known to survive and the other two are both in Florence.
Lady Spencer was an artist in her own right and painted delicate floral designs for Wedgewood China.
Note: Lady Spencer was an ancestor of Princess Diana being her great, great, great, great, great, Aunt.

This detail of a boat with a half furled sail was the signature of Abraham van Linge and appears on all his stained glass windows.

A detail from the embroidered bed cover in the guest room at Lydiard House which replicates the the diamond pictures of the window.

The bed in the guest room at Lydiard House

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Evening falls on Clifton Street

The corner of Clifton Street and Radnor Steet in Kingshill area of town, as the winter sun goes down. The building on the corner used to be a dairy and across the road (where I stand to take the picture) is a building that looks as though it may have once been a stable. Across the road on Radnor Street stands a red brick building that was once Clifton Street Primary School - now a small electonics workshop. A slightly ramshackle part of town that holds clues to the history of 'new' Swindon as it spread uphill with the coming of the Great Western Railway. My own small house, which is nearby, was built in 1884.

Clifton Street today - not hard too hard to imagine how it might have been when the terraced houses were still quite new, a century a so ago. Corner shops; horse drawn delivery carts and homes that did not need to be locked.

Overlooking the back gardens of Clifton Street through the railings of Radnor Street Cemetery. The winter sun sinking fast even though it is only mid afternoon. A half moon is visible in the clear cold sky. Later as I return home in the early evening, it is dark and crisp with a thick frost forming on the pavements.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Inside the historic old Town Hall

The marble statue of Charlotte Corday in the foyer of Swindon Dance
Today I wandered into the old Town Hall (see previous post 'The Old and the New') which is now occupied by Swindon Dance - I must start by thanking Barbara, working on reception, for showing me around and giving me the history of the wonderful marble statue that is by the entrance. The statue was carved in the 19th century by MICH' IORETTI and was donated to Swindon Borough council by Alderman Powell, a great supporter of the arts, sometime between the wars.
Here is the fascinating history of Charlotte Corday (1768-1793):
Charlottle Corday was born at Saint-Saturnin, France on July 27th 1768 - she considered herself devoted to the 'enlightened' ideals of her time but was a supporter of the monarchy when the French Revolution began in 1789.
As the revolution progressed, factions arose within the national convention. Corday favoured the more moderate Girondins rather than men such as Marat and Robespierre who wanted to destroy the monarchy. The Girondins were expelled from the convention in early summer 1793 and took refuge at Caen - Corday then went to Paris and devised a plan to gain access to Marat where, on July 13th 1793, she stabbed him in the heart while he was in the bath-tub. She was immediately apprehended and executed on July 17th 1793.
Edit made 8/12/08: Graham Carter who has helpfully commented on this blog in the past sent me the lyrics to an Al Stewart/Tori Amos song - called Charlotte Corday: Thank you once again Graham for your input and knowledge, here are the lyrics.

If you hear a step upon
Your stair tonight
If you see a shadow in
The candle light
It's only your imagination
Leading you astray
See her for a moment
Then she'll slip away
The ghost of Charlotte Corday
She wanders down the hallway
In a long black dress
And lingers by the fireplace
Like a faint caress
Just what it is that brings her here
No man alive can say
See her for a moment
Then she melts away
The ghost of Charlotte Corday
Stars in the window like a panoply
Covering everything
River of night
Stars in the window
See them shining for
Anyone else, anyone else
The clock ticks in the dark and now
The night is still
The air is like a murmur
On the window sill
All at once there's someone there
That only you can see
Seeking the forgiveness
That will set her free
The wind has taken away
The words she wanted to say
The sky is now turning grey
The dawn is turning away
The ghost of Charlotte Corday

The beautiful stained glass windows on the staircase

This historic panel holds the names of all the fallen local men who died in the First World War. The inscription at the top reads: "Their glory shall not be blotted out. Their name liveth forevermore"

The mural over the door of the dance studio, Nature - Mother of the Arts. Painted by an artist named Carleton Atwood in 1979. So far, I have been unable to discover anything further about the artist.

The dance space studio - light and airy with high ceilings and mirrors reflecting in mirrors.

Barbara from the reception desk kindly took me down to the basement where there were two 'safe' rooms with heavy lead doors. The building was something of a labyrinth with a winding staircase hidden at the back of the building - I think it led to the clock tower but this part of the building is closed to visitors.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

The old and the new

The Town Hall in Regent Circus
Next to the new library is Swindon's Victorian Town Hall. Still the dominant building of the town though now longer used as the town hall (now a dance studio). With the coming of Brunel's Great Western Railway works in the early 1840s 'new' Swindon gradually started to be built, starting with the Railway Village. For quite a few years this was separate from the original Swindon now known as Old Town. As 'new' Swindon grew, the gap between the two communities closed, linked together by Victoria Road, Eastcott Hill, Kingshill Road and even the hillside cemetery behind Radnor Street which served both the 'old' and 'new' towns. The 'new', as it then was, is now part of Swindon's history - sadly much of it has disappeared with the 'progress' of the 1960s when many of the terraced streets and red-brick Victorian buildings were demolished to make way for roads and modern buildings.
The Town Hall was built in 1891 - here is what Mark Child says about it in his excellent illustrated History of Swindon:
"Here was the New Swindon Local Board making a statement in 1891, with a building that dominated the Swindon sky-line, in a position that was also clearly visible from Old Town .......From the moment it was built, the New Swindon Town Hall became a vocal point for large outdoor meetings and places where visiting worthies were displayed to the people. The Town Hall clock has been known to chime eccentrically over the years, once in the 1960s striking 24 times at three o'clock in the afternoon. Eventually, local government outgrew the building and it was removed to the Civic Offices, built for the purpose in 1938."
Note: Today many of the 1960s buildings have been demolished as the town's council seeks to regenerate the town centre - hopefully the old Town Hall and the new library will continue to stand side by side as an example of how the new can (in the hands of skilled architects) compliment the old.

Swindon's new library

View of the new library from the crossing going towards Victoria Hill
The new Central Swindon Library

The stairs leading to the second floor
Hidden Swindon has mainly been about the places I walk around the the town, places are generally best accessed by foot. Here is another wonderful place - no secret and definitely not hidden.
Swindon's new rotunda central library - a building any town would be proud of, beautiful inside and out. I usually head for the 'quiet' second floor where the ancient history section is.
Many thanks for the two comments, much appreciated. To answer Sean's question, the new Central Library replaces the prefab building that was (according to Swindon Web) on the site for 30 years. In fact there had been a smaller prefab building on the site since the 1950s so the old hut served Central Swindon as a library for well over 50 years.
Edit: 4/12/08 - Just came across an excellent article by Mark Child in January's edition of Wiltshire Life - recommended.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Croft Wood in November rain

A carpet of beech leaves - soft and springy underfoot

One of the more mature trees in the wood - now almost leafless

I realised today that I have neglected some of my favourite places around 'old' Swindon. Croft Wood is a joy and has appeared on this Blog many times. Full of bluebells in the spring, today it was carpeted with autumn leaves. A magical 'hidden' little wood tucked away between Croft Sports Ground and Pipers Way - this part of Swindon is a patchwork of copses and footpaths through strips of woodland. What a beautiful place it must have been just half a century ago before the motorway, corporate headquarters and the upmarket hotel.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

No! to the Coate Development - update

(photo taken in January this year)
The 'Council Oak' at Coate Water - the same tree featured in Richard Jefferies novel 'Bevis, the story of a boy'. Richard Jefferies was born at Coate in 1848 and died in 1887.
Below is a reproduction of a photo that appeared in yesterday's Swindon Advertiser
The land by Coate Water Country Park
Permission has been given by the editor of the Swindon Advertiser to reproduce in part the following report and the above picture.
Yesterday's Swindon Advertiser (12/11/08) ran a 'good news' story on its front page under the headline: No! Not In Our Backyard. Report by James Wallin (Political Reporter).

Plans to dump 1,500 houses close to a local beauty spot have been condemned by Swindon Councillors. An application to build on land near Coate was branded a "travesty" by planning committee members at a meeting last night. An appeal by the developers, the Swindon Gateway Partnership will now be considered at a public inquiry on February 10th 2009. But Swindon Council has sent a strong message to the Secretary of State that in their view the proposal is "fundamentally flawed" and should be refused.

The battle to save this land and its historic associations with the writer Richard Jefferies whose house (now the Richard Jefferies Museum) stands on the corner of Dayhouse Lane is not yet completely won but with 52,000 signatures on a petition against the development the Save Coate campaigners were upbeat after the council meeting: To quote the Swindon Advertiser again - Jean Saunders said: "I think it was a wonderful decision by the councillors and I pleased to hear their support for Coate Water".

Jean Saunders and other campaigners such as Brian Burrows and Felicity Cobb have worked tirelessly for the past five years or so to stop this development. After Bath University pulled out of their earlier plans to develop a campus on the site the developers dug their heels in and lodged an appeal with the Secretary of State on the basis that Swindon Council had not made a decision about the building plans for the site.

The Swindon Advertiser has reported this story right from the start and has been active in keeping the people of Swindon informed of every setback and progress made in this long campaign.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Red Lion at Avebury

The Red Lion Pub - from the Cove at Avebury
Avebury is often very busy so week days are the best time to visit. Just a short walk outside the henge in any direction will bring you to the pastoral tranquility of sheep grazing in meadows - if you just want to clear the mental cobwebs away. On my visit today in the pale November sunshine, there were groups of schoolchildren with their teachers on field studies - what a lovely day out from school. The children were all, without exception, engaged and interested in the massive stones. I walked out along the West Kennet Avenue of stones to Waden Hill where there a spectacular view of Silbury Hill may be had. Today there were sheep grazing across the hill and also clambering up Silbury.
For refreshment, or just to catch up with friends, the Red Lion thatched pub sits in the centre of the stone circle. Pagans and druids gather there at certain times of the year to celebrate various festivals including the summer and winter solstice. The Red Lion has its own ramshackle charm, I recall sitting outside in sunshine by the old stable area (now an outside storeroom) with a 'walking' friend back in August and was enchanted by the fledgling swallows taking flight from the the top of the wooden doors. Quite magical.
The pub also has the old village well inside the front room of the pub which was a later addition to the original building. And if that's not enough, the Red Lion is reputed to be haunted by several apparitions including that of Florrie who (as legend has it) was murdered and thrown down the well ..... this has never been disproved as at the bottom of the well there now sits a large immovable stone.
Avebury is just half and hour's bus journey from Swindon. The no 49 bus runs hourly and is probably my favourite bus journey - as the bus travels uphill from Wroughton suddenly the downs open out and the air instantly freshens. I never tire of making this short trip from bustling town to ancient and unique landscape.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Radnor Street Cemetery - in November

Radnor Street Cemetery
Radnor Street Cemetery is a fascinating little hillside Victorian cemetery - I live very close by so often walk through en route to Old Town. Today, my friend and neighbour called in on me and told me this story of a rather humerous encounter in the cemetery.

Yesterday (Bonfire Night) my friend had taken her hidden short cut into the cemetery via a path that runs along the side of some houses. She was with her husband and little dog when fireworks started going off - the dog bolted and my friend's husband went after it. It was by this time starting to get dark and the large Victorian gates at the top and the bottom of the cemetery had just been locked. My friend then saw an agitated looking man who had apparently been locked in so she asked if she could help. On seeing her the man nearly jumped out of his skin and, while my friend was telling him how to get out via her short cut, he edged gingerly away. She finally had to show him the path while he kept a clear and nervous distance between them.
It was only when she told her husband about it and he roared with laughter did she realise the man she she had helped must have thought he had been speaking to a ghost.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The disappearing Front Garden

A peaceful rural scene viewed from the Railway Walk - farmland now squeezed between the motorway, new housing and Old Town.

Swindon's fast disappearing rural green belt - the Front Garden.

A rapidly changing landscape with the onset of the new housing development and road infrastructure. Still some farmland remains with the river Ray meandering through. Precious indeed!

The old railway walk (and sarsens)

The Kingshill Canal - en route home

More sarsens
These are on the bank of a slope leading up to housing development behind the old railway track. A local woman out for a walk told me that before there have always been there - before the houses there was a field and the stones were just there. So it seems that parts of old Swindon may have once been near a sarsen drift valley - perhaps where the motorway now runs. These stones would have no doubt been cleared from the route of the railway that used to run from Wootton Bassett to Marlborough via Old Town.

The Old Railway Walk - overlooking the changing landscape of Swindon's Front Garden, a much loved trail for dog-walkers, families and cyclists. (Has featured on Hidden Swindon before)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Ancient Echoes

A menhir shaped stone standing in Radnor Street Cemetery - very smooth and curved on one side. It is not hard to imagine that it may have one stood in a stone circle where the rites of life and death were enacted by our ancestors.

The grey lichen covered stones found on the roundabout in Sarsen Close

To people who do not know Swindon, our town compares unfavourably with the architecturally magnificent cities of Oxford to the north, Bath to the west, and Salisbury to south. Swindon has its own heritage firstly as a Wiltshire market town on a hill (Old Town) then later with the coming of Brunel's Great Western Railway as an working railway town. Following the construction of the m4 motorway, however, the town's image started to suffer - industrial and trading estates sprang up while large housing developments gobbled up the land. Still more developments continue and more green belt land is being lost. The most recent casualty is the Front Garden - the farmland that buffered the town from the motorway. Home to small herds of deer and other wild life .... all now displaced. The land surrounding Coate Water Country Park, still much coveted by developers, is not yet safe in spite of a vigorous campaign to protect it.

As I walk around this town that I have grown to love, I hear the cry of nature breaking through the cracks in the pavements. I hear its song along cycle tracks in the hawthorn and elder and in the small wooded areas that have somehow survived. I hear it in the wind whispering through the old willows by the many small streams and brooks that meander around the edges of the town.

All across the eastern side of the town there are sarsen stones seemingly scattered - though in fact thoughtfully positioned to enhance green open spaces and parkland. I have become something of a stone enthusiast and it always gives me pleasure to find new ones ..... except they are anything but new. Each new 'find' brings its own quiet stillness and ancient echo. Some have clearly been imported from the Marlborough Downs while others have something even more resonant of the distant past about them.

The 'stone-circle' at the bottom of Sarsen Close, Bankside - Old Town

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Weathervane Hill (near the Ridgeway)

This tree was our landmark today as I walked across the open fields from the Ridgeway towards Ashdown House. My companion, the intrepid Pippa who knows this landscape like the back of her hand, was the first to spot deer watching us from across the field - and a buzzard in the sky.

At the foot of Weathervane Hill there is a sarsen valley where sheep grazed contentedly - even in the October sunshine, this particular field had a stark quality about it that seemed to compliment the tree on Weathervane Hill.

The Ridgeway and Waylands Smithy

Waylands Smithy
A short walk along the Ridgeway towards Uffington lies the burial chamber, Waylands Smithy, hidden by a screen of tall beeches, it was used for burials over 5,500 years ago in the Neolithic period.
Taken from the small information board erected by English Heritage:
Excavations have shown that the monument you see today covers and earlier barrow. Both tombs served as a focus for ceremonies linking the living and the dead, and may also have marked the community's ownership of the surrounding land.

The first structure was built here, between 3,590 and 3,555BC - it was a stone and timber box with two split tree-trunks positioned at each end. Over the period of less than 15 years the remains of 14 people, eleven males, two females and a child were placed in the box.
By the time the chambers were examined in 1920 they had been ransacked but they still contained the remains of several people.

The Ridgeway - towards Uffington
Swindon is overlooked by the wonderful prehistoric landscape of the chalkland 'barrow' Marlborough Downs. The Ridgeway transverses the downs just south-east of Swindon near Barbury Castle and Chiseldon. Today I was fortunate enough to meet up with a friend for the short drive up via Bishopstone, Idstone and Ashbury - all beautiful little villages on Swindon's doorstep.
It was a sunny, windblown October afternoon; the Ridgeway, along this stretch was lined with berry bearing hawthorn, buckthorn, elder and the unusual spindle tree, all interlaced with bright-red woody nightshade. Today, I saw more red admiral butterflies than I have seen all summer - these vivid butterflies did a upward curious spinning thing which I hadn't noticed before.
This section has been extensively repaired and the deep ruts left by 4x4 vehicles that used to frequent the track have been filled in. I am happy to report that 4x4s are banned from this particular stretch of the Ridgeway.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

The Old Roman Road and St Margaret's Church

St Margaret is an interesting name for any church because this saint is mythological much in the same way at St George is. The image above shows St Margaret of Antioch - several legends abound and the above illustrates Margaret the Virgin's struggle with the Devil who took the form of a great dragon and swallowed her - she escaped this fate only to be later burned, drowned and beheaded (she was hard to kill).
[ref: The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker]

The front entrance of St. Margaret's Church - built on the site of a Norman church, it dates back to the 13th Century. Just a few metres away from the old Roman road, Ermin Street. I have been unable to trace anything about the history of this lovely old church and remain rather fascinated as to why it was named after a mythological saint. The name Margaret can be traced to Sanskrit Marga "the Gate" or "the Way".

A detail in the masonry - a defaced head. Defacing images was common place at the time of the Puritans though I do not know if this is what has happened here.

A detail from one of the old stained glass windows within the church; oak-leaves and wild flowers.
Ermin Street (Way) an old Roman road

Ermin Street in Stratton St Margaret is built on the old Roman road which ran from Glevum (Gloucester) via Corinium (Cirencester) to Durocornovium (Wanborough) where there was a Roman settlement on to Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). Stratton (originally Stratone) comes from the Latin word 'strata' meaning paved way or street. There is archaeological evidence that there was a small military town and trading post in the area and close to the junction of the their two major roads near the present day Stratton St Margaret. This was also known as Durocornovium so was probably part of the Wanborough settlement.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Winterbourne Monkton Church

St Mary Magdalene Church
The little Norman church at Winterbourne Monkton near Avebury - not really part of Swindon at all, but just a short bus ride away (no.49) through the beautiful, rolling Wiltshire countryside. This was my first visit to the church and village see entry "Bean field on a blustery day". The church is open to the public during daylight hours and is epitomises peace and tranquility in its beautiful setting on the edge of the World Heritage Site - Avebury.
Note from a leaflet in the church:
In about 928AD Glastonbury Abbey aquired Winterbourne Monkton and the Monks settled the village. They had a small building for worship but it is not clear if this was the foundation of the present church or not. However in 1133 there was a Chapel which is now the chancel.

A detail from the famous Norman font depicting a Sheela Na Gig - a fertility goddess figure. Most of these were later destroyed under Oliver Cromwell and this is a rare remaining example. It is interesting that this church is named after Mary Magdalene as historically she is meant to be the 'the Woman who knew the all' or 'Mary the Light-giver' and is associated with the feminine trilogy ruling birth, love and death.

Monday, 8 September 2008

STEAM - Swindon's Railway Heritage

Today I made a spontaneous (first) visit to the STEAM museum - and most interesting it turned out to be. The museum is very cleverly laid out with recordings, films and sound effects bringing it to life at every turn.
I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend the Railway Festival being held this weekend on Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th September.
Ken White, Swindon's legendary artist who started his working life in Swindon's Railway Factory as a sign writer will be present. Ken has worked all around the world and has achieved considerable fame - he still lives Swindon, though as far as I am aware, the Borough does not actually own any of his work.

One of the three paintings by Swindon artist, Ken White. They hang in what is now the Designer Outlet Village - once part of the Engine Factory. This one shows the men leaving the factory by the Rodbourne bridges - the road and bridges remain unchanged.

The Evening Star comes home - for the Railway Festival

One of the evocative displays in the STEAM museum - a large photo display with real machinery in front of it, giving the allusion of men actually working.

The Designer Outlet Village (on a quiet day)

A back alley that runs between the small houses of the Railway Village - where many of the original railway workers lived.