Our Christmas walk is a short exploration of Swindon’s railway village Andrew Swift plots a short, family-friendly route.
In 1840, Brunel opened a station in open country a mile north of the small hilltop town of Swindon, near the junction of two canals. Nearby, he decided to build the factories which would produce the locomotives, carriages and everything else needed to run his Great Western Railway.
The railway works, which stood to the north of the line, eventually covered 300 acres, while to the south he built a village to house some of the 12,000 men who would work there.
The works closed in 1986, but their legacy lives in on STEAM, the Museum of the GWR, established in 2000 on part of the site. Most of the village survives as well, and is recognised as one of the best preserved examples of early industrial housing.
Our December walk explores the history and hidden corners of this fascinating village, on a 2½ mile walk which could easily be combined with a visit to STEAM for an ideal day out by train from Bath.
Leaving Swindon station, turn right along Station Road. After 200m, you will see a footpath leading to a subway under the line. This follows the course of one of the canals which predated the railway – the North Wilts.
Cross at the pedestrian lights and, after 150m, with the carriage works on your right, you come to London Street, the start of the railway village. Like most of the village, the houses here are of Bath stone dug out during the construction of Box Tunnel.
At the end of the terrace is the Mechanics’ Institute, built by GWR’s workers, and opened in 1855. It housed the country’s first lending library, ran classes and provided a health service. A large theatre was later added, but the institute closed, along with the works, in 1986.
Opposite, the tunnel under the line, once the entrance to the works, now leads to STEAM.
Carry on along Bristol Street, the earliest row in the village, dating from 1842. The charm of these cottages belies the paucity of their accommodation – most had only two rooms. There were larger cottages at the ends of the rows, but these were for foremen.
At the end of the street is a water tower installed in 1872, and lofty enough to provide a high-pressure supply of water throughout the carriage works for fire-fighting purposes. Beyond it, gates led into a school built by the GWR.
Turn left along Church Place and left again into Bathampton Street. This was originally Bath Street, named, like most of the streets in the village, after places served by the GWR, but renamed in 1901 to avoid confusion with Bath Road.
At the end is the Baker’s Arms, currently closed, but once a bakery-cum-beerhouse. Turn right and right again, past the Cricketer’s – also closed – along Exeter Street.
Carry straight on through gates into a park laid out by the GWR, and once famous for fetes organised by the Mechanics’ Institute. In 1904, 38,000 people came to a fete here, consuming 3.5 tons of cake and 1,200 gallons of tea. More recently, in 2007, several sarsen stones were installed in the park. Turn right and, as you follow the path along the north side of the park, you can see St Mark’s Church, built by the GWR and consecrated in 1845, to your right.
Turn left along the west side of the park, but, after passing a building, turn right through a gateway, cross at the pedestrian lights and turn left. At the end, carry on past the former Ship Hotel – with some impressive ghost signs – cross another set of pedestrian lights and turn left past the Greyhound pub.
Cambria Place, which lies beyond it, is an outlier of the railway village, built – of Swindon rather than Bath stone – to house Welsh ironworkers who came to work in the rolling mills in the 1860s. No 171 – now the left-hand side of Diwali restaurant – was the home of Rachel Thomas, grandmother of the poet Edward Thomas, who spent many summer holidays here as well as a term in a local school.
Turn right by No 159 and ahead you will see a Baptist chapel which could have been transplanted from a Welsh valley. Turn left before you reach it, then right up Cambria Bridge Road, and after 75m you come to a bridge which now crosses a cycle track, but, when all that lay ahead was open country, spanned Swindon’s other canal, the Wilts & Berks. Like the North Wilts, it was abandoned in the early 20th century.
Head back down Cambria Bridge Road and turn right along Lorne Street. Turn left at the end, cross at the pedestrian lights and carry on along Church Place past Park House Business Centre, once the home and consulting rooms of the GWR’s chief medical officer.
As you turn right along Taunton Street, look to the right to see all that survives of a row of cottages demolished in 1970 – the gateways to their back yards. The redbrick building on the far side of the road, built in 1892, was the GWR Medical Fund Dispensary & Swimming Baths.
The Central Community Centre, on your left, started life in 1861 as a drill hall for local rifle volunteers, but nine years later became the GWR Medical Fund Hospital, a role it fulfilled until 1960.Carry on across the end of Emlyn Square to another extraordinary building. Built as a lodging house for GWR workers and known as the Barracks, it quickly folded after they shunned its Spartan facilities. In 1869 it was converted to a Wesleyan chapel and in 1962 became a railway museum, the predecessor of STEAM.
The cottage beside it, with an unfeasibly tall chimney, formed part of the museum, having being restored to its original condition, and is occasionally open to the public.
Carry on along the terrace and turn left along East Street. Continue past Reading Street, and after 20m turn left through a Gothic archway to walk through one of the courts – or ‘backsies’ as they are known locally. At the end turn left along an alley and then right to find the only pub currently open in the railway village – the award-winning Glue Pot, originally the London Stout Tavern – and the end of this brief tour.
For STEAM, turn right and, at the end, head through the tunnel a little way along to the left. For the station, turn right, then right again long Oxford Street. Turn left at the end and right along the main road.
Andrew Swift is the author of On Foot in Bath: Fifteen Walks Around a World Heritage City and co-author, with Kirsten Elliot, of Ghost Signs of Bath.
Length of walk: 2½ miles
Along the way: STEAM is open daily, except 24 – 26 December and New Year’s Day.
Refreshment stops: Platform One Café at the STEAM museum is open daily, 10am to 4pm. It serves hot food, including pies and toasted sandwiches, as well as salads, pastries and cakes. There are also hot and cold drinks.