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THE A LIST
The derelict Belmont Brewery is in danger of demolition before it is restored and returned to life as a nightclub… only to run into a “blasphemy” row. It is currently standing empty – but at least it is standing
AS dusk is about to fall on a drizzly summer evening I am in West Swindon contemplating a futuristic structure held aloft by an ensemble of yellow painted tubular steel columns that, from a certain angle, resemble spiders’ legs.
Motor cars, strangely, hang from its ceiling. I am drinking a martini, shaken and not stirred. Actually, that’s a lie. It’s a weak cup of sugary tea from a nearby garage: more Brooke Bond than James Bond, sadly.
Inside, however, is the world’s premiere secret agent and our ramshackle gaggle of dedicated newshounds – about four of us – are shuffling around waiting for him to come out.
And here he is, looking characteristically unruffled and dapper in an expensive track-suit, not a hair on an immaculately manicured head out of place.
Roger Moore – in the guise of 007 – is accompanied by fellow actor Patrick McNee, who we all know and love as unflappable Steed from the Avengers.
Roger doesn’t talk to us or, disappointingly, offer a witty one-liner. But he rewards our fortitude – we’ve been here more than an hour – with a grin. He has been filming the latest Bond adventure, A View To A Kill.
When it is released next year in 1985 the sequence filmed at the Renault Centre in Mead Way, Westlea is over almost in a blink. But whenever this “iconic” building makes the news – every couple of years or so – the Bond connection invariably gets a mention.
Now known as Spectrum, the former car warehouse – designed by world leading architect Sir Norman Foster – has just been awarded Grade II* (starred) listed status; some achievement for a structure barely 30 years old.
It got me to thinking about Swindon’s other listed buildings – those of special architectural and historic merit which are afforded special protection when threatened by planning schemes.
Swindon is not blessed with endless Georgian edifices, proud, lofty and a trifle snooty as found in our historically drenched regional neighbours, Oxford and Bath.
But we have some quirky, interesting stuff: an eerie selection of Gothic tombs at Lawn, Lydiard Park and Cheney Manor; a cheese factory-turned Victorian steam laundry (mangling room and all) in Station Road; the Town Gardens’ wrought iron, Glaswegian bandstand; the GWR’s mighty V-Shop, home to an ear-splitting railway hooter that previously graces the SS Great Britain.
Among them, a Grade I church and a Grade I mansion house (St Mary’s and its neighbour Lydiard House) and seven Grade II* structures (half-way between Grade II and Grade I.) Here are some favourites… They snarl, grimace, guffaw and, it seems to me, poke fun at passers-by for almost three centuries.
The gargoyle-like masks of Cricklade Street are Swindon’s best known visages. These hideous, demented mugs are hilarious, if you take time to look.
The nine medieval-style mushes adorn the façade of Villetts House – “The best house in Swindon,” says English Heritage – since it is built by the Villetts, a family of wealthy wine importers, in 1729.
Oh what fun a long forgotten Georgian stonemason clearly has creating these pre-Hammer horrors. It is reassuring to see them gloriously restored to their original ugliness during a 2007 revamp of the property.
Underneath it snakes a warren of cellars that enables landlocked Swindon to become a hive of smuggling.
Embroiled in controversies – including, of all things, a blasphemy row – it has a dodgy few years moonlighting under various monikers as a nightclub and now stands empty – but at least it is still here.
Built in 1871, the ales and stouts from William Godwin’s Belmont Brewery – whose Venetian tower and ornate chimney-stack become an Old Town landmark – are of “long standing repute.”
When the dark stuff ceases to flow the brewery is relegated to a builders’ yard and then cabinet maker’s workshop before the onset of dereliction and the outrageous possibility of demolition.
But after a tasteful and life-saving 1998 makeover it morphs in into The Mission, whose Goth-style logo incorporates a sword-like cross – or is it cross-like sword – that promptly incurs the wrath of religious zealots crying “blasphemy.”
When Michael Portillo struts purposefully out of Swindon railway station to film an episode of Great British Railway Journeys (Series One, Episode 11, Swindon to Bristol) he sensibly turns right and heads for the Gluepot Built in the 1840s to cater for thirsty, grime-caked railway workers, the Emlyn Square hostelry is one of several listed Swindon pubs (The Bell, The Southbrook, The Queen’s, The King’s Arms, The Goddard’s, The Great Western among them).
As the cameras roll Portillo waxes lyrical over Swindon’s railway history from the cosy confines of the Gluey with its traditional wooden benches and wide-scale “columnar glazing.”
He is cheerfully ensconced in an establishment renowned for its real ales. Weirdly, he drinks coffee.
Thousands of people are dispersed from its platforms every day but do any of them notice the classically styled two storey “island” that, while overbearingly encroached by later additions, still remains at the heart of Swindon railway station?
Designed by Brunel himself it opens in 1842 during the “pioneering phase of the Great Western Railway” on the UK’s longest railway line (118 miles, London to Bristol).
Its facilities include a new-fangled concept in railway travel – a restaurant for passengers who venture from their carriages in search refreshment while the locos are changed.
Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiasts are surely relieved to discover that our cast iron GWR water-tower and custom-made locomotive turntable (a rarity in today’s scrap-happy Britain) remain intact and have the protection of listed status.
Every chapel tells a story and this one – from 1866 – has iron in the soul. Quaint Cambria Bridge Baptist chapel becomes the focus for iron-workers and their families who uproot from the valleys of South Wales for a life of hard graft in the rolling mills of New Swindon. The name is taken from the mountains of their homeland.
Our smallest listed structures are not buildings in the accepted sense; they are only two or three feet high.
At Canal Walk in the town centre sits a milestone which graces the tow-path of the Wilts & Berks Canal during the sepia-tinted days when it ran through Swindon.
Around 200 years old, the Portland stone marker is inscribed, with an attractive flourish “Semington 26 miles” – a reference to the canal’s starting point.
Swindon has another Grade II listed milestone; also from the early 19th Century, it reads: “To Marlboro 10 miles, Swindon 1 mile.”
It is located, according to records, in Croft Road a couple of hundred yards on the Old Town side of the motorway bridge. I drive past about a half-a-dozen times but can’t see it.
So off I traipse, up the bridge in the Sunday morning rain and there – eventually – it is, behind some railings, partially shielded by foliage but successfully sniffed out with the aid of our excellent hound Chello.
A detailed run-down of Swindon’s listed buildings can be perused at leisure at: www.swindon.gov.uk/.../Pages/ep-planning-listedbuildings.aspx
<li>WHEN John Alexander finally meets his maker he does so at the ripe old age of 117.
The year is 1697 and King William of Orange is on the throne.
John’s is one of several grave-slabs, monuments and sarcophaguses that create an otherworldly mosaic within the spectral remains of Holy Rood church, The Lawn.
His neighbours include Elenor Huchens (1610) the Rev John Neate (1719), Mary Wayt (1724), and William Home (1730.) They are part of listed ruins that date to the 13th Century – the oldest known structures in Swindon that are still above ground.
<li>The Adver makes its own contribution to Swindon’s built heritage. Our grand Bath stone offices on the crest of Victoria Road are Grade II listed.
They are built for journalist/author William Morris (1825-91) who founds the newspaper in 1854.
The Adver is the country’s first penny paper and also the first such publication printed by steam power.
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