WITH their hydraulic excavators and mechanical pulverisers, crushers and pile-breakers they swarmed onto the site like an alien army, ruthlessly obliterating one of the town’s most prominent structures amidst billowing dust clouds and toppling chunks of concrete.
And there to record it all – every morning, every evening, every day for months on end come rain or shine – was Swindon administrative worker Debs Donkersley.
Peering through the viewer of her faithful HTC Mozart camera-phone Debs took around 1,000 images of the demolition of Swindon College, from the day the very first splinters of glass shattered on the ground.
As the immense Sixties-built edifice was gradually converted to rubble and eventually swept from sight, Debs captured the blow-by-blow destruction of the complex that for the best part of 40 years was the pulse-beat of Swindon’s academic life.
Now her photographic account of the Razing of Swindon College is the subject of an exhibition at the Beehive pub, located in Prospect Hill just above the now eerily barren former campus site as it slopes towards Regent’s Circus.
Putting the final touches to the month-long exhibition at the street corner hostelry before it was unveiled on Sunday afternoon, Debs, who is in her forties, said: “It was an ugly building although it could be pleasing to the eye in a certain light. “I was sad, in a way, to see it go. I actually miss seeing it now. Its gradual demolition was almost poetic in a strange way. It marked the end of an era. My aim was to capture, day by day, the disappearance of an important piece of Swindon history.”
The conspicuous eight-storey pile dominated the town centre skyline since the Sixties. As a former Commonweal schoolgirl Debs has lived and worked in the Old Town/Central area most of her life and she has always been aware of it. Typical of the functional, unadorned structures that emerged during the post-war years it was there to fulfil a task rather than look pretty, which no-one ever accused it of.
Says Debs: “Whenever I went out I could always see the college. It was always a presence. I never went to the college but plenty of my mates did.” Like many Swindonians of a certain age, she attended college gigs during the Seventies when the likes of Thin Lizzy, Hawkwind, The Pink Fairies and Amon Duul II dispensed their particular form of rock music.
Over the years, however, the building became progressively ragged and increasingly began to resemble some tumbledown Eastern Bloc monstrosity.
Eventually vacated in 2005, it was a target for the more adventurous vandal who was able to evade security staff while graffiti artists tagged the upper floors with names like “hoof” and “flik”
The site was snapped-up by developers Ashfield Land the following year with the purpose of creating a £50 million complex including a six-screen cinema, supermarket and restaurants. For six years however the ramshackle site further deteriorated as plans for its re-birth were hatched, rejected and re-drawn. “It was derelict for quite a few years,” says Debs.“There were even supposed to be bats living in the college at one stage.”
However, one day in April last year Debs, who works for town centre based Pluss which finds employment for disabled people, noticed that a fence had been erected in preparation for finally pulling down the sad old structure. “As I walk past it to work every day I thought I’d start taking photos of the various stages of its demolition,” she says. “It was such an important building. It played a big part in many people’s lives and it contained a lot of memories.”
It grew into a daily ritual that lasted right up until Sunday when Debs took her final shot. She always left her Old Town home ten minutes early for work in order to linger around the site taking photos. She snatched more pictures on the way home as the light changed.
She took photos in all weather conditions, shooting the dwindling, broken structure against dark, brooding clouds, clear blue skies and pelting rain. Some of her favourite images show huge palls of dust created by high-reach excavators as they grabbed lumps out of the walls. “There’s a lot of movement and motion in some of these pictures,” she says. “You can see the dust as the claws of the cranes chew up the walls.” Other images capture the doll’s house effect as rooms and corridors are suddenly exposed when the walls are sliced open. Debs says: “I really loved taking pictures of all the bent and twisted wiring and steel. That’s a piece of art in itself.”
Debs said the sight of several diggers working away with their long, stalking arms looked like “something out of War of the Worlds.”
With her eye-catching mop of curly blonde-brown hair, she became a familiar figure around the crumbling campus and found several vantage points from where to take photos, poking her camera into gaps of the surrounding hoardings or through the three wire-fence gateways.
She said that over the months, as the sky blue painted structure slowly vanished, huge piles of crushed concrete and masonry temporarily dominated the landscape. “The rubble then became the eyesore instead of the college.” Debs, who has always been keen on photography but has never had an exhibition before, adds: “Often the workmen would allow me to wander in from the gate to take pictures, always telling me not to go beyond a certain point because of health and safety.
“Mind you, I got shouted at once. I had my camera poking through one of the gates when I noticed someone in a high visability jacket stalking towards me.
“It did make me laugh as I ran away. I felt like a little naughty little schoolgirl who’d done something wrong.”
Beehive landlord Andy Marcer, 54, who spent two years doing his A Levels at the college says: “We spent quite a few hours sitting outside the pub last year watching them take the college to pieces. “I remember seeing the room I used to have many of my lectures in collapsing. All that dust and destruction – I think Debs has captured it all very well.”
n Debs Donkersley’s Demolition of Swindon College exhibition can be seen at the Beehive in Prospect Hill until March 3. Framed photos and posters of some of her images can be bought from £12-£20. Debs can be contacted at: email@example.com or at 0752-502-0112