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Historic buildings are lambs to the slaughter
“THE thing I always said,” recalled Ted Browning, “was why put a retirement home on the opposite side of the road to Whitworth Road Cemetery?
“I thought that was exceedingly bad taste. All you’d have to do is trundle them across the road and put them in a hole. I thought that was diabolical.”
If the historic buildings of Swindon have consciousness, they probably feel like wildebeest surrounded by lions.
One minute you’re minding your own business and the next you’ve been pounced on by a ravenous pride of developers. Then, before you know it, you’ve been turned into a crammed housing development or a supermarket.
Like lions, the developers often pick on the older members of the herd.
Sometimes the only thing standing between our heritage and its would-be annihilators is a small educational charity called the Wiltshire Buildings Record.
Ted Browning, 75, is one of its volunteers. The retired BMW worker, who lives in Stratton, combs planning notices, alerts planning authorities to potential threats and sometimes offers his own advice to local people who are worried about plans and don’t know how to have them overturned. He covers not just Swindon but North Wiltshire and sometimes beyond.
The bid to put a retirement home opposite a graveyard is just one he remembers with a shudder. Others include an attempt to tear down one of Bath Road’s more interesting houses to make way for a block of flats, and developers trying to shoehorn housing on to all manner of unsuitable historic sites.
Sometimes Ted’s input leads to a plan being amended; sometimes it leads to a plan being abandoned altogether.
He said: “Heritage is part of your lifeline. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t see where you’ve been and you can’t plan where you are going.
“I know we can’t live in the past and that we can’t live in a museum, but there are certain things we have to look after, certain things that are important.
“I have got nothing against the redevelopment of listed buildings if it’s done in a certain style.
“It’s better to add on and project backwards than to extend and mess up the frontage. It’s the frontage that’s the important thing.”
Ted, who has been interested in history since joining the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society when he was 10, feels Swindon’s leaders down the years haven’t served the town’s architectural heritage well.
“I think Swindon Council, unfortunately, has not been history-orientated at all. We have to struggle to get anything preserved, maintained or held.
“I don’t think there is a decent modern building in Swindon unless you count that big glass banana building out on the lake at Peatmoor.
“I would like to see new buildings that blend – that either blend or have a quality design. Some of the hotels around, that have just popped up, are just boxes. There’s that great grey thing by the railway station. Trains go past there all the time – it’s like a trapped audience, so what they see should be something good that says, ‘This is what we are.”
Asked about our remaining architectural jewels, Ted lists just three major ones: Bath Road, the Square in Old Town and above all the Mechanics Institute. He has campaigned for many years for the latter’s preservation and helped to save many of its artefacts from landfill.
“On the other side of the railway line are the headquarters of English Heritage, and they must plan how to preserve the Mechanics Institute. For me that’s the top priority.”
The Wiltshire Buildings Record website is www.wiltshirebuildings-record.org.uk