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Railway marked the start of modern times in new area
THERE was no such thing as Swindon town centre before the railway came – not on the current site, anyway.
If time had a ‘rewind’ button and we pressed it while gazing down Victoria Road from the top of the hill, the first things to disappear would be the library, the modern department stores, the hotels, the office buildings and the David Murray John Tower.
The paving of Regent Street and the Parade would vanish and the shopping areas would briefly be choked with cars. Then the traffic would become horse-drawn, by which time many of the large shops would have vanished. They’d have been replaced by much smaller ones with wares stacked high in their windows by men wearing sidewhiskers and aprons.
If we hit ‘stop’ and then ‘play’ in the early 19th Century, we’d probably see a ribbon of small cottages extending down the hill and into tranquil agricultural land. The nearest thing to traffic would be horses and carts, some of them heading to or from the small market community at the top of the hill.
Once Brunel settled on Swindon as the hub of his new mainline in the early 1840s, nothing was ever the same again. The burgeoning Railway Works needed people, and the people needed to be fed and provisioned. The paint on the new Works was scarcely dry when the first streets of the Railway Village were made ready for habitation.
Those streets, like the rest of the Railway Village, are now part of a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many of the cottages which stood before the arrival of the railway became the first shops of the New Town, with owners speculatively opening for business. These were followed by purpose-built structures as the area boomed and more people arrived from throughout the country to seek settled, lucrative employment and decent housing.
Within a few decades the New Town overtook the Old Town in terms of both commerce and population, and the two were eventually combined as the first Borough of Swindon in 1900. The town centre was no longer at the top of the hill but at the bottom.
During the 20th Century the heart of the area was subjected to just about every trend in architecture and planning, some of them beneficial and others less so. Pedestrianisation in the 1960s was followed by massive redevelopment to keep up with the needs of modern shoppers.
The economic downturn following the crisis of 2008 had the same effects on Swindon’s town centre as it did on countless others across the Western world, but the signs of a comeback are strong.
The central area of Swindon will surely be the vibrant heart of the town throughout this century – just as it was throughout the last.
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