STANLEY Frost – ex-prisoner of war, artist, electricity board employee and, as it transpires, a true romantic - is walking through Swindon shopping centre when he is stopped dead in his tracks. He cannot believe his eyes. He is aghast.
Bulldozers and hard hatted workmen are engaged amidst billowing clouds of dust and the din of tumbling masonry, in an act of architectural barbarism. They are dismantling what – by a country mile – is Swindon town centre’s finest building.
Gritty, unpretentious Swindon is not blessed with a surfeit of fine Georgian edifices, elegant classical structures or eye-catching art nouveau facades.
So why, Mr Frost is urgently trying to fathom, is a unique – by our standards – example of neo-classical splendour, complete with imposing portico and stately columns, being reduced to rubble? It is a structure whose architecture Poet Laureate John Betjeman compared to that of London’s famed St Martins in the Fields church, while revered scholar on the subject Nikolaus Pevsner heralded “remarkably, purely classical.”
Living near Malmesbury and only an occasional visitor to Swindon, Mr Frost is unaware of the furore sparked by the borough council’s recent, lamentable decision to permit the demolition of the Baptist Tabernacle.
With its impressive colonnade of six Tuscan columns, it stood with an air of imperious defiance amidst a piecemeal conglomerate of faceless Sixties and Seventies offices and shops. Some may find the temple a tad gloomy and it has – no question – been allowed to deteriorate into a calamitous state of disrepair. But its undoubted architectural merits surely outweigh the shameful decision to level it.
Mr Frost cannot prevent the destruction of this once dignified now partially-wrecked 92 year-old Swindon landmark. The roof has already been torn down for a start.
But he swiftly formulates a laudable if somewhat eccentric plan that will dominate his life for the next decade and perhaps salvage a rare, distinctive and important slice of Swindon’s architectural heritage. He will re-build the Baptist Tabernacle – or at least, its imposing 54ft frontage – in the rolling hills of Wiltshire as his dream home. It is a scheme that courageously echoes the once grand tradition of Victorian follies.
Mr Frost, 61, doesn’t have to fork out a fortune for nearly 300 tons of Bath Stone that comprise the elegant portico and façade of what is later dubbed “Swindon’s St Paul’s Cathedral” – or even better, “Swindon’s Parthenon.”
Destined to serve as builders’ rubble, he gets the lot for free courtesy of the Swindon Baptists who want to rid themselves of the once proud structure erected by their Victorian predecessors. The cost of transporting the stones to the rear of a garden centre near Malmesbury, however, sets him back £6,000; a sum not to be scoffed at in 1978.
Mimicking the reconstruction of Egypt’s 3,300 year-old Abu Simbel temples ten years earlier, Mr Frost meticulously numbers each of the 2,000 stones before they are carted off in preparation for their dramatic restoration. It is a 3D puzzle that he can’t wait to put together again.
Reflecting on his actions at the time he says: “So much of what was worthwhile in the town has already disappeared and been replaced by hideous development. I knew I had to do something to save the stonework of this listed building and put it to good use.”
This would never have been allowed to happen in Bath or Oxford he sneers, taking a well-aimed swipe at Swindon’s conservation policies – or seemingly woeful lack of them.
Offering its sympathetic support The Adver states: “It was a grand old portico, one that would stand the test of several more centuries of existence. That it should be ignominiously broken up to provide foundations for a row of second-rate rabbit hutches is inconceivable.”
Mr Frost draws up plans for a sumptuous Roman villa-style country mansion that would leave Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame – had he been around at the time – positively salivating.
Having acquired three acres of land in Brokenborough near Malmesbury – close to today’s WOMAD festival site – he applies for planning permission. And that is where his bold, singular initiative crumbles into dust.
“You can’t build that in the middle of our countryside” is pretty much what Wiltshire planning officials tell him as they unceremoniously chuck out his application.
The former World War Two airman appeals to the Department of the Environment and on a rainy day in March 1980 I am dispatched to Malmesbury to cover the planning inquiry.
Sadly it is a case of hard-nosed, unyielding civic planners, with box loads of red-tape, up against a romantic soul with a vision. No cigars for guessing the outcome. Mr Frost’s scheme is reduced, as it were, to rubble.
By this time he has invested £16,000 – nearly all his savings – into the venture. But he is not for quitting. A re-jigged scheme, which involves shielding the mansion from view with hundreds of trees, is submitted.
But to no avail. Councillors do not want “a mini Longleat” in their manor. It may, they fear, open the door for other eccentrics to construct classically-styled edifices that will blot the Wiltshire landscape.
Ten years after being outraged at the sight of Swindon’s finest building being officially trashed Mr Frost’s audacious, admirable plan is stone dead.
He retires to Portugal by way of Dorset.
Fast forward some 20 years to January, 2006 and my photographic colleague Richard Hudd is negotiating the winding lanes of rural Northamptonshire in search of Swindon’s “lost temple.”
He is no Indiana Jones but Richard is a determined snapper who locates the remnants of our broken tabernacle and the first new photos of the stones since the late Eighties are duly published.
They are stacked in a field on 300 pallets having been acquired from Mr Frost’s family four years earlier by builder Neill Taylor.
He intends to incorporate them into his own country house scheme but when this, too, falls through, Swindon council gets wind of their whereabouts.
Perhaps mindful of their predecessors’ regrettable misdemeanour, they are keen to bring them home to right a wrong and re-erect them as part of the town centre’s proposed regeneration.
They splash out £360,000 for the stones which for the past seven years have been sitting under wraps on a runway at the former RAF Wroughton like some monumental Victorian Ikea kit. Will they ever return to their rightful home in the heart of Swindon? Who knows.
But if they do then conservationists among us should raise a glass to a man with a brave and bold vision.
BAPTISTS SAY 'WE TRIED OUR BEST TO SAVE IT'
RESEMBLING a classical Roman temple, Swindon’s most distinguished palace of worship was designed by WH Read and built in Regent Street for £6,000 in 1886.
Surrounded by iron railings and a flight of stone steps that ran the entire width of the front, it incorporated Grecian-style lamps on high panelled plinths, a hall that could hold 1,000 people and an ornamental gallery.
After falling into disrepair its owner, the Swindon Baptist Church, was in 1978 given permission to knock it down and replace it with the Pilgrim Centre, which today occupies the site.
Over the decades Swindon Baptists have suffered a tidal wave of criticism for letting the tabernacle rot and then demolishing it. But five years ago veteran member Beryl Harris defended their actions.
She said the dwindling congregation couldn’t afford its upkeep and then had to flatten it because it was on the verge of collapse.
She said: “It annoys me that there is constant criticism... but at the time it was in a state of disrepair and no one had money, no one came forward to help – we tried. We couldn’t afford to restore it.”