IT is impossible to imagine such a scenario today – the boys and girls at Swindon health and safety would blow the mother of all fuses at the very notion.
But in January, 1861, some 1,500 people – roughly, a quarter of the town’s population – flocked to Coate Water for a communal barbecue.
Nothing odd about that, you may think. But what they actually did was eat, drink and be merry ON Coate Water – rather than around it, the lake being frozen at the time. It is not unusual for its 56-acres of water to freeze but on this occasion the ice was said to be almost a foot thick.
Skaters were soon lured to the shimmering, grey-blue rink for rough and tumble bouts of ice hockey, something vaguely resembling ice football and, as reported at the time “such other games as their ingenuity devised and the state of the weather sanctioned.”
Being a spirited lot, Swindon folk came up with the grand idea of holding a barbecue on ice for the town’s more impoverished residents. A tenner – quite a lot then – was raised through public subscription and the event was announced to all and sundry, via the lusty lungs of the town crier.
Two sheep were purchased and roasted on the iced-over lagoon while entrepreneurial landlords from a string of nearby ale houses installed bars mid-lake.
An eye witness – as recounted by Joseph Silto in his book A Swindon History 1840-1901 – remembered an Aunt Sally (a traditional throwing game) being set up and ponies drawing carts to the centre of the lake.
He went on: “In the scramble for the sheep several children got wet through. The roasting left much to be desired, some of the meat being overdone, some half done and some not done at all.”
Slippery scenes of drunkenness-on-ice predictably emerged. “The last thing I saw as I left the festivity was a woman dead drunk being wheeled home,” reported our un-named source. Just another slice of Swindon social history that involves Coate Water, which this year celebrates its centenary as a civic ‘pleasure park.’ Five years ago the lake and its immediate nature-rich environs was voted by Swindon people as their favourite place. But it is also, without question, the town’s most remarkable structure.
With its woodlands, glades and status as one of the West’s premier locations for migrating birds, Coate Water is Swindon’s rural gem – a water wonderland bang in our own backyard.
But it is easy to forget that Wiltshire’s first nature reserve is not a natural, eco-rich wonder but a man-made fabrication, having been fashioned almost 200 years ago in a gargantuan feat of civil engineering.
As canal mania gripped investors, the Wilts & Berks, along with its off-shoot the North Wilts, would revolutionise industry and transport in the locality, it was surmised. But there wasn’t enough water in Swindon to ensure they were constantly navigable.
Had geologist William Smith’s plan succeeded then Coate Water would not exist. He sunk a well several hundred feet on a spot between what is now Westcott Place and Wootton Bassett Road and installed a water pump.
But the result was more like a drip than a gush and instead it was decided to transform a marshy corner of countryside adjoining 17th Century Coate Farmhouse, a mile-and-a-half from Swindon Hill (now Old Town) into a reservoir.
Photography didn’t exist then so we don’t have any yellowing images of gangs of be-whiskered, dirt-caked navvies hacking out this vast crater, removing countless tonnes of clay in wooden wheel-barrows and banking up the northern side of the lagoon with a 22ft wall.
The immense undertaking took several hundred workmen more than a year to complete after which water from the River Cole was diverted into the £10,000, 122 million gallon repository.
Opened in 1822, it worked a treat for 30 years or so before the railways – abetted by a rather large loco factory that had opened just down the road – sounded death knell of canals.
By then, however, the reservoir had become a focus of leisure and pleasure for Swindonians keen to partake in boating, picnics and lakeside soirees that involved “waltzing and quadrilling.” It swiftly became ‘Swindon’s Playground.’ A report from 1838 – re-published 50 years later in the Adver – tells us: “Frequently during the summer months of the last three or four years select parties of the gentry of the town and neighbourhood of Swindon have resorted to the reservoir, a fine sheet of water… “It is generally allowed that some of the finest scenery that nature ever formed surrounds this spot and greets the eye, whichever way you turn.”
It further gushes: “It would be almost an impossibility to select a place where the words of the poet, when he says ‘fair nature spreads a rich and boundless store, to charm my sight’ could be more clearly and beautifully verified.”
Music was an essential part of such jamborees and on one occasion in the 1830s it was reported that “the Swindon band, which may be proud of its superiority over every other in this part of the country, attended and played in a most excellent and tasty manner during the afternoon.”
During the 1870s an enterprising Mr Fox leased Coate from the canal company and began charging admission at tuppence-a-ticket, having “placed on the reservoir a large stock of first class pleasure boats and fishing punts.”
Posting a notice in the Adver, he added: “Parties requiring a few hours pleasant recreation, either boating or fishing will find they can enjoy themselves at the reservoir on moderate terms.”
When the Wilts & Berks was officially abandoned in 1914 Coate was swiftly acquired by the local authority, Swindon Corporation, which built swimmers’ changing huts, created pathways, installed wrought-iron entrance gates and, over the years, erected three high-rise diving platforms Bravely plunging head-first from the top board of a new 30ft diving platform in 1922, by way of opening the facility, was 57 year-old Reuben George, one of the era’s most influential local politicians and social reformists whose funeral, 14 years later “stopped Swindon”.
It was replaced in 1935 by a three-tier art-deco style masonry platform which remains a familiar sight today for joggers, dog-walkers and bird watchers at Coate – although swimming and diving were barred because of a polio epidemic in the 1950s, infected water being the cause of the disease.
The traditional pastime of boating, alas, has also been a no-go activity since the 1990s, also for health and safety reasons.
Fishing, however, continues to reel in enthusiasts and a Swindon angler is once reputed to have pulled a 43lb Common Carp from Coate: in angling terms, an absolute monster. Either way, it’s a whopper.