“THE crash of mighty steam hammers reverberated throughout the district, furnaces roared as the leviathans of the iron road were forged and assembled. This was the age of the train — with Britain in the lead and Swindon at the centre.”

Surrounded by CDs, books and vinyl records in the ‘playroom’ at Martin Parry’s town centre home I am watching a nearly-but-not-quite finished version of a unique new film – a film about Swindon.

“It won’t change much now, I’m pretty happy with it. All that will happen is a little smoothing and some tweaking,” says film-maker and archivist Martin. “One major difference, though, is that I will be using a professional narrator.”

At this stage, about six weeks ago, Martin had voiced the narration he had written on the history of New Swindon, the settlement that sprung-up around the Great Western Railway Works 175 years ago and evolved into the town we know today.

But with the potential interest of TV companies in the offing he quite naturally wants his 90-minute documentary Railway Town – a remarkable tale, well told – to be as polished and accessible as possible.

Anyone intrigued, fascinated or perhaps even curious about Swindon’s oft-unsung and in many ways under-appreciated history and heritage can check out the finished article when it is premiered on Monday, April 25 at the Wyvern Theatre.

Railway Town is very much the product of one man’s vision, talent and enthusiasm. True to this ethos Martin hired the auditorium – such things do not come cheaply – to unveil the film.

“I really wanted Swindon people to see it before anyone else,” he says. “The film is my own work. Fortunately I’ve been at this game many decades so I’ve had time to work on all of the different skills involved in producing something like this.”

Railway Town is a first. No-one has ever made a full-length documentary about Swindon – how the town emerged and grew from a rustic backwater sparked by the decision to erect an engine repair depot on low-grade farmland along the infant Great Western Railway line.

“It could have been Bristol, it could have been London. It didn’t have to be here,” says Martin, who read a dozen books about the town before he began writing the film. (“It’s surprising how many there are,” he says) He had been contemplating such a project for years but finally got cracking so that it would coincide with the Swindon’s 175th birthday this year which celebrates the beginnings of the GWR works.

If anyone was in a position to make such a film it was Martin who in 1988 founded the Western Film Archive to “collect, preserve and make available audio visual material” from Swindon and the surrounding region.

He also digitises and uploads footage from the town’s pioneering community television station Swindon Viewpoint, and he dipped into its immense archive to help make Railway Town.

His previous work includes the 1989 film Fire and Steel – still available at the STEAM museum – which tells the story of the works from the viewpoint of those who toiled inside. “But this is about Swindon, the town that grew out of the railway works,” he says.

Made in HD, Martin spliced old film with new footage and merged it with an array of photographs and recollections that are interspersed with comments from half-a-dozen local historians.

“It definitely includes the earliest ever footage of Swindon,” which was taken at the railway works over a century ago. “The oldest archive footage I have used is 1913 – little more than a decade after the invention of the moving picture by the Lumiere brothers in France.

“It is very unlikely anything earlier exists on Swindon. I certainly don’t know of anything earlier and I’ve hunted far and wide.”

Alas, he has also been unable to identify the camera operator responsible for this historic, grainy footage. It would have been nice to give him a credit, muses Martin.

“It is attributed to ‘W.E.B’ but after many attempts I still cannot ascertain who this might be – or even whether it’s an individual or a company. They may of course have disappeared like so many others during the Great War.” Some of the film’s photos date to the 1860s while engravings are as old as New Swindon itself from the 1840s. “Attributing these is very difficult as most Victorian photography records either weren’t kept or have disappeared.” Some of the footage was shot by the GWR in 1934 for its centenary the following year, and involved a re-creation of the opening of the line a century earlier. That footage itself is now 80 years old.

Martin says: “The biggest challenge for me was the editing – weaving together the key material in such a manner that it flows fairly effortlessly, develops people’s understanding of the subject in a way that makes sense and at the same time keeps their attention. “I probably gave more time and thought to getting the structure and flow right than anything else.”

He goes on: “You can’t just keep piling on the information. At key moments you have to give the audience a break to digest what’s been said and then give them a change of rhythm to keep their attention fresh.

“The editing may not be the most glamorous part of film-making, but it is where the film actually comes together. It will make or break a film in my view. “ He adds: “Swindon has a fascinating history – trying to make a film that does the job and tells the story was a challenge.”

  • Railway Town will premiere at 7pm on Monday, April 25. It will be followed by an intermission then an hour of panel discussion on ‘Swindon Past and Future’ with questions and comments from the audience. Tickets are £7 and available from Wyvern Box Office or Wyvern online
  •  RAILWAY Town follows the growth of New Swindon from a Wild West-like settlement in the 1840s to the closure of the railway works in 1986 – and the many ups and downs in between.
    Modern Swindon began with just a factory surrounded by make-shift homes for people who had trawled from far and wide for the work. Planks were placed over muddy fields so people could get to and from the works.
    “It was more like a university campus than a town – a settlement completely surrounded by fields.”
    Its streets were laid out around the canals but the devastating effects of smallpox, typhoid and in particular water-borne cholera reduced the fledgling community’s average life span from 36 to 28.
    By the mid-19th Century, The Swindon Project – a loco and carriage factory supported by an adjoining community – was in danger of collapse.
    The town’s demise was only averted when the New Swindon Holding Board built a drainage system.
    A key aspect of the town’s success, the film is keen to make clear, was the emergence of an “innovative, motivated workforce that wanted to better itself.”
    Fifteen GWR employees donated books for a lending library, leading to the emergence of the Mechanics Institution that became “the heart and soul of Swindon.”
    The works represented “a heavy engineering establishment the likes which had                                
    never been seen in the South of England.”
    It was, we are told “probably the largest railway factory in the world” while the GWR Medical Fund provided a blueprint for the NHS a century later.
    By 1937 – the Golden Age of Railways – Swindon was producing 150 locos a year. Such was GWR’s reputation that if you earned your apprenticeship there “you could get a position anywhere.”
    It all ended in anger and dismay when the works – a hugely successful operation – finally closed.
    But by then the town that grew-up around it thrived, diversified and expanded... partly due to the legacy of professional excellence that began 175 years ago.
  • RAILWAY Village and town centre residents could be forgiven for suspecting they were under surveillance – or even worse – from the United States Air Force last summer.
    Anyone peering out of their window early one morning in June may have noticed a drone silently cruising a few hundred feet above their homes.
    Martin Parry was at the controls filming some stunning aerial views of Swindon for his film.
    He says: “I have a battery powered quadcopter which can lift a Hi Definition GoPro camera. I have had to learn to fly it smoothly of course – a learning curve I haven’t fully completed even though I’ve had it nearly three years.
    “At first there weren’t really any regulations on their use but now there are quite a few because some idiots have been using them irresponsibly.
    “I always do a risk assessment – including choosing a good time and favourable winds – before I fly it and map out hazards and conditions.
    “I don’t fly it over people because I wouldn’t want to risk it failing for some reason and dropping out of the sky – though it never has.”
    Martin’s drone has provided some singular, almost eerie footage – a slow moving, birds’ eye view of a deserted Swindon.