To mark Local and Community History Month in May, Swindon Heritage editor Graham Carter explains why he believes the town is the heritage capital of Britain and calls for action to capitalise on its potential.

Happy Local and Community History Month from Swindon, the Heritage Capital of Britain.

What’s that? Nobody told you?

Well I am telling you now, in capitals.

SWINDON IS THE HERITAGE CAPITAL OF BRITAIN, and it doesn’t matter that the accolade is unofficial.

Our football team has sunk to the bottom rung of the League, but when it comes to heritage, it would be an injustice to say Swindon is Premier League.

Because we are in the Champions League!

Consider the evidence.

Swindon is where the biggest and best of Britain’s national heritage organisations have all chosen to work.

We have the headquarters of the National Trust; the archive of Historic England/English Heritage; the storage facility of the Bodleian Library; and nine tenths of the Science Museum’s collection, on a site that also includes possibly the best archive of historic scientific documents in the world, and is set to expand.

How’s that for starters? And I haven’t even got to the local history yet, where Swindon is - and I don’t use my words rashly - truly blessed.

You see, there are two types of heritage: the common-all-garden stuff and the diamond-studded variety that is connected with iconic things that everybody loves.

Swindon has a lot of the second kind.

Let’s start with the obvious, because everybody - and I mean everybody - loves steam railways.

And we’re not talking about just any old railway.

Because we have grown up with it and it’s now in our past instead of our present, we take for granted the fact that the Great Western Railway was the greatest the world has ever seen. Or ever will.

Or, as a railway buff once said to me: “There are two railways in the world: the Great Western and the rest.”

Swindon was the beating heart of that railway, its powerhouse. Everything it stood for - innnovation, quality, excellence - defined what this town’s industry became and still is.

The GWR produced the first engine of any kind to travel at 100mph and then the most efficient engines in the world, which also happened to be the most beautiful and romantic.

Half a century after setting the world speed record on rails, a Swindon-made jet reclaimed it in the air, but even that pales against the solid gold heritage that is the Spitfire.

Only in Swindon could you build something as iconic as a Spitfire and not find room for one in your local museum.

Then there is the NHS, arugably Britain’s greatest invention, which Swindon’s GWR Medical Fund provided the blueprint for.

The GWR, Spitfires and the NHS - you could be excused for thinking God got a bit carried away when he was handing out things for Swindonians to show off about.

But you haven’t heard the half of it.

The Swindon spirit that built all those also gave rise to a pioneering suffragette; the first record changer; the development of the hovercraft; a key role in British car manufacture; and we effectively invented public libraries and municipal arts centres too - to name but a few achievements of a town that outsiders like to think couldn’t be more humble.

Meanwhile, some of the heritage we still have left, such as STEAM, the UTC and the magnificent Outlet Village, are beacons for what could be achieved in other historic buildings, if only they were treated with the same vision and sensitivity.

And another reason for being the capital of heritage is location, location, location.

Swindon is the gateway to the world heritage landscape of Avebury and Stonehenge; and a short hop from the history of Oxford, Bath, Bristol and the Ridgeway, Europe’s oldest road.

If you are an American tourist reading this, you should be Googling Swindon hotels, and if I tell you that the Hogwarts Express was made in Swindon (although we sadly never tell anyone), you will be on the next plane.

While you are here, we should also tell you about our grossly undervalued Roman archaeology, because the town is full of it, including two sites of national importance, hidden under Swindon dirt.

I could go on, but the above should give you a flavour and make you wonder why the potentially golden image of Swindon, both inside and outside the town, is currently mud.

And here’s another thing: all of the above is really only the most obvious part of our heritage, and the tip of the iceberg.

Ever since Brunel and Daniel Gooch first invented the idea of importing bright and highly skilled people to Swindon to work in their cutting-edge Railway Works, we have been following suit, and ultimately the most compelling?story in our heritage is how those newcomers have turned us into a model of diversity.

There are now more than 100 first languages spoken in Swindon homes, and as everyone coming here brings with them their own heritage, that means we don’t just have one heritage, but thousands.

If we could only tap into the heritage and culture and pride and passion that all those people carry with them in their blood, and celebrate it so loudly that they will hear us in Land’s End and John O’Groats, Swindon would be unstoppable.

As its current editor, I should also say that this town is alone in having a glossy magazine (Swindon Heritage) that is dedicated to celebrating, promoting and trying to safeguard this vast legacy. No other town or city thinks their heritage is worth going to so much trouble over.

But time is running out, because the only thing that Swindon is better at than heritage is putting itself down, and it is heading for self-destruction.

The wrangle over the proposed new museum and art gallery is a perfect example.

The trust behind it has - on its own admission - failed to engage with the public, taking a far too narrow view of Swindon’s heritage, mostly just focusing on our (albeit nationally important) art collection.

Meanwhile, those bemoaning the neglect of our railway heritage - not inaccurately, as it happens - are just as guilty because of the paradoxical view that a museum, of all things, is a rival to their aspirations for local history.

Many have come to see it as a straight choice between the two, but smart people are beginning to ask why we can’t have both.

All that is really stopping us is our failure to recognise how strong our claim to be a centre for heritage is, and the pitiful lack of ambition we have for cashing in on our good fortune.

We are good at homing in on individual highlights of local history, but rarely notice the wider landscape, nor how we should all be united behind a common cause, instead of choosing to fight isolated battles.

Let’s also be blunt and say that the attitude of some Swindon councillors always threatens to derail our heritage before it even gets a full head of steam.

I’m not just talking about the failure to grasp opportunities like World Heritage Status for the Railway Village, which should have happened years ago.

They should be shouting about our heritage from the top of the Mechanics’ Institute, but instead they entertain ludicrous schemes like vandalising our model for the NHS, the Health Hydro, and turning it into flats, while also neglecting (then allowing to burn down, then neglecting again) a precious agricultural collection.

Don’t even get me started on their shameful lack of meaningful engagement with the public over heritage or their continued lack of any progress on the tarnished jewel in the crown, the Mechanics’ Institute.

As long as these unilateral and often cavalier approaches to our heritage prevail, they stand in the way of what could and should be a massive boost to the town’s image and therefore the local economy.

In other words: it's costing us money.

When the prize could be so huge, even major investments like a born-again Mechanics’ Institute and a brand new museum and art gallery would be cheap at the price.

Swindon has spent too many years and too much money trying to guess what our unique selling point could be, and some of us are tired of pointing at the elephant in the room.

This town is truly and uniquely blessed with heritage, in its many forms, and if any town or city, outside London, has a greater claim, I would love to see the evidence.

So isn’t it about time all of us worked together and cured ourselves of this crippling compulsion we have for looking our greatest gift horse in the mouth?