IT'S not every day you get to visit Britain's biggest charity shop.

Actually, that's not quite true. If you happen to live in Swindon or within striking distance of it, you can visit Britain's biggest charity shop as often as you wish.

The huge Sue Ryder shop in the Brunel Centre occupies the space once taken by C&A and later TK Maxx.

It's the biggest shop of its kind, according to Helen Reynolds, the charity's business manager for Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and West Oxfordshire, and nobody has come forward to claim otherwise since the doors first opened back in December.

Helen, 34, said: "My area includes 15 shops, ranging in size from about 900 square feet to this one, which is 4,000 square feet."

Like many people who make their careers in the charity shop world, Helen has a solid background in conventional stores, coupled with a burning desire to make a difference.

She also likes the freedom of being able to act on her own initiative, bringing local people the shops they want rather than deferring to a corporate branding department.

The days when charity shop stock was one or two steps removed from that of a junk shop are long gone.

The Sue Ryder shop in the Brunel Centre sells end-of-line but otherwise brand new stock donated by a range of generous manufacturers who are refreshingly reluctant to have their names revealed.

During my visit, I saw bargains including fridge freezers at £129, tumble driers at £99 and excellent wooden shelving units at £22.

Customers are welcome to ask about delivery and the assembly of flat-pack items.

Typical of the donated furniture I saw was a wooden table and a set of four wooden chairs at £35 for the lot.

Brand new items include ornaments, eco-friendly bags and collector-standard doll houses and accessories.

The shop sells donated electrical goods, but first has them examined by an expert electrician.

During my visit, I was set to work polishing some of the donated furniture, any item of which would be a fit furnishing for a home.

There is a huge selection of other donated goods, including thousands of books, videos, cds and DVDs, hundreds of records, toys, puzzles, and other items.

The manager of the Brunel Centre shop is Sharon Miles, 45, who has five paid staff, as well as volunteers and community service workers.

Sharon runs a happy ship, but everybody knows why they are there. She said: "Charity shops are no longer about lavender, lace, teacups and musty smells.

"We're here to make money for our charity while providing a service, and we work very hard at it."