Taking in the 007 sites on our Magical Mystery Tour of Swindon

7 Oct

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If we’d not been so celebration-fatigued from the Olympics and the Queen’s diamond jubilee, Britain might have made more of this week’s twin anniversaries: two days in history which secured the nation’s place at the pinnacle of the entertainment industry.

October 5, 1962 saw licensed to kill secret agent James Bond blaze his way onto the silver screen in Dr No, while October 6 marked The Beatles’ first salvo in their bid to dominate the popular music scene with the release of Love Me Do.

Appropriate, then, that we should spend October 6, 2012 aboard a 1959 Leyland Tiger Cub – a bus that would have been a common site in Britain’s towns and cities in 1962 – enjoying a Magical Mystery Tour of Swindon and taking in, among other pleasures, some 007-related locations.

Our guides on this Festival of Poetry tour of Swindon were Domestic Cherry founders Mabel, our very own Honey Rider, and Barry, whom, with buck teeth that would startle horses, we can only compare to villainous henchman Jaws.

Along the way, we picked up Blofeld-a-like guest poet Barry Andrews (the bald-headed former keyboard player with New Wave band XTC) and called on the only man qualified to play Bond in this character-association game of mine: suave and sophisticated festival director Matt Holland.

They called the tour A Window On Swindon. Along the route, extracts of poems and song lyrics about or inspired by the town, or relevant to spots on the tour, were performed by Mabel and Barry.

Sources included Industrial Lace by Alice Fulton, The Oil Furnance by Alfred Williams, Red Brick Dream by XTC’s Andy Partridge, I Hear a River Thro’ the Valley Wander by Trumbull Stickney, On Hearing the Full Peal of Ten Bells from Christchurch, Swindon by John Betjeman, Amaryllis at the Fair by Richard Jefferies and The Shires by John Fuller.

Above the heads of the performers was a warning sign that read No Spitting – which for those familiar with the parlance of rapping was quite amusing.

The tour started with familiar sights, as – while singing The Wheels on the Bus – we took the A roads from the bus station to the Railway Village, and on to the parishes of Rodbourne Cheney and Cheney Manor; villages swallowed by industrial development to house the workers of Brunel’s Great Western Railway Works, and whose names are today more readily associated with trading estates than village greens.

Here, however, we uncovered our first gem of the trip: the Grade II listed Manor House on Cheney Manor Road: a pleasant 16th century stone cottage and village green in the middle of a 20th century housing estate.

Crossing a stone bridge over the River Ray, a tributary of the Thames, we gatecrashed a wedding at the 13th century St Mary’s Church. Most of the bridal party were happy enough to give us a wave, although the look on the faces of the bride and groom suggested they were wondering what stunt their best man had pulled now.

Winding through Pinehurst, with its houses built by Italian prisoners of war, we took in the Georgian-inspired splendour of The Circle, a roughly ring-shaped road – “an imperfect circle in an imperfect town” – lined with Swindon’s first council houses and dissected by Pinehurst Road.

Leaving Pinehurst we passed The Moonrakers – Wiltshire’s largest pub – on Cricklade Road. Built in 1931 by local brewer Arkell’s, the name recalls the legend of the Wiltshire smugglers, who were caught by caught by excisemen trying to retrieve previously discarded contraband from a pond.

When challenged, they pointed to the reflection of the moon and told the exciseman they were trying to rake out the large cheese they could see. Thus the wily Wiltshiremen outwitted The Man, and natives of the county have been known as Moonrakers ever since.

Moonraker was also the name given to the third James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, who lived at the 16th century Warneford Place in Sevenhampton, on the northern edge of Swindon, and was laid to rest at St James Church after dying from a heart attack in 1964.

It was, as toothy Barry pointed out, a tenuous link between James Bond and Swindon. He promised us a better one later.

From the Moonies we drove to the Penhill estate. Penhill – which like the Queen celebrates its own diamond jubilee this year – was built to accommodate the influx of immigrants from London after the government designated Swindon an ‘overspill town’ for the capital.

In the 1960s farm buildings were demolished to make way for a tower block, and it was in the shadow of this monolith that our second gem was uncovered.

Standing in the car park of the boarded-up Royal British Legion Club there were audible gasps as an amazing view of Swindon was revealed. From the top of Penhill one could look over the centre – a vista dominated by The David Murray John Building – to the tower of St Mark’s Church on the opposite side of the vale.

We were greeted by Marilyn Beale, a woman for whom the phrase ‘community stalwart’ was invented. In that car park she read us two poems, one about growing up in Penhill, the other about the ultimately successful fight to save Seven Fields (now a designated nature reserve) from the developers’ spades:

Seven Fields Forever by E N Froud, which begins
I remember it well, that year of ’53,
The council had to house us, so desperate were we.
We looked at Pinehurst firstly, and really weren’t too sure
But when we saw the outlook, Penhill drew us more.

The Fight for Seven Fields by Jean Dodson, which concludes
The hard hat boys are coming
armed with clipboard and with car
to take away our heritage;
who do they think they are?
But will we let them take it?
Not without a fight!
It’s ours; we mean to keep it.
It’s our democratic right!

It was there that we met the Penhill Massive, a gaggle of scooter and BMX-riding tweenies who, far from being surly or dismissive, listened to the poems and posed in the group photographs, making improvised gang signs with their hands which were supposed to look like the letter P, but will probably come out as a ‘q’ in the pictures. “This is here I live,” one lad told us. “Appreciate it properly.”

Leaving Penhill we waved to curious locals and spotted a snowman Christmas decoration in a front garden. Our vintage bus negotiating the narrow streets of Penhill, and we found our way back to Cricklade Road where we collected Blofeld (sorry, Barry Andrews) from a lay-by.

Barry read us a poem entitled Life in the Modern Doughnut, a tale of industrialisation and capitalism, and the factories and warehouses that made Swindon what it is. Then it was off to meet Mr Bond himself.

Lower Shaw Farm was the third of our Swindon gems: a three acre oasis in the centre of West Swindon’s 1980s development explosion. Once a dairy farm it’s now home to community organisations, including the Swindon Festival of Literature and the Festival of Poetry it spawned. In 2009 it won The Observer’s Ethical Garden Award.

It was Apple Day at Lower Shaw Farm. The farmyard was packed with visitors and two apple presses had been brought out for the occasion. There was only one problem – no apples.

A rueful Bond (sorry, Matt Holland) explained that last year people were bringing apples by the wheelbarrow. But this year has seen the worst apple crop for 15 years. Lots of apple lovers; no apples.

Still, we drank tea, ate apple cake (thank goodness there were enough apples to make apple cake) listened to poetry, fed the wingless Indian runner ducks and watched some apple juggling.

To reach and leave Lower Shaw Farm, we passed the distinctive Grade II listed Spectrum building, designed by Sir Norman Foster and built for the carmaker Renault as a distribution centre in 1983.

Winner of the Financial Times’ prestigious Architecture at Work award in 1984, the building afforded us our genuine 007 moment: it was here that Roger Moore’s James Bond tracked down villain Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin to his laboratory, in 1985’s A View to a Kill.

The film-makers only used shots of the cavernous interior, though. Even for Hollywood, a building made of giant pieces of yellow and grey Meccano would have made a lousy secret lair.

Our tour ended as only a bus tour of Swindon could: with a circuit of The Magic Roundabout. County Islands (renamed The Magic Roundabout in the late 1980s because that’s what everybody had called it since it opened anyway) features five mini roundabouts arranged around a sixth central anti-clockwise roundabout.

Designed by traffic engineer Frank Blackmore, the inventor of the mini roundabout as his pièce de résistance and a lasting legacy of his maniacal genius, the junction has the enviable reputation of being not only the fourth scariest in the UK (source: Britannia Rescue poll, 2009) but also one of the safest in the country, since traffic moves too slowly to do serious damage in the event of a collision.

And in this year of celebrations, we shouldn’t forget that The Magic Roundabout celebrates its 40th this month.

Perhaps we shall return in 2022 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Swindon Festival of Poetry, 50 years of The Magic Roundabout and 60 years of Bond and The Beatles. In the meantime, the vote from the seats of our packed little bus for the ‘most surreal bus tour ever’ was ‘same again next year, please!’

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One Response to “Taking in the 007 sites on our Magical Mystery Tour of Swindon”

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  1. Exciting poetry coming down a slip road – Swindon Festival of Poetry launch | Festival Chronicle - 5th September 2013

    […] – there is Poetry Rhyme Time for the little ones and A Wood Magic Story Walk; the eccentric Vintage Bus Tour around the low-highlights of Swindon, all 5 October. Plus family fun in Bardwell O’Neill are […]

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