Poetry, prose and Swindon celebrities on vintage bus tour

5 Oct

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You know those coach tours of celebrities houses you can do in L.A.? Today we did the Swindon version.

It was all aboard the vintage Daimler double decker bus for a journey around Swindon’s hidden gems.

Our hosts were “community poet emeritus” Tony Hillier, who promised us “a day of heritage and word juggling,” and Graham Carter, editor of Swindon Heritage magazine and, if not a font of all knowledge, then certainly a bucketful of quite a lot of it.

Our magical mystery tour  – The Beatles only managed one, Swindon Poetry Festival is already on its second – started and ended at the childhood home of Richard Jefferies, now a museum.

For the uninitiated, Jefferies was one of England’s greatest late Victorian writers.

An author, poet and journalist (in the traditional sense of the word: he wrote a country journal for the Pall Mall Gazette , the Wiltshire Gazette, and the Wilts & Gloucestershire Standard, among others) he was up there with Dickens and Hardy up to, and after, his untimely death at the age of 39.

Today, the esteem in which he is generally held is demonstrated by the fact that the museum to his life and works is open only on Wednesdays and Sundays, and does not benefit from a brown tourism road sign, or even a roadside banner.

Swindon Council bought the house and created the museum at a time  Jefferies was still a big name: prime minister Neville Chamberlain had joined a campaign for the erection of a plaque at Liddington Hill, one of the writer’s favourite spots. The landowner was against a plaque, fearing the thousands of pilgrims would wreck the crops.

Today his name is kept alive by a handful of enthusiastic volunteers.

Setting off from the Jefferies Museum towards Old Town we annoyed Saturday shoppers by slowing to a crawl before pulling up outside 210 Marlborough Road – once the home of Hollywood Legend Diana Dors – where Tony read Bloody Men by Wendy Cope (which he retitled Blooming Men, to spare our blushes). It goes:

Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.

You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destination,
You haven’t much time to decide.

If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you’ll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.

Carrying on through Old Town, we discussed the meaning of the name ‘Swindon’. It’s ‘pig hill’, which is ironic, because the principle farming type round these yer parts has always been cattle farming. Perhaps that’s why a sculpture of a sheep has been erected at the site of the old cattle market – to complete the farmyard set.

Onwards, and another shopper-bothering stop on Farringdon Road, where we heard how Buffalo Bill had brought his Wild West Circus to wild, wild Wiltshire.

Then it was on to the old railway works – now the STEAM museum and Designer Outlet Village – to hear about Alfred Williams, The Hammerman Poet.

The writer had six volumes of poetry published, along with several books of prose, including Life in a Railway Factory, which was shelved until he left the employment of GWR, as the highly critical contents would have earned him the sack.

Despite critical acclaim for his work, he died as he was born: in poverty.

But what a legacy this writer – who rose at 4am every day to teach himself Greek and Latin, and walked the four-mile commute from home to work every day – left to Wiltshire, including a poem about the county which begins:

Have you followed richer valleys? have you rounded fairer hills?
Have you walked in broader avenues, or higher colonnades?
Have you wandered in such pastures, by such pleasant lakes and rills,
Through such forest and plantations, through such thickets and such glades?

Throughout the tour, the passengers were encouraged to share our own poems and prose to entertain our fellow travellers.

From the oldest to the youngest, we gave it our best shot. Eighty-three year old Eric performed a funny ditty called Gadding About, and another – to the tune of My Grandfather’s Clock – called My Grandfather’s Ale.

Meanwhile Chronicler Milo (7) treated us to alternative version of Hey Diddle Diddle (basically the version we all know, except the dish runs away with the chocolate biscuits) before reciting from memory The Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis. Hear it here, but beware – there’s a sting in the tail.

A whistle-stop tour of a few more sites – The Mechanics Institute, The County Ground, and The Magic Roundabout – saw us setting back to the Jefferies museum, for tea and biscuits, and more poetry, including a verse about a mulberry tree which grows in the garden at Jefferies’ House, which begins:

Oh, mulberry tree, oh mulberry tree
Dear are thy spreading boughs to me.
Beneath their cool and friendly shade
My earliest childhood laughed and played.
Or, lips all stained with rich red fruit
Slept in the long grass at thy root.

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