Swindon, Wiltshire, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Swindon, Wiltshire, UK

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Located on the M4 approximately halfway between Bristol and Reading, and almost certainly (in the opinion of some) the dullest town of its size in the UK, Swindon's most famous feature is the 'magic' roundabout; it even rated a mentioned on the British satirical TV show Have I Got News For You. This tarmac monstrosity consists of five smaller roundabouts forming one enormous spiralling vortex of slow moving traffic. As such, it is probably Swindon's spiritual centre, epitomising the town planners' total disregard for any sort of logical traffic system, and symbolising the lack of any attempt to lift the town, kicking and screaming, out of the cultural abyss it resides in.

Cars, Cars... and more Cars

Strangely enough, Swindon is one of the richest towns in the UK, and one of the fastest growing - as evidenced by the constant addition of massive generic four-bedroom housing estates, which usually feature more roundabouts than people. Whenever any sort of new entertainment area is built, (the most recent being Greenbridge, featuring a cinema, a gym, a bingo hall and a few restaurants), invariably the most immediate feature is an enormous car park, with all the buildings scattered around the edge. Swindon is undoubtedly the car park capital of Europe. Cars are Swindon's lifeblood, as a matter of fact, with two large car factories (Rover and Honda), and all town planning criminally being traffic and car-park related, at the expense of any aesthetic considerations whatsoever. For some, the only hope is that when the world's oil reputedly runs out in 2050, all of these car parks can be dug up and replanted, creating beautiful green spaces where human beings can actually spend time together.

Amazingly for a town with a population fast approaching 200,000, Swindon features very little in the way of actual entertainment. There are two main leisure centres; the Oasis and the Link Centre (both crumbling - there are plans to demolish them). The Oasis has all the same facilities as any other third-rate leisure centre and, allegedly, is where that famous British band of the '90s got its name from. The Link Centre is like a set from a '70s sci-fi movie with inexplicable banks of flashing lights and enormous multicoloured pipes leading everywhere. If you want to pretend you're Michael York in the film Logan's Run, or of you'd like to try out what may well be the country's poorest equipped ice rink, a visit is recommended.

But Where to Go?

The town centre is awash with corporate chain-pubs and night clubs, the experience being the same pretty much everywhere you go, resulting in the town having about as much atmosphere as a lunar crater. The Old Town, however, sports more attractive Victorian architecture; Wood Street being probably the best example. The crowd on a night out in Old Town are chiefly composed of wannabe yuppies, but no actual yuppies, as any young person with a university education has the sense to get far, far away as soon as humanly possible. The only nightclub which is not a glorified discotheque and worthy of mention is a place called the Brunel Rooms, which occasionally features top DJs and has a cool retro interior. The new Cineworld cinema is a welcome addition, and has actually been known to show some non-mainstream movies (usually on Wednesdays).

However, there are those that can't be persuaded from the view that Swindon is a cultural void, mainly because it has nothing in the way of art galleries, theatres etc. The town doesn't even sport a single decent bar. The Wiltshire Festival is held every year in Swindon, and features such revolutionary globe-straddling musical geniuses as... well, actually it features bands like the Vengaboys and Steps (bands which stretch the notion of 'live' music to breaking point). World music acts perform sporadically in the Old Town Bowl. But for anyone who loves music, even of average quality, Swindon is not the place to be.

Shop Till You Drop

The chief activity in Swindon is therefore shopping - the only area where the council are prepared to make any investment whatsoever, mainly because of the huge profits to be made. These vast profits (something in the order of �90 million) are plowed straight back into... more shopping. Which is stunning, considering the woeful state of hospital provision. Public transport is not too bad, as long as you are going to the shops, otherwise it's laughable. The two main shopping centres are the town centre, which features all the same shops as any other high street in the country, and the outlet centre, which has a nice location in renovated 19th Century warehouses in the town's old railway area. The town has a rich railway heritage - in fact the railway district is the only well-planned part of the town, as it was designed in part by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The town's existence can be solely attributed to the great western railway, and the decision in the early 19th Century to build vast railway works there, most of which are still standing - the town's only half-decent museum, the railway museum, is located in the district.

It's a shame that Brunel's grand vision (including the model for what later became the National Health Service) declined along with the railways, and now instead of visionary engineers the old steam workshops contain hordes of bargain-hungry tourists. The outlet centre itself is Swindon's number one attraction, pulling in more visitors last year than Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds combined. Unfortunately it mainly sells all of last year's designer clothes that didn't sell very well at knock-down prices, resulting in the residents of Swindon being probably the worst dressed people on the planet.

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