The town centre is a great place to go if you’re looking to get the range of shops, but not so great if you’re looking for a charming shopping experience.
The most attractive element in this shopping district is a chrome water fountain, a piece aptly titled “Crumbled Water Falls”. With a title like that I don’t know if the sculptor was trying to be ironic, generic or whether they saw ‘Swin’ and thought ‘swim = water’. It’s no surprise that, as one of the nicer features of the centre, this sculpture features at the centre of every BBC news feature reporting from the Wiltshire town. (Bonus points if you see the camera strategically crop out the fairy liquid bubbles some little tyke has squirted in.) There’s no hiding it, Swindon town ain’t pretty. I badly want to blame the ugliness on World War Two. Back in Southampton where I used to live the line was “it was a beautiful city before the war”, in Swindon though it’s “no, they actually built it that way.” It’s a shame really, but hey ho, you can only play with the cards you’re dealt. From the expressionless faces and locally based shoppers you can tell no one is here to marvel in the ‘beauty’ of 1960s flat-roof developments.
Occasionally I’ll visit one of the coffee shops. Due to the constant packed-out nature of the two Costa Coffees, I nearly always default to Coffee #1 nowadays. Its two levels of seating and large windows at the far end cater to my simple needs from a coffee shop: enough seating so I won’t feel judged for reading my book and windows to people watch. Whenever I see a new coffee shop in the town centre I am prompted to question whether new coffee shops create new business, or whether new coffee shops just absorb the Costa overspill. It must be said the coffee destination level in the town centre is reaching near crazy proportions, especially in relation to the number of retail shops. In the past few months alone there have been multiple new caffeine centres open up in this patch. How are they all supposed to keep going? What’s the difference between a Starbucks and a 222, a Nero and a Costa? Either society or the coffee industry will burst, it has got to happen at some point. Ergh, imagine the mess. All those coffee beans. Still, as long as Coffee #1 stays relatively quiet and in business I’m content.
So, if you’re not coming for the stunning scenery or a caffeine addiction, what are you coming for when you visit Swindon’s town centre? The buskers? The Christian preachers? The guy who writes stuff on the pavement and makes you feel uncomfortable when you walk across it? In truth it is only the Western need to buy stuff and drink coffee which keeps the town centre vaguely alive. There may be a selection of independent traders operating in the Brunel Centre, however to say they add a thriving commercial zone to the town itself would be a vast overstatement. But then that’s how the locals like it. The recent developments taking place at the Brunel and the proposed ones for the tented market have long faced backlash from Swindon residents for destroying local business and creating something unneeded (chiefly eateries). However, I wonder if these people ever shop in the town centre, ever frequent the dingy walkways of the tented market, ever buy from the local tradesmen? Probably not, yet they feel this inner need to preserve the old ways and defend the little guys, even if it actually might not be in the town’s best interests to do so.
I started this piece as a review of Swindon’s town centre, however I think it’s safe to say this little pocket of Swindon needs no explaining or summary. If I was writing for a national media news outlet I’d go into great depths to discuss the high street’s ‘modern charm’ or the ‘delightful, unique, personalities’ of the street’s buskers. However I am well aware that as a writer for The Swindonian, the nature of the readership audience should be explicit enough. I need not pull the wool over your eyes. Swindon has a generic centre with clothing, food, gambling shops and everything in between and yet it’s a town centre that’s slowly dying. The vacation of high street stores to the outer skirts and the installation of cheap, discount pop-ups only serve to prove this fact. There is time to restore the town centre, but only if people higher up the food chain act now. When it comes to the hustle and mild bustle of Swindon’s town centre a review of a different kind is in order.
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