The good, the bad and the ugly



Why the Swindon Heritage magazine (ad)venture is coming to an end

We regret to announce that the Winter 2017 edition of Swindon Heritage, when it is published at the end of November, will be the last. This decision comes at a time when sales are better than ever, and the magazine, which is self-supporting, is on a sound financial footing. So you might be asking why we have decided to call it a day. The following statement appears in our Autumn 2017 edition, published in September 2017.

We’ll try to keep this short, but there is no single reason why we have decided that the next edition of Swindon Heritage, which will be the 20th, will also be the last.

But we can at least boil the story down to the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good? Well, five years after we founded this magazine, our original mission has been accomplished.

We wanted to showcase Swindon’s fantastic heritage and also pay tribute to our colleagues in the voluntary sector whose work over many years has done so much to record it. We like to think we have done it and them proud.

And there has been more besides.

We’ve also organised events, with the week-long celebration of the Battle of Britain’s 75th anniversary in 2015 being the best example, while others, such as guided walks, have become ever more popular.

We have supported (and continue to support) other events and initiatives, such as Swindon 175, which included sponsoring the replica hooter installed at STEAM last year.

We are glad to be currently working with the excellent Local Studies team at the Central Library on a project involving the Dixon-Attwell Collection, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

And we are proud to have launched and managed Swindon’s long-overdue blue plaque scheme.

But we are probably proudest of all to say that the Swindon Heritage magazine is unique. No other town or city in Britain has anything like it.

Nobody – least of all us – knew whether it would be sustainable when we founded it, but we are glad to say that the magazine pays its own way, and our Summer 2017 edition sold more than any other.

We hoped that all this demonstrated how our heritage could be a huge asset that could be turned to the great advantage of the town, even though politicians routinely talk about it as if it is a liability.

And that brings us to the bad.

Unfortunately, rather than getting on with what we wanted to do, which was to put all our efforts into promoting Swindon’s heritage, we have had to spend far too much time in the tiring and tiresome business of defending it against questionable policies that seem designed to wreck the legacy that past Swindonians have gifted to us.

Rather than risk silence being interpreted as endorsement, we have been compelled to be outspoken.

We did our bit, for instance, to help force a U-turn in the Council’s desire to take the running of Lydiard House and Park out of public hands.

Unfortunately, our efforts to protect heritage have otherwise been largely fruitless, because although we have been able to draw attention to unacceptable policies and fundamental failings, we are powerless to stop them.

A good example is the shameful neglect of the agricultural collection, both before and since the disastrous fire at the start of this year, but there are other issues, such as the demolition or unconsulted selling-off of built heritage, like the former Even Swindon School and 1&3 Faringdon Road.

Meanwhile, plans have been forged to convert the historic Health Hydro into flats for financial gain, and we are appalled that this shameless act of vandalism is still on the table.

Our greatest challenge has been trying to remain positive in the face of such negativity. Producing a magazine like this one requires an enormous effort and personal sacrifices, and for that to be justified it has to make some difference to the way heritage is viewed in our town.

Despite the richness of the Swindon story, which has made filling these pages easy, our heritage has been progressively undervalued over the course of many years, and sometimes, it has seemed, even deliberately downgraded.

Worse still: in the five years that Swindon Heritage has been published, there has been no improvement in the way Swindon Borough Council handles decision-making processes, with little or no meaningful public consultation on heritage matters.

We live in an age when we are supposed to feel encouraged to volunteer and build initiatives to fill the gaps left by local authorities as they surrender their social and community responsibilities, but we are still waiting for a change in the Council’s ‘us and them’ approach.

Sadly, much the same applies to some parts of the professional heritage sector, which sometimes seems to favour the same ‘arm’s length’ policy, as if the tireless contributions of so-called ‘amateur’ local historians have only limited value.

The fact that there also seems to be no role for ourselves nor most of our colleagues in the voluntary sector in plans to open a much-needed new museum and art gallery in Swindon, seems to be another symptom of the forces of heritage failing to come together for the good of the town.

For the record: as a group of people devoted to promoting heritage, nobody will be more disappointed than us if the bid for a new museum and art gallery fails.
That would be a disaster for Swindon because we cannot see how or when there will be a better (or even another) opportunity, and we urge everyone to back the bid, despite its shortcomings.

If it does fail, it will not be because Swindon’s heritage doesn’t deserve or need it, but because the biggest flaw (of several) in the project so far has been the failure to recognise something that we would have thought was obvious.

The Heritage Lottery Fund will expect many boxes to be ticked before it releases the huge sum of money being asked for, but surely what it will expect to see evidence of, above everything else, is unprecedented public engagement, and this has very clearly been lacking.

However, there is no better example of that lack of engagement than that which any onlooker will recognise as the ugly face of heritage in Swindon.

We are talking, of course, about the Mechanics’ Institute, which is the most important historical building in this town and could be a symbol of its self-pride,
yet continues to be exactly the opposite.

The Mechanics’ should connect us with our railway heritage and inspire us, because it did more than anything to embody the spirit of Swindon in the past.

Now the building reflects the decay of that spirit, and despite our and others’ hopes and efforts to secure a future for it by raising heritage up the agenda, we are no closer to seeing the restoration and re-opening of this jewel in our crown than at any time since it was closed in the 1980s.

The tremendous support of those who backed this magazine and its attempts to boost the town’s image by celebrating its unique heritage, including our loyal readers, have kept us focused on our aims.

But feeling demoralised and powerless can eventually lead to a feeling that your efforts are futile.

That a radical rethink of the approach to Swindon’s heritage is urgently required is obvious to everyone, but we have to accept that, in this respect, this magazine has been unable to bring about any significant progress.

We hope you can see how disappointed we are to find that, despite our very best efforts, this magazine has not been able to find a role for itself in a grander plan­ for Swindon’s heritage.

But the most disappointing thing of all is: there isn’t one.

The Future

Although the magazine will not be published in 2018, Swindon Heritage will continue. Our blue plaque scheme, for instance, and our ever more popular cemetery walks, will both continue, and we will continue to support other voluntary groups in the town wherever we can. It is possible that we will produce one-off publications in the future, and we are currently considering whether an online version of the magazine is possible in some form. So you haven’t seen the last of us yet.