England - Swindon: a surprisingly interesting place

by Sally.Dowling

Swindon, in Wiltshire, is famous for railways and Honda cars but must have more going for it - it has just been officially twinned with Walt Disney World in Florida

Despite its dull image, Swindon offers more than you would think for an interesting short break. Recently the town hit the news for two reasons, the first UK town to offer free wi-fi internet and amazingly it is to be twinned with Disney World in Florida. In a competition set by Disney, the town beat a selection of other UK towns for this coveted accolade and success was all due to the amusing video produced by local resident Rebecca Warren. If nothing else, this is certain to put Swindon firmly on the tourist map.

It is easy to get to Swindon as there are train connection from all over the UK, mostly through London, which is just an hour away using the First Great Western services from Paddington to the West Country and Wales (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk). National Express coaches also have nationwide services and some very attractive fares (www.nationalexpress.com). Or by road just hit the M4 and keep going to junction 15 or 16, but beware of the famous Magic Roundabout, voted one of Britain's scariest road junctions!

Once a small market town, the advent of the railway changed Swindon into a hub for the Great Western Railway and provided employment for thousands. The original Old Town, with its narrow streets and courtyards, is a mix of pubs, bars and traditional shops and well worth exploring. The coming of the railway created a new town centre for Swindon, now a pedestrianised shopping area with all the usual outlets. But as with so many town centre precincts, lacks character.

Head out of the town centre and the biggest draw for shopaholics like me is the wonderful Swindon Designer Outlets Centre in Kemble Drive (www.swindondesigneroutlet.com). There are over 90 designer and high street names all housed undercover in the old Great Western Railway Works. Front line fashion names such as Hobbs, LK Bennett and Aquascutum rub shoulders with everyday favourites such as M&S and Next. There are also a surprising number of sports and specialist outdoor shops, Timberland, Nike, Tog 24 a to name a few. Plenty of houseware outlets including John Lewis makes this the place to shop 'til you drop. If you have bored children with you then treat them to an hour in the crèche while you go bargain hunting or sip a coffee while they let off steam in the outside play area. Although the centre has plenty of options for lunch and snacks I prefer the calm of the adjacent National Trust Headquarters. There you will find a spacious restaurant serving all the National Trust old favourites as well as a gift shop and plenty of areas to relax and recuperate. Italian foodies will love the friendly atmosphere and tasty menu at Bottelino's (www.bottelinos.net) situated alongside the shopping outlet in the refurbished Old Pattern Store, a listed building, once part of the GWR. In bright and cheerful surroundings you can enjoy all the Italian favourites including great pizzas. The midweek menu is great value at just £4.95 a head for any pizza or pasta dish, and best of all, they welcome children with open arms! On Sunday mornings the outlet also hosts a farmers market where you can buy organic meat and veg, freshly baked pastries and bread and a selection of home made goodies.

If the kids have behaved themselves and when you are all shopped out you can take them to ‘Steam’, the Great Western Railway Museum situated next door to the outlet (www.steam-museum.org.uk). Here you will learn the story of the glory days of rail travel when Swindon was the centre of operations of the GWR, employing over 12,000 people. Interactive displays, memorabilia and famous locomotives make for an interesting afternoon for everyone.

Another attractive open space in Swindon is the 260 acres of parkland at Lydiard Park, home to the ancestral home of the Viscounts Bollingbroke. These gardens and open spaces are a delight to explore whatever the time of year and the Palladian House has been beautifully restored and is now also open to the public (www.lydiardpark.org.uk).

Swindon has a huge variety of hotels and guest houses but my tip would be to travel a few miles north to the beautiful Cotswold Water Park Hotel. This new property is right on the waterfront, set amongst lakes, rivers and countryside. All the rooms are light and spacious and many overlook the lake with decked terraces and walkways. The hotel has a beautiful spa area with indoor pool, gym and beauty treatments and the hotel often offers good value spa breaks.

There are also various sized self catering apartments available, ideal for families or groups should you wish to have some independence or maybe are tempted to stay a while longer. The hotel restaurant is elegant and stylish with fabulous views over the lake but I have to say the food wasn’t that memorable when I visited and I preferred the bistro style meals available in the adjacent Old Boathouse pub.

The Cotswolds Water Park Information Centre (www.waterpark.org) is just next door to the hotel and from there you can pick up maps and details of all the local activities on land and water.

With historic Cirencester and Cheltenham just a few miles north and Marlborough to the south, plus the gorgeous Cotswolds on your doorstep – why not consider Swindon for a break who knows, you might meet up with Mickey and his friends!