It’s my daughter’s birthday in a week. As a treat, we drove to Swindon Oasis to meet her (ex)step-sisters and her brother. I thought that as today is a Saturday and as we went in just before eleven, it would be heaving. It was virtually deserted.
It has been a stunning early December day- powder-blue skies with ice-edged clouds fringed bronze, an antique sun washing everything gold.
Inside the Oasis, you are presented with what is- essentially- an early prototype of Eden’s bio-spheres. A large geodesic dome hangs above artificial beaches and water-slides, creating semi-tropical humidity in which the surrounding shrubs and tropical foliage seem to flourish.
The sunshine kept pouring in. The children took on the behaviour of seals, lolling about at the edge of the tidal washes, plunging into waves. I was last here aged twelve- twenty six years ago. From what I could gather, the water slides still deliver the same levels of legendary thrill that they had all that time ago. It’s a simple formula.
The Oasis doesn’t seem to have been updated at all since that time. Underneath the lower stairway to the changing rooms, a fragment of the original, branded carpet is preserved; a sweeping, italic Butlins style font in yellow and orange on a blue background. A member of staff sits idly in the neon gloom in holiday-camp style uniform behind a formica curve. Above, an organic growth of sepia-brown is smeared across a small section of the dome itself- no doubt a constant bane for the management. The cafe seems to serve school-dinners, and is staffed by school children, and a school-dinner lady.
We spent around two hours there, then drove towards Pizza Express in the Old Town. As we left the city centre, we drove past an astonishing industrial wall of red brick with cream brick archways that ran alongside the road for about a fifth of a mile. This, clearly, was evidence of Swindon’s steam train heritage. There was something distinctly noble and well-built here. I imagined furnaces, great steam train components: the massive boiler cylinders, iron-spoked train wheels, a vast, Vulcan cathedral of smoke and fire.
How has Swindon treated this magisterial architecture?
It is now the Swindon Outlet centre. It houses over ninety stores.
As we drove past, we caught a glimpse of what has happened…
It wasn’t right.
We drove on and passed a park. It was touched by the same sun that gilded everything, a large expanse of emerald grass mown in immaculate lines, edged with paths, plane trees and a Victorian wall. It was empty.
Everyone was in the shops.
I mentioned this to my son,
Jem, this town is a strange place, don’t you think? They have a beautiful building which they’ve filled with crappy shops. They have a lovely park which they leave empty- what is with this place?
His answer was simple: It’s upside down.