If you must drive, don’t go to Swindon. Just don’t go there. Get someone who already lives there to come out and fetch you.
The place is a nightmare of bad signage and confusing road layouts. It’s the location of the notorious Magic Roundabout, designed by Frank Blackmore, claimed to be safer than any alternative because drivers are so terrified they go slowly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Roundabout_(Swindon).
The sensible way to reach Swindon is, of course, by train.
Walk from the station to the surviving Railway Village, built in the early years of the Great Western Railway as a company town, New Swindon, alongside the line and the works, away from the original market town, Old Swindon.
The rows of terraced houses, with gardens, are now carefully looked after, unlike the desperately neglected, historically important Mechanics’ Institute (1855; extended 1892) [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/content/image_galleries/swindon_mechanics_institute_gallery.shtml?1, http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=41501 and http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/showthread.php?t=3228].
Walking through the subway under the railway tracks into the area that was the great railway works is a poignant experience. On the other side of the tracks, sturdy stone buildings from the days of Gooch, Dean and Churchward stand alongside modern structures with names such as ‘Heritage Plaza’. Some of the site is occupied by those great wealth-generators, English Heritage and the National Trust. Walk through the door of one building and you’re immediately in the midst of John Lewis’ furniture department: this is the Swindon Designer Outlet [http://www.swindondesigneroutlet.com], which has the GWR locomotive 7918 Hinton Manor as a backdrop to the food court.
Across the way, STEAM – the Museum of the Great Western Railway [http://www.steam-museum.org.uk] is superb, capturing the noise and busy-ness of the great works in a restricted space, and telling its story with breadth and wit. It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, with plenty to occupy children and big kids. I worked the signals and points to let the Royal Train past, because there was too much of a queue to drive an engine.
That said, there’s nothing much to eat inside the Museum, though there is a National Trust café, more department-store than country-house, in Heelis, their headquarters across the way which is named after the author Beatrix Potter, Mrs William Heelis [http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-trust/w-thecharity/w-new_central_office/w-new_central_office-heelis.htm].
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Waterways and Railways between Thames and Severn tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.