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The Locarno: Swindon’s Notre-Dame?

Paris. The City of Light. Beautiful. Elegant. City of culture, of great art, of philosophy, of groundbreaking literature. City of landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre’s Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe…

Swindon. Er… not Paris.

At several points in its history Swindon has been an economic powerhouse: canals (which met in the town) brought the benefits of extensive trade in the 18th Century; in the 19th Swindon was the construction site for all the rolling stock for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway; and throughout the 20th and into the 21st Centuries the town has attracted the heavy-hitters of industry and business to make their home there. Nationwide Building Society, Zurich Financial Services and others have headquartered themselves in Swindon; WH Smith and the National Trust have put down roots; the UK Space Agency finds the atmosphere capable of supporting life; and, though Honda and BMW are, if not hitting the highway just yet, apparently packing the boots and fixing the roof-racks, it doesn’t feel unduly optimistic to think that, ere long, there’ll be someone else along to occupy those two car-makers’ well-located, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities.

Odd, then, that Swindon – its commercial centre, anyway – should feel so downbeat. Dreary and soulless, with evidence of poverty that is strangely disproportionate. Greater than it should be, I mean. There’s poverty everywhere, of course, in every city; but in an ostensibly thriving burg like Swindon, one expects to see less of it.

But even its most fervent apologists would surely concede that Swindon is an unlovely town, architecturally speaking. And I wonder whether what I’m seeing isn’t poverty so much, but more a lack of civic pride. And, if so, whether that can be restored.

In April of this year, arguably the most important of Paris’s landmark buildings endured a cataclysmic fire. The medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, held by many to be the soul of the French capital, burned for 15 hours. The damage was extensive, as you’d expect: the blaze brought down the spire and much of the roof, but thanks to the efforts of 500 firefighters the main structure remained intact.

Emmanuel Macron immediately promised that Notre-Dame would be restored, and called for the work to be carried out within five years. The French president intuitively understood – understands – the importance of the cathedral to the French psyche. If Paris is the beating heart of France, then Notre-Dame is, or was, the beating heart of Paris. And will be again.

Swindon at present has no beating heart – but it could have. All it takes is money, imagination and commitment.

In contrast to the lacklustre and rather drab business zones that have been developed to the north of the borough, Swindon’s Old Town is a vibrant, pretty place. Old Town is as its name implies: the hilltop site of the original Anglo-Saxon settlement which, though it grew and developed over the centuries, retained much of its original ‘market-town’ character. As indeed it still does; the markets may have come and gone, but their legacy is a small district of quaint buildings, interesting shops, and agreeable bars and restaurants. Old Town is where Swindonians go to have fun.

And dominating Old Town is the Old Town Hall, more commonly referred to as the Locarno (see top).

Originally built in 1852 and enlarged and added to over the next 40 years or so, as well as being the town hall this edifice served as a market hall, courthouse, storage facility, wine warehouse and corn exchange. When council business was transferred to the New Swindon Town Hall in 1891, the Old Town Hall was given over to entertainment – the cavernous space at its centre became by turns a 1,000-seater theatre, a rollerskating rink, a cinema, and then after World War II a dance hall and concert venue: the Locarno.

The 1960s were the Locarno’s glory days. As a concert hall the place attracted all the top acts – the Kinks, the Hollies, the Who, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and many, many more. To this day, Swindonians of a certain age go all misty-eyed when you bring up the subject of that old rock-‘n’-roll mecca, 50-odd years ago.

The Locarno: as it is now…

For whatever reason, in the late 60s and early 70s the bands stopped coming. The Locarno struggled on for a while as a bingo hall, before finally closing its doors and starting on a long, slow decline.

Actually, the decline wasn’t that long or slow. Two devastating fires, in 2003 and 2004, sped up the process considerably. But what you see now is the result: a woeful, desolate, still-noble structure (above), desperately in need of someone to come along and give it new life.

There are reasons to be hopeful. Developers are in protracted discussions with Swindon Borough Council, trying to arrive at an agreement on how best to redevelop the place. Negotiations have been dragging on for years – but there does, finally, seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. There’s talk of restaurants, chic apartments, nightclubs, an ‘entertainment space’ – but above all, turning the Locarno back into a focal point for the people of Swindon. Proud of its past, and looking to the future.

…and as it could be again (with apologies for the pixellation)

And it can’t come soon enough. Swindon, not overly blessed with landmark buildings, needs the Locarno arguably even more than Paris needs Notre-Dame. A place to restore some civic pride – and make the heart of this redoubtable, industrious, forward-looking town beat once again.

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