In the north of Wiltshire, between the Cotswolds and the North Wessex Downs, Swindon is a large and growing town in undulating countryside.
This had been a small, traditional market town until the middle of the 19th century when the construction of the Great Western Railway turned Swindon into a transport hub.
The fabled engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the gargantuan Swindon Works to maintain the line and its rolling stock, and after this facility closed down in the 1980s it was slowly converted into a first-rate museum about the history of the GWR and a McArthurGlen designer outlet.
Bronze and Iron Age history abounds in Wiltshire, and there are hill forts, barrows and a World Heritage stone circle within ten miles.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Swindon:
1. STEAM Museum of the Great Western Railway
The Swindon Works of the Great Western Railway functioned for more than 140 years up to 1986 and at one time was one of the largest railway facilities in the world.
In 2000 some of these listed buildings became a museum remembering the history of the Great Western Railway.
One figure you’ll get to know is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer who almost singlehandedly designed the railway and its infrastructure.
In the capacious former sheds is a beautifully presented set of steam locomotives, like a replica of a GWR Star Class train, introduced in 1838 and a GWR 2301 Class from 1897 to name a couple.
The museum is staffed by former rail-workers, giving privileged insights into the displays, and there are tableaux showing platform scenes, ballast wagons being loaded, and shedding light on old-time skills like carriage-making.
2. Museum of Computing
The exhibition at Swindon’s Museum of Computing is a 75-year timeline of computer technology.
The museum is in a converted shop by the Central Library on Regent Circus, and it’s obvious that a lot of love has gone into the collection of vintage Apple Macs, desktop PCs, laptops, arcade games and consoles.
A couple of rare exhibits are a Science of Cambridge MK14 from 1977 and a Nintendo Powerglove from 1989. A neat thing about the Museum of Computing is that almost everything is in working order and here to be played with, so parents can introduce kids to the joys of Gameboys, Pong or Space Invaders.
3. Lydiard Park
On Swindon’s western fringe is a Grade I-listed Palladian country house in 260 acres of parkland.
The house is open for tours in summer when you can savour the main hall, dining room, morning room, drawing room, guest bedroom and dressing room, graced with ornate stuccowork, giltwood furniture, marble fireplaces, silk wallpaper and family portraits.
The grounds are open year-round and their crowning glory is the now restored walled garden from the 1740s, planted with the same types of fruit trees and flowering plants as almost 300 years ago.
The wider park is a patchwork of lakes, woodland, pasture, lawns, with interesting remnants from the Georgian estate like an ice house, as well as a cafe in the forest.
4. Swindon Museum and Art Gallery
Side by side in Swindon’s Old Town, the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery are essentially a joint attraction.
The museum is in a listed Georgian townhouse and has some worthwhile local archaeological finds like Roman ceramics and coins from a settlement at Wanborough.
You can also peruse a collection of Jurassic fossils, and a mummified hand from Ancient Egypt.
The art Gallery is in a modern building and has a strong reputation for its works by some big-hitters of 20th-century British art, like Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, L. S. Lowry and Graham Sutherland.
There are normally four or five concurrent temporary shows, and in summer 2018 these included an exhibition of interwar British art, modern ceramics and historic representations of transport in Swindon.
5. Coate Water
In Swindon’s Coate suburb there’s a park around an enormous reservoir, constructed in 1822 when the River Cole was diverted.
The purpose was to replenish the Wilts & Berks Canal, but this waterway was abandoned at the start of the 20th century.
Soon after the reservoir became the centrepiece of pleasure grounds.
Swimming has been banned in the reservoir since 1958 but a sinuous Art Deco diving platform from 1935 has remained and has earned listed status.
The lake is also a nature reserve, hosting breeding birds and migrating species in the transitional seasons, and there are bird hides to give you a better look.
The woodland has mature birch, ash and oak, and you may see deer and foxes in the wildflower meadows.
When it’s warm there’s a new Splash Park for little ones, and you can hire a barbecue and horse field for the day.
6. Swindon and Cricklade Railway
The Midland and South Western Junction Railway first opened in the 1880s and served a big sweep of the West, from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire to Andover in Hampshire.
The line closed to passengers in 1961, and shut down fully a few years later.
A preservation society was set up in 1978 and a small length of the line was opened between Blunsdon Station and Hayes Knoll.
This was eventually extending down to Taw Valley Halt on the northern outskirts of Swindon in 2014. It’s an impressive feat considering the line is managed by volunteers.
The line has both steam and diesel locomotives and generally, runs on weekends, with regular Murder Mystery nights, Children’s Treasure Hunts, a Steam Cider & Sausages event in Summer and “Santa Specials” at Christmas.
7. Stanton Park
Right outside Swindon to the north, Stanton Park is a 185-hectare country park with sweeping pasture, flower meadows, an expansive fish pond and lots of woodland.
The Great Wood is a rare tract of ancient broadleaf woodland, dating back at least four centuries and with venerable oak and hazel trees.
It’s a crucial habitat for a range of species like bats, roe deer, buzzards and a rare diversity of fungi.
Try to come in spring or early-summer, when the sheep are lambing and the meadows are in bloom.
8. Mouldon Hill Country Park
In the northwest of Swindon is a country park where the town dissolves into open countryside.
The park is named for a 100-metre hill over the River Ray, and you can visit to amble along the river or a stretch of the Old Swindon Canal that is being restored.
There’s lake hidden among the foliage and cherished by anglers for its stocks of tench, roach, perch, bream, carp and gudgeon.
Mouldon Hill has also been proposed as the future southern terminus of the Swindon and Cricklade Railway and lies not far from the current final stop at the Taw Valley Halt.
9. Richard Jefferies Museum
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Wiltshire Countryside, and one writer who proclaimed his joy for these landscapes was the Victorian Richard Jefferies.
He was born in Coate in 1848, and his birthplace and childhood home are a museum.
The galleries in this charming 19th-century farmhouse delve into Jefferies’ relationship with nature and agriculture, and how it was expressed in well-known works like The Life of the Fields and Bevis.
As Jefferies was an early conservationist, the exhibits also look at his influence on another West Country writer, Edward Thomas, and figures like David Attenborough.
There are pieces of family memorabilia and a shop selling all of Jefferies’ works.
10. Swindon Designer Outlet
People travel long distances to shop at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet in Swindon, for discounts of up to 60% on retail price.
Sharing the site with the STEAM museum, this is one of Europe’s largest covered designer outlets, and has a beautiful home inside the converted brick industrial buildings of Swindon’s Great Western Railway Works.
There are more than 90 stores, with international names like Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein Jeans, Boss, Levi’s and Vans, and brands more familiar to British shoppers, like Ted Baker, Next and M&S. Shopping for bargains is hungry work, and there’s a choice of fast food, fast casual and more formal restaurants, from Subway to Wagamama to Carluccio’s.
11. Roves Farm
Just the ticket for families with children up to the age of ten, Roves Farm is a big agricultural attraction, blending play areas and animal encounters with subtly educational experiences.
Kids can go on themed tractor rides, meet and feed tame domestic animals in the pets corner, see larger animals like donkeys, sheep, cows and alpacas in their paddocks, watch animal races and join in craft sessions.
There’s an adventure playground, bouncy castle, heated play barn for rainy days and sand pits, while kids can build their own dens in two acres of willow woodland or take part in a family walk, filling in activity sheets as they go.
12. Jungle Parc
An option for active families at Lydiard Park, Jungle Parc is a high ropes course in the estate’s woodland.
There are two main courses at Jungle Parc: The Adventurer Course on the forest floor is for kids aged three and up, and has more than 50 different activities.
Kids will also be guided by expert climbers throughout the experience.
The Xplorer Course is for bigger kids and adults, and is suspended higher in the canopy and features dozens of tricky but rewarding obstacles, from rope bridges to climbing nets, Tarzan swings, suspending logs and zip-lines.
13. The Ridgeway
Since 1972 an ancient route across the North Wessex Downs and the Chilterns has been managed as a National Trail.
The Ridgeway has been touted as the oldest road in Britain, a trackway journeyed by soldiers, herdsmen and travellers since prehistory.
The Ridgeway passes not far south of Swindon, before arcing down to Overton Hill, just west of Marlborough.
If you fancy walking a section there’s Bronze Age and Iron Age history on every hill.
Liddington Castle for instance is a late-Bronze Age fort, and at 277 metres is the highest point in the Borough of Swindon.
Close by, Barbury Castle is from the Iron Age, with two layers of steep ramparts, 2,500 years old and impossible to miss.
14. Avebury Stone Circle
Often overshadowed by Stonehenge, the prehistoric monuments at Avebury, only ten miles south of Swindon, are no less special.
For one thing, you can actually walk among the stones at Avebury and scramble up the circular earthworks.
What is known is that Avebury had immense spiritual significance some 4,500 years ago, and the largest stone circle in Britain was constructed.
This once consisted of more than 500 standing stones, many of which remain, while others were broken up to build houses in the village.
There’s a central cove, inner circle, outer circle, henge (circular earthwork) and avenues, all built across 600 years.
Combine a visit to the monument with Avebury Manor, a grand 16th-century house with furniture and utensils that you can touch and pick up.
15. ATBShop Skate Warehouse
If anyone in your group is into skating there’s an entire indoor skatepark in a warehouse in Swindon.
This has a smartly crafted set of ramps, jumps and obstacles for grinding.
You can check the ATBShop’s website for a timetable, as there’s a variety of sessions, like a Kids’ Club, when only youngsters get to use the facilities, and mixed sessions for grownups and kids.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Weekends you can book the whole warehouse for yourself.
If you don’t have skating or safety gear you’ll be able to hire everything you need from the shop.