My town and my gown: between dreaming spires and magic roundabouts

Ellie Jerome finds that more divides Oxford and Swindon than a stretch of the A420

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Although only a 40-minute drive down the A420 separates the two­—a fact that I am always thankful for when hauling all my worldly possessions back and forth every eight weeks—Swindon can seem like a world away from the honey-tinted stone and neatly-trimmed quads of Oxford.

Despite the fact that it was once twinned with Disneyland Paris, I’m not convinced that the tag line ‘happiest place on Earth’ is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Swindon. Instead, when I tell people where I’m from, they recognise it as either the town where the Bodleian has a book storage facility, the place where the Wernham Hogg Paper Company from TV sitcom The Office has its second branch, or maybe just as the place that has loads of roundabouts. In fact, the Mayfair of the Swindon Monopoly board (yes, we have our own special edition Monopoly) is the Magic Roundabout: five mini-roundabouts arranged around a sixth central roundabout. Roundabouts are to Swindon what cyclists are to Oxford: absolutely everywhere and a major concern for nervous learner drivers.

Aside from the roads, the differences in the nightlife between Swindon and Oxford stand out. One thing I do miss about Swindon nights out is the free entry and the cheaper drinks. One thing I don’t miss is the sexual harassment that seems to be so much more common. I have never experienced unwarranted roaming hands on the dancefloor or catcalling on the walk home from the club in Oxford, but the same can’t be said for my nights out back home. However, perhaps I have just been lucky. After all, Oxford certainly isn’t devoid of such issues.

My next complaint may seem trivial in comparison, but it is one just as close to my heart: there are simply no good kebab vans in Swindon. The Oxford streets offer a plethora of wonderfully greasy options for students stumbling back to college in the early hours. But in Swindon, the closest you can get to a falafel wrap from Hassan’s or a St Anne’s Special from Ali’s (if you haven’t heard of this, please do yourself a favour and look it up) is a cook-from-frozen garlic bread baguette drunkenly thrown in the oven at 4am. Despite all of this, I do sometimes find myself in the middle of the crowded cheese floor of Park End, yearning for the Swindon night out. Without the luxury of several floors that can all play different genres, the Swindon DJs have no choice but to mix between cheese, house and R&B all in the same set. Although it’s slightly strange to hear Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ transition smoothly into ‘Gasolina’, the eclectic mix is weirdly enjoyable. It allows you to cover all your music tastes without having to manically run from floor to floor, inevitably losing several of your friends in the process.

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Further contrasts between my ‘home home’ and my ‘home from home’ are immediately clear to anyone who has wandered through the centres of both. Oxford is characterised by historical colleges and procrastinating students overflowing out of quaint pubs, or lazily punting down the Cherwell. The centre of Swindon, on the other hand, is characterised by the aforementioned roundabouts and some horrendous blocks of 1960s architecture (actually, this is one thing that Swindon and Oxford have in common—every college seems to have the obligatory concrete eyesore). To be fair, Swindon has been working hard on regeneration and the centre has undeniably improved—we now have a GBK and a Nando’s—but the shopping choice still leaves much to be desired. Actually, perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. I can blow my student loan in a matter of weeks thanks to the seemingly never-ending Zara sale in the Clarendon, but my bank account stands a much better chance over the vac, when I have to venture out to Bristol or Bath for a proper shopping trip. This links to one of my favourite things about living in Swindon: its close proximity to a wealth of other worthy destinations. Bristol, Bath, Reading, the Cotswolds, Cardiff and, of course, Oxford are all only a short and relatively inexpensive train-ride away.

OK, OK, so ‘It’s pretty close to better places!’ doesn’t sound particularly flattering to the town itself. And yes, Swindon isn’t without its flaws. But, although I have quickly become accustomed to thinking of Oxford as my home, I always feel relief at escaping the high-pressure of the dreaming spires, and returning to the strange comfort of my imperfect hometown.