Dare you navigate across Swindon’s infamous counter-flow ‘Magic-Roundabout’ – the ‘white-knuckle’ ride of traffic?
You’d be forgiven for being perplexed at the notion of a traffic roundabout being of any interest to anyone other than traffic-system aficionados. But you couldn’t be more wrong. This fabled entity is known the world over.
Created in 1972, Swindon’s Magic Roundabout was originally named the County Islands roundabout due to its location in close proximity to the town’s County Ground football stadium, home of Swindon Town FC. But the locals were not long in bestowing upon it the nickname ‘The Magic Roundabout’ after the TV programme of that name. Eventually the local authority submitted to the popular consensus and officially re-named the roundabout and gave it appropriate signage.
Swindon is famous, even infamous, for its roundabouts. But this legendary one surely has to be the jewel in the town’s roundabout crown? Situated on a junction where five roads meet, the traffic-consuming monster vexes native visitors and utterly baffles those from across the pond. For all this though Swindonians love it and generally find their passage across it to be smooth and fluid, even at peak times.
The roundabout was created by the Road Research Laboratory (RRL) to deal with an area that was a motorist’s nightmare, being routinely unable to handle the sheer volume of traffic converging on it from five directions. Like many of the best ideas their solution was stunning in its simplicity. They simply combined two roundabouts in one. The first being of the conventional clockwise type and the second, revolving inside the first, sending traffic anti-clockwise. This counter-flow roundabout solved the congestion problems back in the 1970s and is still, despite the ensuing increase in traffic volume over the last 40 years, processing it all as quickly and as smoothly as a giant Magimix.
Click here to watch an American study of roundabouts on YouTube that pays tribute to the brilliance of Swindon’s Magic Roundabout (from 6.02)
Traffic keeps moving almost all the time, waiting only a few seconds to join each mini-roundabout and thus steadily travelling at low speed across the junction. A normal roundabout would involve long waits to join; signals would involve bursts of movement and long enforced stoppages. As a result, it has been calculated that the Magic Roundabout has a greater throughput of traffic than anything else that it would be possible to install in the same space. Magic indeed! Moreover, it has an excellent safety record.
Although voted the seventh worst junction in the UK, the roundabout’s bark is worse than its bite. Though appearing difficult to negotiate, all it asks of the driver is to be observant and to always give priority to traffic coming from the right.
One approach to the roundabout is to drive down Drove Road from Swindon’s Old Town. If you don’t fancy manoeuvring it in a car it’s possible to stand and observe the carefully controlled mayhem from the safety of the pavement – you can even consume fish and chips from the chippy on the corner while you do.
Swindonians are very proud of their Magic Roundabout and the tourist information desk, situated in the town’s central library on Regent Circus, sells a wide range of Magic Roundabout memorabilia that runs the range from key-rings to mugs to tea-towels and even T-shirts. So, if you’ve braved this colossal contraption of a road system you can celebrate your feat of derring-do with a suitable souvenir or two.
Whether you love it, hate it or are indifferent to it one thing is for sure: visit Swindon and you can’t ignore it.
This song from Swindon-grown band XTC effectively and poetically captures, whether directly intentional or not, the dizzying assault on the senses this behemoth can induce in their 1981 song: ‘English Roundabout’:
‘ … all the horns go ‘beep! beep!’
All the people follow like sheep,
I’m full of light and sound,
Making my head go round, round.’