When Crossbow House – headquarters of the Wernham Hogg Paper Company from the hit TV series The Office – was demolished a decade ago, Ricky Gervais took to Twitter to lament its demise as “sad news”. As the star of the show set in Slough, the hapless but (usually) well-meaning David Brent, Gervais had a soft spot for the 60s office block on Slough’s sprawling trading estate. After all, it had been where he had made his big on-screen breakthrough.
He even wrote a song paying homage to the Berkshire town – recently named the UK’s best commuter town after it was brought six minutes closer to London by the Elizabeth Line. Sung in the character of Brent, it boasts the lyrics: ‘”And you know just where you’ll be heading, it’s equidistant ‘tween London and Reading.”
Not many tourists, however, head to Slough. The city council’s website does not offer tourist information. There is no tourist information office. The online UK holiday planning portal visitoruk.com kindly deflects the potential holidaymaker’s attention to greener territory: “Whilst not regarded as a tourist destination in itself, there are numerous visitor attractions within easy reach…”
The town has long been the butt of jokes for its dreary associations, most of which stem from one notable poem – referred to by some locally as “that poem” (or sometimes “that poisonous ode”), not even wanting to mention the name of its author.
The literary culprit, of course, is John Betjeman and the lines from his 1937 poem entitled “Slough’” which begins: “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough/ It isn’t fit for humans now,” before continuing: “Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens/ Those air-conditioned, bright canteens”.
It might have been regarded as bad publicity as far as attracting visitors was concerned, were there a local tourist office to consider it so.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to visit, even if the idea of Europe’s largest privately-owned industrial estate – which emerged in the 1920s from an old First World War vehicle dump and now houses the Mars and DHL UK headquarters (Mars bars have been made on the estate since 1932), IT firms and pharmaceutical companies – may not exactly entice.
An ambitious £3bn urban renewal scheme is under way, its projects including a new landmark library, cultural centre and café in The Curve, new homes and leisure facilities, modern hotels such as Moxy and restaurants.
You have to be committed to give Slough a chance, mind you: I should know, having spent a long weekend there researching my book on holidaying in unsung Britain.
The best place to get started is the town museum, housed in The Curve, where you will sadly have just missed an exhibition of “100 Objects Over The Years Of The Slough Trading Estate” (exhibits included a 1920s jar of Mentholatum vapour rub, a display of Ragus sugars and syrups, a reconstructed Thunderbirds studio and a Ford GT40 car).
However, there is historical interest aplenty, such as the town’s connection to Sir William Herschel, the King’s Astronomer (1738-1822), who lived in Slough and who discovered the planet Uranus in the town from his observatory in 1781. Herschel had initially wanted to call it George’s Star in honour of his patron George III, but this was blocked by the French during international discussions.
Other connections of note: Queen Victoria made her first train journey from Slough to Paddington in 1842 (the now-fast 19-minute connection was a contributing factor to its commuter town ranking); Cox’s Orange Pippin apples were first grown in Slough; Charles Dickens regularly visited (to meet his mistress Nelly Ternan), and the popular Slough Ice Arena (recently refurbished) has been used by ice-skating stars including Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
Slough Museum is bang in the town centre, which with its discount high street shops, 60s architecture and steady flow of traffic is not perhaps not going to have tourists flooding in from Tokyo and Beijing any time soon. There is, however, the Wernham Hoggs pub for any diehard fans of The Office.
From the high street it’s a short drive to the edge of town to visit the setting that inspired Thomas Gray’s peaceful “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” (1751), which is littered with phrases that have passed into common usage: “far from the madding crowd”, “paths of glory”, “kindred spirit.”
St Giles Church in Stoke Poges, where Gray is buried, is tucked away on a hill with views across Slough, revealing the full extent of the trading estate from above, which may even seem charming with its sodium lights flickering around dusk (if you squint your eyes a bit). The adjoining Stoke Poges Memorial Gardens are Grade I-listed and contain water features, a rose garden, woodland and a rock garden.
Another Slough “attraction” is also on its outskirts. Eton is a 40-minute walk south from the Slough Museum, ducking beneath the M4, traversing the famous college’s playing fields and arriving at its quaint main street (college tours possible on certain days). Continue for 15 minutes over a little pedestrian bridge above the River Thames, and you are soon in Windsor.
The late Queen Mother, of Queen Elizabeth II, once looked out from the castle and mused: “Wasn’t it nice before Slough was here?” Which was a bit harsh – there’s plenty to do over a couple of days, even if there’s no tourist information office to help out.
Tom Chesshyre is the author of To Hull and Back: On Holiday in Unsung Britain (Summersdale)