It’s In Swindon

Edwardian photograph: a grocer's shop.

I have a skill that I have yet to work out a way to monetise: finding places on Google Street View based on a single photograph and limited data.

You know when some account or other Tweets a black-and-white photo with some variant on, ‘Any idea where this is, Twitter peeps?’ Once I’ve finished vomiting over the use of ‘Twitter peeps’, I’m the bloke that spends an hour switching between Street View, census records, online photo archives and about 60 other sources to work it out.

It reminds of a jigsaw puzzle based on an M.C. Escher drawing I once helped the other half with. All the pieces looked the same, it seemed utterly impossible, but slowly we learned to distinguish between mostly black, cross-hatched black, sideways hatched dark grey, stippled dark grey, and so on. With an old photo, the more you stare, the more details pop out — a church spire in the background, a number on a nearby shop, the name of a brand of horse food, a faded sign…

Only this morning I cracked a puzzle set by the ever-fascinating @ghostsigns by spotting a war memorial in the bottom right corner; searching the Imperial War Museum’s war memorial database for NEWCASTLE UNDER LYME OBELISK and then exploring the area around Chesterton Park (where I’ve never been in real life) on Street View.

It’s satisfying on several levels. First, it’s pleasing to help someone else. Secondly, as someone who often wants help from others solving pub-related mysteries, I hope it earns me some Karma or something. Then there’s the pleasure of the hunt — I didn’t know anything about Newcastle-under-Lyme when I got up this morning, but now I feel as if I’ve lived there. Finally, there’s the reason most people do puzzles: the sense of elation that comes with a deferred resolution. I may have punched the air discreetly over my porridge.

My greatest triumph came closer to home a couple of years ago. The photo at the top of this post is of my partner’s great grandfather. We knew he ran a grocer’s shop in East London between the wars on a particular street (Orford Road, Walthamstow) but couldn’t work out where it was exactly. I stared at that picture, at Street View, back at the picture, back at Street View, until hours later I declared, ‘It’s in Swindon. Here, look.’

See, Orford road doesn’t slope, I eventually remembered, which broke that hang up. Then, free to think beyond what I’d assumed was an established fact, I started to look more widely, starting by Googling ROLLESTON which, among other things, is a street in Swindon. That rang a bell — wasn’t that where the other half’s great-grandmother was born? I trolled up and down Rolleston Street for a bit but couldn’t find the shop. Then I zeroed in on this distinctive feature:

Window bracket

I’d seen this, here. But the window arrangement wasn’t quite right, and none of the other buildings nearby had the same arrangement. Then, the final move: I looked at the building from a different angle and found a shot from an older Street View survey: BINGO, THERE IT IS.

That’s clearly a converted shop premises, on a slope, with the right arrangement of windows and brackets. (I didn’t know then about the back-and-forward date slider in Street View, or maybe it hadn’t appeared at that point.)

I know, I know — this is incredibly bloody boring. That’s who I am. Deal with it. And if you get stuck with something like this, do drop me a line. I might be able to help and even if I can’t I’ll have fun trying.

3 thoughts on “It’s In Swindon

      1. The chimney is the giveaway, and it’s just around the corner from where I work.

        I say “work”, but when I was searching for a good example of that poster I found this, and spent several hours trying to figure out where in central Dublin it is. Got it eventually, but if you fancy a challenge in an unfamiliar city, it’s a good one.


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