I am standing by St. Mary’s Church with its unique “checkerboard” tower in Reading, England. The church dates back to at least the 11th century and was once a favourite place of worship for Elizabeth I. Yes, this town is steeped in history.
Situated in the picturesque Thames Valley, Reading is overshadowed not only by its gargantuan easterly neighbour, London, but also by Oxford, its ivory-towered neighbour to the north. Reading is rather overlooked by the foreign tourist, but actually there’s plenty that would give a visitor reason to detour here.
For much of its 1,400-year existence, Reading was a hub of industry. From the mid-19th century until the 1970s it was famous for the “Three B’s”: bulbs, beer, and biscuits—the mainstays of its economy. Its earlier wealth can be seen in the ornate brickwork on older buildings. Today it is home to many information technology and financial services businesses, being a hot spot on Britain’s Silicon Corridor.
Most everything is near the train station, itself a blend of old and new, and many streets are pedestrianized and filled with cafes and pubs. There are two main shopping centres: the Broad Street Mall and the new upscale Oracle, along the River Kennet, as well as many hidden Georgian arcades.
Reading Abbey, Reading Gaol
My interest is history so I’ll head straight for the year 1121 when Henry I founded Reading Abbey, which became one of the most influential establishments in England and made Reading an important centre in the medieval period.
The abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) and today only part of the ancillary buildings survive. The ruins have been inaccessible since 2009 due to severe deterioration and can only be viewed through iron gates.
Part of the remains of Reading Abbey itself lie under HM Prison Reading and Forbury Gardens.
Forbury Gardens is a quintessential Victorian walled park with a bandstand that hosts concerts in the summer. Its proud Maiwand Lion statue commemorates the men of the 66th Berkshire Regiment who died in Afghanistan from 1878-1890. Included in the park is Forbury Hill, which was used during the English Civil War as a cannon base and may be the remains of a castle built by Henry’s nephew, Stephen.
Outside Forbury Gardens is Abbey Gate, where Jane and Cassandra Austen attended school from 1785 to 1786.
HM Prison Reading, formerly known as Reading Gaol, is no longer a correctional institution but a new hub for the arts. In September 2016, the gaol opened to the public for the first time with “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison.”
In the prison chapel, actors including Ralph Fiennes read from the works of Oscar Wilde, the gaol’s most famous inmate. The celebrated writer and wit was remanded there from 1895-1897, after which he wrote “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Reading Museum, Train Station
The Silchester Gallery at the Reading Museum, located in the Old Town Hall complex in the city centre, features artifacts from the nearby Roman town Calleva Atrebatum, including the famous Silchester Eagle and the Silchester Horse. The eagle is the subject of the children’s book that the 2011 film “The Eagle,” starring Channing Tatum and Donald Sutherland, was based on.
The Silchester Gallery is just one of the delights of Reading Museum. Among its other features are local history, wildlife, a Victorian schoolroom, a replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, and an art collection. The complex also houses a concert hall.
Reading Railway Station, one of Britain’s busiest stations, is another important part of the city’s history. Michael Bond, author of the Paddington Bear series, got inspiration for the story after seeing 125,000 child evacuees from London arriving at the old Reading Station just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The old station is now a pub. The new station, built in 1989, was reopened in 2014 after extensive expansion.
T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) claimed to have forgotten his first draft of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” at Reading station in 1919. He had to re-write the book from memory, an unfortunate occurrence as he said the original “was shorter, snappier, and more truthful.”
Reading is one of the Top 20 towns visited in the U.K. I would recommend making the city a base for exploring the southeast by car and London by train—but only after all of Reading’s own historical and cultural attractions have been explored first.
Now I’m off to find a 300-year-old pub!
Elissa Michele Zacher has been published in Ottawa Natural, Apt (an online literary magazine), and the Essence Poetry Journal, among others. She currently lives in England.