Reading: rock and royalty

Discover the burial place of a King, royal weddings and the last successful invasion of Britain. Reading is the county town of Berkshire and, by some measures, the largest town without city status in the UK.  The first settlement emerged with the foundation of Reading Minster in Saxon times, with a market established in the area outside known today as St Mary’s Butts. It was this small settlement that was occupied by the Danish Vikings in 870, which led to the first Battle of Reading between the invading Danes and Wessex forces, under the joint command of Alfred the Great.  This battle gives us our earliest written record of the town, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  Reading continued as a reasonably small settlement in Norman times (only 28 houses are recorded in the Domesday book) but the foundation of Reading Abbey by Henry I in 1121 made it a significant nexus of political power in the middle ages. Reading’s location at the confluence of the rivers Kennet and Thames, with direct access to the west of England, to the Thames Valley and to London, has always made it an ideal location for commerce, and this strategic position led to significant military engagements in in the town, in the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.  It also made possible the considerable industrial growth and expansion of the town in the nineteenth century, with the three main industries of biscuits, barrels and bulbs – the ‘Three Bs’ – dominating the town’s economy well into the 20th century.  Today, the town is a key transport hub and a major economic and commercial centre.


Reading Festival

What do you associate with Reading?  If you’re over 50, perhaps it’s Huntley & Palmers’ legendary biscuits and the frankly garish tins they were supplied in (more on them later).  But for most of us, it’s likely to be the Reading Festival – the world’s oldest ongoing popular music festival.  Established in 1971 and held every August in a field to the north of the town, it brings hordes of muddy teenagers, chock-a-block trains and half the country’s supply of wellington boots to the town.  Starting as a jazz festival in 1971, the event has – aside from a pretty disastrous flirtation with pop rock in the late 80s – focused mainly rock and metal. What sets the Reading Festival apart is its proximity to the town of Reading itself.  Just 20 minutes’ walk from the station, it’s the only major festival which feels intrinsically linked with a provincial town (its sister festival, Leeds, is set in stately home gardens on the rural outskirts of Wetherby).  And apart from a few relative newcomers based in the parks and green spaces of London’s sprawling metropolis, it’s the only one to which you can travel by public transport.  While this may have obvious frustrations for hapless residents trying to catch a train on the morning after the festival, it has created a unique, palpable link between town and festival.

Literature – Austen, Hardy, Mitford and Wilde

Reading has figured in the lives or works of four of the 19th century’s most celebrated writers. Most famously, Reading Gaol was the unwelcome home of Oscar Wilde between 1895 and 1897 when he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’.  From his cell C.3.3, he, wrote De Profundis; later, inspired by an execution he had witnessed there, Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  The Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk which runs alongside the prison wall is a rather meagre tribute, but any effort to record the town’s literary heritage deserves credit. Reading also features prominently in the Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, under the name ‘Aldbrickham’ (a nod to the ornate brickwork which features prominently in the town’s architecture).  While Hardy’s portrayal of the town is often considered quite negative, I think there is a kinder reading to it; the town is modern and industrious, offering a work and refuge to the novel’s transgressive protagonists (two co-habiting cousins, if you’ve not read it).  ‘A finer town than all your Christminsters [Oxford, in Hardy’s fictionalised world]’ is one description the books.  While this refuge may prove fleeting and superficial, Hardy’s depiction of Reading does give some clue as to the town’s character and popular perception at a key moment in its industrial expansion. Jane Austen also has a link to Reading – she was educated at Reading Ladies Boarding School from 1784-86.  The school was, at that time, partly based in the Reading Abbey Gateway; and inspired her portrayal of a boarding school in Emma.  Later, the school moved to London where another famous Reading resident, Mary Russell Mitford, also studied.  Mitford lived both in and near Reading, writing about it in her diaries and fictionalising the town’s society in ‘Belford Regis’. Collectively, these literary links not only provide a rounded snapshot of Reading in the 19th century – as a place of culture, of industry, of inspiration and of retribution – but demonstrate that Reading had a place in the Victorian popular consciousness.  Reading, in other words, mattered.

Sumer is Icumen in

How many medieval English songs can you name?  If you know any, the changes are that Sumer is Icumen in – written in Reading Abbey in the 13th century – will be first on your lips.  OK, ‘famous medieval songs’ may be a bit of a tallest dwarf competition these days, but this one has survived the ages, featuring in Robin Hood such films as Robin Hood, The Wicker Man and even an Olympic opening ceremony to set a medieval, ‘Merrie Olde England’ vibe (perhaps Ye Olde Guide should consider it for our theme song).  And the song genuinely is important in the history of music; it’s the oldest known musical round with English words and the earliest surviving example of music where you could choose between secular and religious lyrics.  And if that isn’t impressive enough; it’s possibly the earliest song to use the word ‘farting’.

Pop culture

Now, obviously, Ricky Gervais gets a mention here.  Not just for being one of the numerous modern artists to come from the town, but for interfusing his works with copious references to the town; David Brent is from Reading, and Gervais’s 2010 film Cemetery Junction (named after, though sadly not filmed in, an area to the east of the town) reflects his memories of growing up in the town.  Gervais presents the modern character of the town as a tad non-descript and bland.  It’s a well-understood trope, but perhaps a harsh for a place that retains far more independence of character than many of the other bland Home Counties commuter towns that ring London. Finally in this tour of Reading’s cultural past, look out for the old (now, mostly demolished) Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory in Bugsy Malone.  Many scenes were filmed in the abandoned complex, giving the ideal gritty, clandestine quality for a gangster film (even if the splurge guns, like the child stars, were never really all that menacing).


Liam: 6 Daniel 5.5

Politics and war

Reading Abbey: parliaments, royal weddings and a king’s tomb

Reading Abbey gave the town ecclesiastical influence.  It brought economic growth, population increase and an early form of tourism, in the pilgrims that came to visit the relics held there.  But most importantly for our purposes, it was a location of real political importance. The Abbey was founded by Henry I, third son of William the Conqueror, in part due to its strategically convenient location west of London.  The scale and location of the building led to major events being held there: until its dissolution under Henry VIII, the Abbey hosted visits by every reigning English monarch, several royal weddings, multiple parliaments and notable moments in the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses. Now, I should explain that parliaments were not exactly fixed in their location in the middle ages.  They were held in various parts of the country, and not only in the South East.  They moved often for strategic reasons (to Carlisle and York during wars with Scotland, for instance, or to dynastic strongholds during the Wars of the Roses).  But the fact that a small provincial town, so close to the centre of political power in London, could be used so frequently to hold parliament, reveals much about the geographic convenience of the town and the importance of the Abbey.  And it was chosen in 1185 to host a visit from Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Henry II, where Heraclius pleaded for supporting in repelling the threat of Saladin’s Muslim forces.  Henry declined to join the crusade and Jerusalem fell to Saladin two years later.  However simplistic, it’s hard not to imagine an alternative history here, had Henry and his council taken a different decision following the gathering at Reading. Added to this, Reading Abbey hosted several royal weddings; not merely those of minor royals, but of three of Edward III’s children.  This included John of Gaunt; father of Henry IV, founder of the House of Lancaster and a major figure in the Wars of the Roses.  Combining the two themes, Edward IV announced his clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in a council meeting at Reading Abbey in 1464; a bombshell which helped spark further dynastic rivalries and the later Wars of the Roses. There’s a somewhat grisly side to the Abbey’s history as well.  Next time you’re relaxing in the Forbury Gardens, consider the gruesome fate of the last abbot Hugh Faringdon, hanged, drawn and quartered by the adjacent inner gateway in 1539.  Or the catalogue of relics held at the Abbey included Jesus’s foreskin and the mummified hand of St James, the latter being hidden by monks during the dissolution, found in 1786 and ending up today in a church in nearby Marlow. The ruins have, at last, reopened in recent years after the best part of a decade closed.  It’s a pity that more hasn’t been made out of the Abbey’s historical importance – how often would you find as substantial a ruin as this, right in the centre of a provincial town which has undergone such redevelopment in the last few hundred years?  Some effort has been made since reopening to rejuvenate the area, with performances and information boards, but the best celebration of its past comes undoubtedly from Rabble, the local theatre group, whose dramatic depictions of Reading Abbey and its royal connections surpass anything the civic authorities have never managed.

Battle 1, Siege, Battle 2

Three pretty significant battles were fought in Reading. We start with the aptly named first Battle of Reading of 871.  This was fought as part of the Danish invasion of Wessex, between the Danish Vikings, who had taken the town shortly before, and the Wessex forces of King Aethlred I and (soon to be King) Alfred the Great.  The battle probably took place somewhere around here, with rivers on three sides providing natural protection for the Danes, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s depiction provides the earliest written evidence for the town.  The Danes won and held Reading, but subsequent battles that year saw victories go to both sides. Next on battles, we come to the 1643 Siege of Reading in the Civil War.  This occurred thanks to that common theme in Reading’s history, its strategic location; this time, standing midway between royalist-controlled Oxford and parliamentarian Windsor, and controlling the produce of Berkshire’s agricultural hinterland.  Soldiers stayed in Reading throughout the war and it changed hands several times.  It was under the control of 3,300 royalist soldiers in 1643 when a force of 19,000 parliamentarians laid siege and won control of the town after 11 days.  Significant defences were built for the town, including the extant Forbury Hill and a redoubt in the Katesgrove area.  Unfortunately, while the defences went right by my own house, my wife has put the kibosh on any archaeological digs in the garden. Finally – and most significantly – we come to the second Battle of Reading in 1688.  This battle is exceptional in historical and political terms, for being the only significant military action of the Glorious Revolution, when protestant invasion force under William III usurped the throne from the Catholic James II.  Despite what we learn at school, this – not the Battle of Hastings – was the last time that England was successfully invaded. The battle happened on the main shopping street of present-day Reading, hence its alternative name; the Battle of Broad Street.  King James had stationed about 600 Irish troops in the town, which led in part to his loss; the mass hysteria of the ‘Irish fright’ provoked fear among Reading’s inhabitants that the troops planned to massacre them, so word was sent to William’s forces stationed at nearby Hungerford.  280 troops turned up and entered Reading via present-day Oxford Road (whereas James’s forces had barricaded Castle Street, assuming they’d approach from there).  William’s forces won the battle, supported by Reading townsfolk shooting from their windows and killing 50 Irish troops, several of whom were buried in the graveyard of St Giles Church. A prominent myth exists around the Glorious Revolution; that William was simply invited in to stroll up and take the crown by a grateful parliament.  But make no mistake, this was a real invasion, facing heavy opposition and a large military force, and undertaken due to William’s strategic interests.  Comparisons between the Battle of Reading and the Battle of Hastings are therefore completely valid in my mind; certainly not in respect of scale (that only about 55 troops were killed in Reading gives some clue as to the reason for its other alternative name ‘The Reading Skirmish’), but inasmuch as this was the last British battle to be fought in a successful invasion of Britain.  This loss, to a smaller force, seems to have contributed directly to James’s loss of confidence in his ability to win, and his flight from the country.  And although there was no wholesale usurpation of the British nobility or changes to language or culture after Hastings, the invasion did have profound consequences by finally settling the issue of parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy, through the Bill of Rights.


Reading’s political and military history really belie the size and popular perception of the town.  The Abbey made Reading a centre of ecclesiastical but also political power and royal patronage, while the town’s strategic position made it the setting of three significant battles.  And importantly, the locations and remnants of all these events are in the town itself – not merely nearby, but essential pieces of the urban centre.  If only this past were better memorialised, Reading’s history would get the recognition it deserves.
  • Liam: 7
  • Daniel 7.5

Science and industry

Reading’s foundation and early political and military significance were, as we’ve seen, heavily driven by its location as a hub of two important rivers and multiple turnpike roads.  This connectivity also underpinned the town’s later industrial expansion, by placing it at the centre of supply and demand networks.  As well as the canalised rivers, several coaching inns are left as tangible reminders of this early network integration. These connections allowed Reading to act as a market, and then a processing centre, for agricultural goods, transforming the output of its rural hinterland into consumer products for sale onwards.  The railways, of course, enhanced this reach enormously later. These favourable circumstances allowed the town to prosper in specific industries; most notably, the three Bs for which Reading is famous:


Reading’s brewing industry grew from the practice of processing barley grown in the Thames Valley into, first malt, then beer for sale onwards.  It wasn’t uncommon in early industrial times for a town of Reading’s size to have many breweries to serve its own population, but Reading’s commercial networks allowed H&G Simonds Brewery to grow and serve a much wider customer base, at its peak producing one in every hundred barrels of beer sold in the country. The brewery’s operations covered a vast complex right in the centre of the town until the 1970s, where the Oracle shopping centre now stands.  Three buildings survive: the stables (until recently a branch of Loch Fyne), part of the maltings (converted to flats) and 19 Bridge Street.


Huntley & Palmers was undoubtedly Reading’s most famous business.  While somewhat forgotten today, it was a household name for my parents’ generation and of genuine international renown.  The business was founded in a small shop in London Street in 1822, and by 1900 was the world’s largest biscuit factory, serving a global market. Again, transport was crucial to the business’s growth, with a new factory being built in 1846 right next to the Great Western railway line, opened a few years previously.  The factory had its own huge railway network running round the complex, which was even used to transport railway excursion trips right into the factory.  Today, one building remains.  As with Simonds brewery, the Huntley and Palmer factory was located right by the centre of the Reading until 1976, which really shows the intrinsic link of industry to the town’s urban fabric. As well as the remaining buildings, the story of Huntley & Palmers is told in the firm’s own gallery at  Reading Museum. The factory leaves a culinary legacy too, with several types of biscuits being invented there.  These include possibly the garibaldi and certainly the nice (frankly, I hate both so would be delighted to see someone else take the credit). The local football team Reading FC took their nickname, ‘The Biscuitmen’ for many years, before ditching it for immeasurably duller ‘Royals’ after the factory closed.  While production may have ceased there, the brand has been revived by a Suffolk firm, with their products available online and in the museum shop.  They’re nothing special if you ask me, but do make a nice nostalgic gift for an elderly relative.


The final b, ‘bulbs’, refers to Suttons Seeds.  Established in 1806 as a corn merchants, the firm later switched to trading in flower and vegetable seeds from their vast complex just south of the Forbury Gardens (again, slap bang in the centre of the town) and was the first company to sell seeds commercially in foil packets.  The business’s proximity to the railway line allowed Suttons transport their products to consumers around the country.  The entrance stood next to the present-day county court until they moved to new premises in 1862 and then to Devon in 1976.  You can find the company archives, and other information about their business, at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Other businesses

Cocks’s Reading Sauce was one of Reading’s early business success stories.  It was produced in a factory on the site of Reading Central Library, tasted a bit like Worcester Sauce and was a favourite of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, also earning a mention in Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  Production ceased in the 1960s but the recipe was revived in recent years by a Reading restaurant. John Madejski founded Autotrader in Reading in the mid-70s.  This classified advertising magazine originally went by the name Hurst’s Thames Valley Trader, but later focused on cars.  Madejski – Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire, Honorary Vice Chairman of Reading Football Club Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Reading and best mates with Chris Tarrant – had lived in Reading since he was a baby, later buying the football club and plastering his name on their stadium and half of Berkshire.  He likes to make his presence felt.

Final scores

Reading may not have been the birthplace of any major industrial or scientific innovations, but begetting several nationally renowned businesses is some achievement for a town of its size.  And there’s enough commemoration of this, in the preserved buildings and museum exhibits, to satisfy the casual interest in industrial history. Scores:
  • Liam: 6.5
  • Daniel 6

Urban landscape

Architectural variety

The Victoria County History offered a pretty scathing view on Reading’s aesthetic qualities in the 1920s.  ‘The town despite its antiquity is neither handsome nor interesting’.  A hundred years on, I’m not sure the same brutal assessment could be applied, but due to the constraints of the town centre, which hasn’t really expanded since the middle ages, you have to venture out a bit.  There is a really striking mix of architectural styles in Reading, if you just know where to look for them; the almost palatial red-brick Victorian gaol stands backs directly on to the gnarled flint remains of the ruined medieval abbey, while the modern retail development at the Oracle juxtaposes with the scattered industrial buildings of the old Simonds Brewery.  To the east, the Victorian artisan cottages of Newtown, built to house workers from the nearby biscuit factory, contrast with fashionable Regency residences crafted from Bath stone and the palladian grandeur of the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

Bricks – the fourth B?

True, none of these styles are unique to Reading.  But what is notable about the town is the ornate, patterned brickwork you’ll find in many of the surviving 19th century buildings – some in the town centre (like the locally-produced red and grey bricks adorning the walls of the Town Hall), but many more in the Victorian terraced suburbs; particularly Katesgrove to the south, part of the traditional centre of Reading, where many pre-Victorian buildings also survive among the medieval town street pattern.  The aesthetic impact is a bit lost in the architectural jumble of a modern town but was certainly notable in Victorian times, inspiring Thomas Hardy to rename Reading ‘Aldbrickham’ in Jude the Obscure.

Abbey Quarter

The most striking tangible remains of both medieval and Victorian Reading – the Abbey and the Gaol – stand adjacent, in what is now known as the Abbey Quarter. It staggers me that so much of the Abbey has survived in such a central location, especially considering the extent of recycling of building materials across the town and the military damage wrought in the Civil War.  It’s just a pity there is no visitor centre that does full justice to the historical significance of the place, though the reopening of the ruins, the Abbey Quarter rebranding and some recent updates to the nearby Reading Museum have started to remedy this. Next to Reading Abbey is the Forbury Gardens; a public park based in the old garden of the Abbey and converted to a pleasure garden in the 1850s.  The Gardens are small, but they contain the fearsome Maiwand Lion; one of the largest cast iron statues in the world, built in 1886 to commemorate military deaths suffered in Afghanistan by a local regiment, whose medical officer inspired Sherlock Holmes’s companion Dr Watson.  The lion has become a symbol of Reading and appears on the latest incarnation of Reading FC’s club badgeEveryone in Reading will tell you how the architect famously based the pose incorrectly on that of a domestic cat and later killed himself through shame at his mistake.  ‘Everyone’ is, of course, completely wrong about this, but it’s hard to kill a myth when it impresses your mates.

Reading Gaol

Reading Gaol, constructed by George Gilbert Scott who famously designed the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, only ended its working life in 2014, but has an uncertain future – perhaps to be sold, perhaps converted to an arts hub if campaigners get their way.  The building is huge and imposing – even fortress-like from many angles – and forms a striking juxtaposition of industrial brick grandeur vs the sprawling stone layout of a medieval ruin.  As well as Oscar Wilde, the Gaol held military prisoners, including Irish troops during the Easter Rising and interred foreign prisoners during both world wars. It will be a shame if the building can’t be put to public use, but is, I suppose, understandable given the value of the sight and prevailing need for public funds.

Street layout

Reading’s basic street layout has remained constant for centuries; the long thin triangle running south from Friar Street and reaching a point at the start of Whitley Street is equally recognisable in maps past and present.  This fascinating interactive map of Tudor and Stuart Reading shows many of the old streets which have survived today. The long, thin shops that line the northern half of Broad Street are an intriguing remnant of Norman land reform.  ‘Burgage’ was a means by which land would be packaged off to tenants, and a landowner would often receive a package of land incorporating a section of the main street front (on which a main building might be constructed) and a long, thin parcel of land behind, which might contain gardens, crops animals or other domestic activity (see here for an illustration).  This is most notable in WH Smith’s, where you can enter from Broad Street and walk straight through to emerge in Friar Street.  It really is astounding that planning decisions from a thousand years ago are still shaping our commercial street layouts so directly.

The Oracle

The Oracle is a multipurpose shopping eating and entertainment centre in the centre of Reading.  Constructed in the 90s, the development regenerated an old industrial area, covering part of the site of Simmonds brewery and the canalised River Kennett.  It also sits on the site previously covered by the old Oracle workhouse, hence the centre’s name.  The workhouse was demolished in 1850 but still left its mark on the shape of the centre; at one entrance, on Gun Street (where a pretty good coffee cart can be found), the street curves strangely – this is where the entrance to the workhouse was located.  The gates from this entrance are now in Reading Museum.

Final scores

There’s a lot to draw on in Reading’s urban heritage – not just an aesthetic blend of styles and eras, but real substance to the remnants of history.  Our points are tempered by the absence of unique factors, and the fact that you have to look so hard for so much of the substance. Scores:
  • Liam: 5
  • Daniel: 4.5

Reality vs expectations

Reading can come across as another homogenous, humdrum commuter town, where you might not expect to find much historical material.  People might know it for little other than the festival, garish tins of biscuits at old Christmases, or a vague association with Ricky Gervais.  But in how many other town centres of this magnitude can you walk past the site of nine parliaments, three royal weddings, a civil war siege, two other major battles, two internationally famous businesses, significant moments in the Crusades and the Wars of the Roses, Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and the burial site of possibly three English monarchs?  Not many. The criticism, of course, is that you can also walk through Reading without really noticing any of this.  The town, like so many others, doesn’t make the most of what it has.  There have, we must acknowledge, been some improvements in Reading’s presentation of its heritage through the Abbey Quarter development and new galleries at the museum, but there’s no doubt that the town undersells itself. Nonetheless, there is some thriving intangible and artistic heritage, from the people who live there – Terry’s Reading Walkabouts and plays by Rabble on the Abbey, its foundation and its links to royalty.  And despite the underwhelming presentation overall, if you come expecting nothing, your expectations will be comfortably exceeded, and positive scores are therefore deserved. Scores:
  • Liam: 7
  • Daniel: 7.5

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