The 900 years of history on show around Reading

PUBLISHED: 11:03 30 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:14 01 September 2020

The majestic ruins have seen 900 years of British history - much of it very significant © Chris Forsey

The majestic ruins have seen 900 years of British history - much of it very significant © Chris Forsey

Chris Forsey

The town is a fascinating mix of architecture, from medieval times to the 21st century, but modern day celebrations revolve around 900 years of history

For many years Henry I, son of William the Conqueror and founder of Reading Abbey, might well have been at least metaphorically ‘turning in his grave’ (not that we know the exact site of his interment there) at the antics of some later holders of the crown.

Chief among them would be Henry VIII who had the abbey, then one of the most magnificent in Europe, high on his list for destruction under the Dissolution of the Monasteries after declaring himself head of the Church of England. Until then it attracted thousands of pilgrims every year and was the centrepiece of many royal events, including weddings and funerals.

The abbey was also very wealthy, so it wasn’t just about wrecking the majestic buildings. Henry VIII grabbed the treasures, the monks fled and its abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon, was given a quick trial for high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the church there.

But the abbey still had its uses, even if scavengers took advantage over the years to make off with the likes of stonework and lead for other building works. Now a royal lodging, it was often a stopping off point for Elizabeth I on her travels. The 17th century Siege of Reading in the Civil War hastened the destruction of the ruins as the stones were used to build fortifications and the abbey itself suffered during the onslaught. Charles II paid for a few repairs, but that was the end of any royal involvement.

Ownership and maintenance of the ruins became something of a thorny issue. More of the stone went towards the building of St. James’ Roman Catholic Church in 1837. At least the Abbey Gateway survived, leading to a school room of the Reading Ladies Boarding School attended by Jane Austen, although it too fell down in a gale and had to be rebuilt.

Hope at last

Fast forward to 2009 and at first it seemed as if more gloomy news was on the horizon when the ruins were closed to the public because deterioration made them unsafe. But the following year Reading Borough Council unveiled the ‘Reading Abbey Revealed’ project for the Abbey Quarter and at the end of 2015 the project secured Heritage Lottery funding of £1.77m.

The council matched this funding and last month the public could once again visit the ruins and see the meticulous work done by CRL Restoration and their expert sub-contractors, Cliveden Conservation. Historic England funded the conservation of the refectory wall.

What’s in the Quarter?

The Quarter includes Reading Museum, the Town Hall, Reading Gaol, St. James’s and St Laurence’s Church, Forbury Gardens, and the remains of Reading Abbey. The ruins and Gateway are Grade I listed buildings and Scheduled Ancient Monuments. If you plan to take in all the history during a visit we’d recommend starting with calling in at the museum to see the Abbey Gallery (be prepared to be delayed by its other fascinating collections).

Open to enjoy

Residents and history fans from afar flocked to the Abbey for the re-opening ceremony during Reading’s Water Fest, celebrating the town’s waterways. There was an official ribbon-cuttign ceremony overseen by Reading’s Mayor, Cllr Debs Edwards and HM Lord-Lieutenant of the Royal County of Berkshire, James Puxley.

Characters from the abbey’s past were recreated during entertainment including Civil War weapon displays and re-enactments. But the celebrations are not over yet... 


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