PUBLISHED: 12:51 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:11 20 February 2013
If you believe a recent survey, Reading is dominated by national retail brands and near the top of the list of 'Clone Town Britain.' Really? asks Susie Owen. She delves a little deeper
Many years ago Sir John Betjeman wrote that few towns are less prepossessing at first glance than Reading.but few towns better repay exploration. Although Reading is rather more prepossessing these days it still suffers unfairly from labels like clone town and definitely rewards some real exploration.
In the build-up to Christmas the town centre really comes to life with not only some of the best retail offerings in the UK, but glorious Christmas lighting, loads of festive events (including all the fun of traditional panto at The Hexagon) and, of course, some truly great places to enjoy seasonal fayre.
Clone town? Hardly. Armed with a challenging shopping list entitled gifts for hard-to please relations, just look what you can discover. The trick is simply to look for the unusual its very easy to spend your hours lost to the charms of The Oracle or to drift between the major department stores, but take a few steps off your usual path and discover Harris Arcade a veritable Aladdins cave of unique and unusual little shops. There is delightful retro fashion in Tiger Lillys, re-imagined clothing with a designer edge in Oxfam Reworked, and millinery masterworks from Adrienne Henry. Little boys (and the ones who never quite grew up) will love the TV and movie collectables on offer at the Reading Collectors Centre (great for vintage china as well); youll find stocking fillers galore in Strange Sweets (lots of sweeties your Gran will remember) as well vintage vinyl at The Sound Machine and all the guilty pleasures of a traditional, quality tobacconists at Shave and Coster: cigar heaven!
Husbands and boyfriends should be given firm directions to The Walk, where Pudding and a selection of some of the finest lingerie around awaits them. Brands including D&G and La Perla, cover all sorts of styles from the sweet and flirty to the downright decadent. While they are in The Walk make sure the boys know to add some chocolate treats from Leonidas to your festive stockings!
In return your boys will be forever in your debt (well for at least a few weeks) if you buy them something very special from Basilica Duo (Abbey Street) packed with designer labels just for men (think Grentson and Belstaff). Eclectic Games (Market Place) is a great place to explore for stocking-fillers for big boys its packed (literally) to the rafters with all sorts of rare and unusual board games, role playing games and jigsaws.
Another thing people seem to overlook about Reading is the number of outstanding, family-run businesses that are still trading. Jacobs the Jewellers is definitely the place for all little girls (and boys) who have been very good this year who knew you could buy Cartier and Bulgari on the Reading high street? Just across the road from Jacobs youll find Jacksons of Reading, an utterly charming department store which is still family run and an absolute hidden gem when it comes to gift ideas for aunts or mums who love crafts or classic brand names. Mum and dad are well catered for at Aldridges (Friar St) as well specialising in top quality leather goods this is definitely where to head for wallets, briefcases, and handbags from top names.
Family names are still going strong amongst our food retailers too although Frosts the Fishmonger is now the Smelly Alley Fish Company you will still find Dudmans Greengrocers in Union Street (or Smelly Alley as its known locally!). Just around the corner from here is Vicars Butchers, specialists in game and free range meats, and although we are bemoaning the loss of County Delicatessen the truly inspirational Bills Produce Store has sprung up to take its place (next to St Mary Minster). Bills is a restaurant, caf and food retailer and a good place to pick up all kinds of delicious foodie gifts.
If you know someone well enough to understand their taste in art (and want to buy them something very special) then Lemongrove Art Gallery would be the first place to look. Contemporary art from names such as Brian Shepherd and Kim Donaldson would be an investment, as well as something beautiful to look at for years to come. Alternatively, find a photo or print that you know someone loves and have a bespoke mount and frame made for it at Keeleys (King Street, opposite the library). Its this type of personal approach which makes a gift really special.
You may be thinking of looking for a gift for your home this Christmas (or perhaps combining your his and her presents). Now is the perfect time to invest whether youve been promising yourself a state of the art surround sound system from Bang and Olufsen or furniture that defines the phrase design classic at Beadle Crome Interiors or Peter Green.
Tired yet? Thats just the excuse you need to relax and treat yourself in one of Readings eateries. Bills has already been mentioned (opened in September and already a foodie icon) but you should also explore Picnic (great for mince pies, warming coffee or Christmassy glass of mulled wine) and the chic, yet incredibly friendly bar/cafe at Penta hotel (you might be tempted to leave the boys here if they get tired they can play pool, read in the library area or get some exercise on the Wii!). For a real I deserve this! lunch take the girls to London Street Brasserie, Forburys Restaurant or Malmaison Brasserie. All offer fine food, and a menu fixe lunch, so you wont feel too guilty about your delicious break from shopping.
Finally look up! Its amazing that so many people seem to walk around with blinkers on paying no mind to the range of architecture around them. At street level Reading may appear like the average clone-town high street, but (and here we are back at Betjeman) explore your surroundings and enjoy the Victorian and Edwardian architecture above the shop fronts; spend a few minutes admiring the high Victorian Gothic of Waterhouses Town Hall, the Simeon Monument on Market Place (designed by Sir John Soane) or the fine checkerboard tower of St Mary Minster.
Clone town? Whoever said so should really come and visit.