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Visit Report – A Guided Tour of Reading Abbey

Does the Gaol mark the spot?

Undeterred by the weather forecast, a sizeable group of HA&HG members and non-members gathered on Wednesday 5 October to explore Reading Abbey.  Led by John Painter, an accredited guide and long-time supporter of the Friends of Reading Abbey, the group briefly examined the display in the Reading Museum.  This proved to be a rich starting point for our discovery of this fascinating area of Reading, including sections of masonry, a model of the abbey and explanatory posters.  John explained that the abbey was founded in 1121 by Henry I, who shaped it as a vast, imposing monument to his life, its rich collection of treasures intended to give him a turbo-boost through purgatory.

The group then progressed to nearby St Lawrence’s church, dating from the Norman period and built on the side of the Abbey site.  Its façade is pitted with holes from a Second World War bomb but otherwise unscathed.  In the churchyard behind the Abbey’s guest house, the Hospitium of St John stands proudly and miraculously intact.  Used as a grammar school at the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, it was spared destruction.  Up on to the Civil War mound in the Forbury Gardens, despite the blustery wind and the beginnings of drizzle.  From here we were shown St James’, Pugin’s church in the Romanesque style and the work of two other prominent Victorian architects: George Gilbert-Scott (the rebuilt Abbey Gatehouse and Reading Gaol) and Alfred Waterhouse (Reading Town Hall), all helping to shape current Reading.

Walking under an archway and into the abbey ruins, we time-travelled back 900 years.  In front of us was what would have been the Lady Chapel; behind was the ghost of the nave of this huge abbey (the fourth largest church in Britain at the time).  A plaque on the wall informed us that Henry I was buried nearby.  Thoughts and discussion turned to car parks and the recent rediscovery of Richard III in Leicester.  John told us that there are proposals to put housing on the land to the east, the site of the old cemetery together with Reading Gaol, and we talked briefly about the archaeology that redevelopment would hopefully bring with it.

We continued to the Chapter House, where England’s parliament would have sat when visiting Reading, in this impressive room with a vaulted stone roof.  Attached to a time-battered wall is a monument to the round, ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ (Summer is here), the earliest copy of which was found at Reading Abbey.  Enthusiastic members of the group vigorously turned a small metal dial outside the Chapter House to hear the music!

Walking through the huge dormitory, built for 200 monks, John’s tour then led us down to the River Kennet and to the wharf where supplies were delivered by boat.  Henry I’s body was also brought here in 1136, and buried in front of the abbey’s high altar.  His church was still unfinished, however, and work continued even after the official opening was performed by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1164.

In diminishing drizzle, we emerged back into twenty-first-century Reading, enriched and enlightened.  It had been not just a journey into the ruined abbey, but a glimpse into the shaping of a town by architects and their buildings through the centuries.  The warm and lasting applause for John’s talk was a genuine ‘thank you’ for the gift of deepened appreciation for this fascinating monument in its setting which is right on our doorstep.

Jane Redley