Heritage Heroes

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Heritage Heroes: Your Heritage in Reading

Explore the local heritage of Reading...

Wherever you live, there’s treasure to be discovered! Not just gold and gems, but stories of buildings, locations and people.

Our heritage is a great wealth… and it’s all around us.

Sometimes standing proud in the open air, sometimes hidden behind some bushes.

To help find it, we asked for your help and to become Heritage Heroes.

Reading is a busy commuter town to the west of London and is packed with history.

A fun fact that you told us is that Reading is known for its ‘Bs’ – that’s biscuits, bulbs, bears and also beer. 

As we’ve discovered, transport is something that’s very important in heritage. It helps places develop, whether as a commuter town, industrial centre or sometimes both. That’s what happened here in Reading. 

Reading Station

Let’s get exploring and where better to start than at Reading Station. 

  • I like trains so my heritage pick is Reading station.  The first station in Reading was opened on 30 March 1840 as part of the original Great Western Railway line built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Taking the train from London to Reading in 1840 took one hour and five minutes, which was a lot quicker than taking the stagecoach”.

The first station in Reading was opened on 30th March 1840 as part of the original Great Western Railway line built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Taking the train from London to Reading in 1840 took one hour and five minutes, which was a lot quicker than taking the stagecoach, a quarter of the time in fact! 

You can see how this would have changed life enormously for people, being able to get around more quickly and to more places. It would have felt as revolutionary as the development of the internet has been in our time. 

Reading’s first station opened in March 1840. When it opened, it was the terminus of the Great Western Railway line. What does that mean? Well, the line from London ended here. It was another year before the line was extended to Bristol and trains continued westwards. 

That original station was small with just two platforms, so there’s been quite a lot of changes. In the 1860s, a new station building was built, with a tower and clock, and over the next 30 years many additional platforms were constructed linked by a pedestrian subway. 

Brunel’s station wasn’t the only railway station in Reading. The South Eastern Railway opened their own line and station in 1855, connecting Reading with south coast towns like Brighton and Dover. 

Reading South was closed in 1965 and southern trains were diverted into the main station, making it a lot easier for people to connect with other trains.

Because early train travel was slower than today, travellers would often stay overnight in a railway hotel before carrying on their journeys. 

A heritage hotspot can be found outside Reading Station. It’s the former Great Western Hotel that opened in 1844. Today, it’s a Malmaison hotel and has the great distinction of being the oldest surviving railway hotel in the world!

Heritage places can be the site of triumphant times and also crashing calamities. Reading Station is no different.  

The famous writer T. E. Lawrence, known as Laurence of Arabia, lost the 250,000-word first draft of his autobiography ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom‘ at the station when he left his briefcase while changing trains in 1919. 

Can you imagine losing all that work?!

Here’s the amazing thing… working from memory, he completed a 400,000-word second draft in just three months.

The Rivers: Thames and Kennet

Before the Victorian period and the birth of the railway, towns relied on roads and rivers for their communication with places near and far. Reading benefited from being on the important Bath Road from London to Bristol, and on both the Rivers Thames and Kennet.

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Early History of Reading

Early Reading was a Saxon settlement, and its name originates from ‘Reada Ingas’ which means ‘People of Reada’. 

Now, you might be asking “who was Reada?”. Well, we don’t really know but he was probably a local leader or landowner.

Like many parts of the country, a big scary band of marauding Vikings smashed their way through Berkshire in 1006. They left eventually, after being paid a large sum of money by the King to go back to Denmark. 

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However, they left Reading smouldering. Why? Well, it was just what they did in those days.

An effective show of strength and making sure your enemy doesn’t have a base to fight from!

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An Accidental Plague

The Middle Ages was a time of great prosperity for Reading, with a strong wool based economy and cloth industry.

Being on the main road between London and Bristol, it was a convenient place to stay the night especially if you were a pilgrim visiting the Abbey.

In 1625, the country was rife with the plague, so King Charles I and his court relocated to Reading from London. 

Unhelpfully, they brought the plague with them, and so came up with a rather brutal but effective plan. They moved sufferers to a place named Pesthouse in Whitley where they were boarded up and no-one was allowed in or out. 

Now, whilst that doesn’t sound great, it probably helped! This was one of the last big outbreaks of the plague in this country.

As we’ve mentioned, rivers have been important to the town, and Reading’s position at the point where the Kennet joins the Thames helped make it a prosperous market town. 

It’s thought there was a river port here during Roman times, and when the Kennet & Avon canal fully opened in the 18th century, linking London with the Bristol Channel, it brought a lot more trade through the town.

Reading Bridge

Reading Bridge links Reading on the south bank with Caversham on the north.

  • The bridge was opened on 3rd October 1923. It’s made of iron and concrete and goes over the River Thames and carries 20,000 vehicles a day over the river. When it was opened, it was said to be the world’s longest span of its type.

We can get a lot of insight into the changing world through the types of structures that were built and when. 

From the early years of the 20th century, motor vehicles were massively increasing in numbers and the old road network needed to change a lot to accommodate them. That meant new roads as well as loads of bridges over rivers, including this one in Reading.

It was designed by L G Mouchel & Partners, who also designed football stands for Manchester City, the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool and the cooling towers at Battersea Power Station – very impressive large structures which stand to this day. 

Riverside Museum

Check out the Riverside Museum at Blake’s Lock which tells the story of Reading’s two rivers.

It’s in two former waterworks buildings, the Screen House and the Turbine House which is a unique Victorian building that spans the River Kennet. 

You can see a variety of objects illustrating life by the river from stuffed fish to regatta tickets, and also a medieval wooden wheel from St Giles Mill.

Reading Abbey

We’ve come to Reading Abbey… well, the remains of the abbey! It’s a poignant reminder of a medieval masterpiece and one that’s witnessed centuries of history.

It was founded it in the 12th century by King Henry I “for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors”, and was once one of Europe’s largest royal monasteries. It would have been a great centre of learning and culture, attracting scholars and monks from miles around.

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It’s become historically important for many reasons. Not just for its Gothic architecture, with towering arches and intricate stone carvings, but it’s also the final resting place for King Henry I. 

  • “The abbey was destroyed by King Henry VIII because he changed the religion of the country so he could get a new wife.  The last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, was convicted of high treason, was hung, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey“. 

Forbury Gardens

As well as buildings and structures, the things we do in our leisure time are also part of our heritage. 

Surrounding the Abbey are Forbury Gardens. It opened in 1856 and is a great place to relax and maybe enjoy a picnic if the weather’s nice!

Forbury Gardens is a Victorian town garden. They were designed with a botanical character, with a fountain and a summer house, and a tunnel on the eastern side to link the gardens and the Abbey ruins.

While you’re in the gardens, check out something ROARSOME! It’s The Maiwand Lion.

  • “My heritage hotspot is The Maiwand Lion. It’s not a real lion!  Its to remember soldiers from a war called the Second Anglo-Afghan war which was in 1878. It’s really really big and looks very scary!”

Take a look here…

When it was unveiled, it was the tallest statue of a lion in the world!

As we’ve discovered, monuments and memorials are an important part of our heritage because they help us to remember events and people that were important to the places we live. They can also be places to remember people who died in other countries, like during a war.

Can you think of any monuments where you live? What might they commemorate? Look for inscriptions to tell the stories of the past.

Reading’s War Memorial

Reading’s War Memorial, for those who died in the Great War, is close by the lion, just outside Forbury Gardens.

It’s inscription reads:
TO THE HONOURED MEMORY OF THE MEN OF READING AND BERKSHIRE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR KING AND COUNTRY DURING THE GREAT WAR.”

Reading Gaol

Another heritage hotspot close to… well, on top of some of the Abbey ruins, is Reading Jail. 

One of its most famous residents was the iconic author and humourist Oscar Wilde who resided here for two years’ hard labour in the 1890s.

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Following his stay, he wrote a poem called ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol‘ that was very critical of the Victorian prison system which could be brutal and over-crowded. 

The jail was built in 1844. It was designed by two Victorian architects, George Gilbert Scott and William Boynthon Moffatt, and is a good example of early Victorian prison architecture.  

Reading Town Hall

Another historic pick that we must clock is Reading Town Hall which is well known for its landmark clock tower.

Civic buildings are packed with heritage because they’ve often been at the centre of town life for a very long time. 

Reading’s Town Hall consists of four buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1786, the oldest building called the Victoria Hall, opened as a purpose built town hall designed by Charles Poulton. A new council chamber and a clock tower designed by Alfred Waterhouse opened in 1876, followed by the Museum, Library and Concert Hall, designed by the architect Thomas Lanson. 

Have a look at the design and the materials used in a civic building’s construction. 

These buildings were designed to be very impressive and often it seems like no expense would have been spared. This means you can see examples of the very best architecture of the time.

Museum of English Rural Life

As we know, wherever we live, for hundreds of years before they were built upon, they would have been rural areas. Sometimes a farm, sometimes just a boggy marsh! 

To get an idea of what Berkshire would have been like, our Heritage Heroes visited the Museum of English Rural Life.

This is what you told us…

  • “My favourite thing is the old Jeep. I just think it’s cool that you can see what today’s ones look like and what they used to look like when they were first made. I think it’s important to learn about things from the past because it tells us what we used to do and how lucky we are to be living in such an advanced society. We used to only have horses to pull things and no advanced technology to do things.”
  • I liked all the outfits and you can see what the people used to wear. I like the interactive screens. I think it’s important to learn about things from the past because then you can think about what we do now and be grateful for what we have now. We’re wandering around and we’ve seen tractors.

The Museum of English Rural Life in Redlands Road uses its many collections to explore the history of the English countryside, and the skills and experiences of farmers and craftspeople.

It also explores some of Reading’s industrial history… so why don’t we crunch some facts about Biscuit Town?

Huntley & Palmers

In 1822, a baker called Joseph Huntley opened a shop at 72 London Street, close to the Crown Coaching Inn and early customers were hungry travellers.

By 1846, the biscuits were so popular that Joseph’s company, Huntley & Palmers, opened a 24-acre factory site close to Reading’s new railway station, meaning they could send biscuits all over the world.

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By the start of the 20th century, Huntley & Palmers was the largest biscuit factory in the world and biscuits became so important to the town that it got the nickname of Biscuit Town! 

That’s not all. For many years Reading football club were known as the ‘Biscuit-men’ and Reading prison was known as ‘The Biscuit Factory’.  

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For many years, Huntley & Palmers biscuits would have been transported around by horse and cart, which was slow and biscuits could be damaged by vibration. When the Kennet and Avon Canal opened, it was not only faster and cheaper, but also helped carry those biscuits to Bristol port from where they could be sent overseas. 

When the railway arrived, biscuits could be sent to more places… even quicker! Huntley & Palmer even built their own railway within the factory, with their own locomotives and seven miles of sidings connected to the Great Western mainline.

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While Huntley & Palmers no longer exists, you can still buy some of its famous brands, like Nice biscuits, Gingernut and Bath Olivers. 

There are also still some traces of Huntley & Palmer across Reading… keep your eyes peeled! 

One building, the old recreation club, resisted demolition and was converted into social housing for the people of Reading. The Huntley & Palmers sign was restored and the building can still be seen today by Kings Bridge on the River Kennet, a lasting remnant of what was once a great biscuit factory.

Suttons

Another well-known business that was created in Reading is Suttons, well known for their seeds!

Although the company was set up in 1806 by John Sutton who was a corn trader and miller, it was his son Martin who focused the business on garden seeds, producing his first seed catalogue in 1832. His poor sisters had to make 8,700 brown paper bags for packaging the seeds in! 

Taking advantage of the new rail network and postal system, Suttons was soon sending seeds all round the world. In the 1840s, Suttons was leading the way in seed testing, with its own laboratory testing seeds for germination and purity. The business also grew with innovations in tools and machinery.

Two smaller bags and one larger bag or sack, used for transporting seeds. Two of the bags are marked ‘Sutton & Sons Ltd, Reading’. They were used by the donor at Mill Farm in Thorrington, Essex, where he grew seeds for Sutton & Sons.

Now, whilst wars are a great tragedy for many, they were a boom time for seed producers to meet the demand for home-grown vegetables. People had to eat after all and even public parks were turned into allotments to meet demand! During World War 2, Suttons distributed seeds to the public for staple crops like carrots, parsnips, cabbage, radish and cucumber. 

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In 1962, Suttons moved to modern and state-of-the-art premises on the Bath Road, and today are based in Devon. Whilst there’s little visual trace of Suttons left, you can find out more about them at the Museum of English Rural Life.

The great thing about exploring your area’s heritage is that you don’t need to go to museums or stately homes. Although these are great places, there’s pieces of heritage on most streets. From post boxes to ghost signs (that’s the imprint of advertising messages or shop signs on old brick walls)! Even street lighting and cobbled pavements can tell a story. 

The Lido

If after all that you need to relax, there’s nothing better than to explore a park… or perhaps take a swim. 

In Reading, there’s the Thames Lido in Napier Road.

Opening in 1902 as the Ladies Swimming Bath, it’s believed to be the oldest surviving outdoor municipal pool of the early Edwardian era.

We had a great time exploring Reading. Thank you for joining us! 

There’s plenty more to explore here and across the country, wherever you live.

Don’t forget to go online to find out more about how to explore and record heritage in your area and of course, download your Heritage Hero certificate here.

Join us again to explore some more local heritage highlights and hotspots.

MOBILE: Heritage Heroes

Discover your local heritage and become a Heritage Hero!

HERITAGE HEROES. AN INSPIRING AUDIO PRODUCTION FOR FUN KIDS. CREATED WITH SUPPORT FROM THE NATIONAL LOTTERY HERITAGE FUND.

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Heritage Heroes

Discover your local heritage and become a Heritage Hero!

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