Stories about people and places from across the railway network

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Trackside: Reading

Stories about people and places from across the South Western Railway network.

Reading is in Berkshire – it’s the largest town without city status in the UK!

Did you know… King Henry I is buried at Reading Abbey – perhaps not surprising given he founded it in 1121.

Did you know… Jane Austen attended what became the town’s Abbey School – it was called Reading Ladies’ Boarding School when she attended.

Did you know… Mapledurham House is the original setting for Toad of Toad Hall.

Did you know… John of Gaunt’s wedding celebrations in 1359 lasted for 12 days!!

Early Reading

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

We don’t really know who Reada was, but he was probably a local leader or landowner.

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Reading’s position at the point where the River Kennet joins the River Thames has always been important to the town, making it a good location for a market.  

It’s thought there was a river port here during Roman times, and when the Kennet & Avon canal opened that brought a lot more trade through the town.

If you like a picturesque stroll along the riverside, as well as the River Thames, the Kennet cuts through the town centre and there are lots of restaurants where you can eat outside – if the weather’s nice, with lots scenic backdrops of Reading Abbey, and the locks and moorings.

Like in many parts of the country, a big scary band of marauding Vikings smashed their way through Hampshire and Berkshire in the year 1006.  On their way they burned down the towns of Reading and Wallingford.

They left eventually, after being paid a large sum of money by the King to go back to Denmark. 

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

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Middle Ages Reading

The Middle Ages was a time of prosperity for Reading.

It had a strong wool based economy and a flourishing cloth industry.

It was well known for its annual fair! 

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

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

Unhelpfully, he sort of accidentally brought the plague with him…

He came up with a rather brutal but effective plan – they moved sufferers to a charmingly named pesthouse in Whitley, where they were boarded up and no-one was allowed in or out.

Stopping plagues and pandemics isn’t easy,  but it seems my quick actions were effective.

It was one of the last big outbreaks of the plague.

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Reading Today

Today, Reading is a thriving town with a diverse economy and cultural heritage, not forgetting the annual music festival which draws pop fans and music enthusiasts from around the world.

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An interesting piece of hidden history is that the university’s White Knights campus is home to the Region 6 War Room, built during the Cold War.

It includes a central map room, control rooms, satellite cabins, dormitories and even a canteen.

What it doesn’t have is any windows!

Places to visit

Reading Abbey

A great place to start is the ruins of Reading Abbey, poignant remnants of a medieval masterpiece, bearing witness to centuries of history.

The Abbey was founded by Henry I in the 12th century “for the salvation of his 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”. 

It was once one of Europe’s largest royal monasteries – it was a great centre of learning and culture, attracting scholars and monks from miles around.

It’s become historically important for many reasons – not least for its intricate Gothic architecture, characterised by towering arches and intricate stone carvings, which really give you an idea of the grandeur of its time. It was also the final resting place for King Henry. 

During his Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Abbey, like many monasteries, was destroyed. 

The last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, after being tried and convicted of high treason, was hung, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey.

As well as the ruins, two of the original buildings still remain – one is the Abbey Gateway next to the Crown Court, the other is the hospitium or dormitory for pilgrims which is next to the Town Hall.

The Maiwand Lion

Surrounding the Abbey are Forbury Gardens, which opened in 1856.

They’re a great place to relax and maybe enjoy a picnic if the weather is nice. 

While you’re there, look out for something roarsome! The Maiwand Lion.

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31 feet from mane to tail, this monument commemorates the men of the 66th Royal Berkshire Regiment who lost their lives during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, which was between 1878 and 1880.

The reason it’s in Reading is probably because its creator, sculptor George Blackall Simonds, was from a prominent Reading brewing family.  

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At the time of its unveiling, it was the biggest statue of a standing lion in the world!

Reading Town Hall

Another historic building to clock is Reading Town Hall, which is well known for its landmark clock tower that was designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1875.

Behind the Waterhouse façade is an even older building of 1786, the Small Town Hall, now known as the Victoria Hall. It was restored in 1864 in the Italianate style to accommodate the Father Willis Organ that had just been presented to the town by the Reading Philharmonic Society.

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The Museum of English Rural Life is also worth a visit. 

As well as exploring the history of the English countryside and its people, you can find out more about Reading’s industry – including Biscuit Town. 

After all… the museum in Redlands Road is located in what was Alfred Palmer’s home.

Thames Lido

If after all that you need to relax, there’s the Thames Lido in Napier Road. 

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

Today as well as massage and saunas, there’s a great bar.

What you like

We caught up with some children to find out their favourite places to visit in and around Reading…

  • “I like going to Beale Wildlife Park which is near Reading because they’ve got loads of really cute animals like otters and meerkats and there’s playgrounds there too.”
  • “We love the Parthian Climbing Centre – we did some fun climbing games and my mum and dad did the really tall climbing walls.”
  • “There’s a museum called the Museum of English Rural Life where you can find out about farming in the past and there’s fun stuff to do like colouring sheets.

Famous People in Reading

Now you might not know it, but Reading’s well known for the odd celebrity or two – from Jeremy Kyle and Kate Winslett to perhaps one of the most famous – Oscar Wilde who resided in Reading Gaol for two years’ hard labour in the 1890s. 

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H & G Simonds

H & G Simonds was a famous Reading brewer. 

Founded in 1785 on Broad Street, the brewery was relocated to a site by the M4 after a takeover by Courage in 1960, before finally closing in 2010. 

Most of the old brewery was demolished but some old buildings remain – including the Stables and Maltings in Fobney Street alongside the Kennet, and Seven Bridges House on Broad Street.   


John Sutton and his son started a corn and milling company which later grew into a seed factory!

Whilst they’re no longer based in Reading, you can still buy Suttons seeds. 

He set up the company in 1806. He was a corn trader and miller with a small trade in farm seeds. 

My son Martin thought we should change from corn to garden seeds, and in 1832 he produced the company’s first ever catalogue… whilst his sisters made 8,700 brown paper bags for packaging!

In 1858, they received a Royal patronage and grew the business with many innovations in tools and machinery. 

Now, whilst a tragedy for many, the Great War was a boom time for us seed producers, to meet the soaring demand for home-grown vegetables. Folk had to eat after all – and even public parks were turned into allotments to meet demand!

During World War 2, they distributed seeds to the public for staple crops like carrots, parsnips, cabbage, radish and cucumber.

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Their staff were even disqualified from being called up because the Board of Agriculture deemed their services so indispensable.

Their legacy continues to this day – after all there was a green revolution in the 1960s and 70s with self-sufficiency becoming popular and even today there’s nothing quite like the taste of home grown fruit and veg!

Huntley & Palmers

Joseph Huntley opened his first bakers’ shop – a moment that marked the beginning of a business that would revolutionise biscuit-making across the globe and transform Reading forever – Huntley & Palmers.

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That bakers’ shop was at 72 London Street, close to the Crown Coaching Inn and early customers were hungry travellers.

By 1846, demand had grown so much that Huntley & Palmers opened a 24-acre factory site close to Reading’s new railway station, helping connect the factory to global trade.  

By 1900, Huntley & Palmers was the largest biscuit factory in the world – so much so, that Reading became known as Biscuit Town!

Some of its famous brands were Nice biscuits, the Gingernut and Bath Olivers.

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While the company no longer exists, its biscuits have left their mark on the town.

The cultural merging of town and company was demonstrated by Reading FC’s nickname of ‘Biscuit-men’ and Reading prison being known as ‘The Biscuit Factory’. 

There are still some traces of Huntley & Palmer across the town too.

You explore more at a special exhibition at MERL.

Michael Bond and Paddington!

Michael grew up in Reading and is famous for writing the stories of Paddington Bear!

He has said in interviews that he used to like visiting Reading railway station to watch the Cornish Riviera Express pass through, fuelling a lifelong love of trains. 

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He wasn’t always just the writer of these iconic funny stories about our favourite bear – he was a BBC engineer during the Second World War. 

In 1943, whilst installing a radio transmitter on the roof of Reading’s People’s Pantry, a German plane dropped four 500kg bombs on the town, with the fourth bomb hitting the very building he was on the roof off. 

He later commented “I got on the bus to go home but nobody sat near me as I was so dusty. Funny times, really.”

The first Paddington book was published in 1958 and Britain’s favourite bear quickly became popular.

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His adventures have sold over 35 million books and been published in over forty languages, inspiring pop bands, racehorses, hot air balloons…

…and even the late Queen Elizabeth! As part of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations, she revealed she keeps a marmalade sandwich in her handbag – for emergencies!

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Stories about people and places from across the railway network

More From Trackside