A town called Reading
A long time ago, by chance, I moved to live in the town of Reading, Berkshire. I was a 22 year old graduate living with my parents in a tiny North Wales village, working in a local pub and looking for a career direction. I had applied for a job in Manchester, the position had been filled but the company had another office in Reading where the same role was vacant. I was interviewed (in Manchester), they offered me the position and I accepted having not once ever been to the town 220 miles away.
I needed somewhere to live and I needed to get a feel for this unknown place, so the following Friday I jumped on a train (well a couple of trains) and headed down south to the town I would call home for the next 19 years and counting.
It was the Friday before the August bank holiday. The weekend that Reading Festival comes to town. My train trundled into town alongside the festival site mid afternoon, giving me a clear view of the Foo Fighters tearing up the main stage and that was that. I knew I had made the right decision. I was going to like this place.
Back then, apart from the famous annual Festival and the town’s locality to London, there didn’t seem to be a great deal going for it as a destination. There was no large shopping mall to speak of. Night life was a bit iffy, the main strip of pubs on Friar Street used to be the place for groups to go out for fights rather than for fun it would seem. There were a couple of night clubs with sticky floors and sweaty walls that were way past their glory days. Despite all of this, Reading was home to a large University and also being in the Thames Valley commuter belt had a large population of young professionals who had moved to the town for work, so it had a fairly vibrant and cosmopolitan feel. I made myself quite at home.
Skip forward almost twenty years and a lot has changed in this town, and that my friends is why I am still here. So let’s go on a little journey around my little town and I’ll tell you all about it.
Let’s start the journey at the railway station.
One of the major changes of recent years is the Reading Station and Station Hill redevelopments. Exiting Reading Station used to offer a fairly depressing first impression of the town. A bunch of old concrete office tower blocks and closed down shop units – it really wasn’t the greatest welcome to a town. The train station was given a complete overhaul with a new sleek and modern design, along with a revamp of the old station pub – The Three Guineas, giving a lovely contrast of old and new architecture.
Opposite the station and the new plaza, the old office blocks were demolished creating a public space currently being utilised for events, until a further redevelopment takes place at some point in the future. My favourite part of this whole overhaul has been the revamp of the tired looking Thames Tower – a 1970’s office block which has now reopened as a bright, modern and striking building with restaurant / retail spaces on the ground floor, several stories of office space and the top floor housing The Roost – a dining and events space with a garden area offering some amazing views across the town.
I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the higher floors to see the views for myself and the building does offer a fabulous vantage point.
Another of my favourite buildings (architecturally) in town is The Blade – something of an icon with its curving glass walls and tall spire – definitely a new landmark in town.
While we are on the subject of new developments, hot off the press is the opening of the new Thames Lido. I say new, but this is a meticulous and carefully considered three year restoration of the old Kings Meadow Swimming Pool which originally opened as the Ladies Swimming Baths in 1902. It finally closed to the public in 1974, fell into disrepair, was then awarded Grade II listed building status and has now been developed into a beautiful outdoor heated swimming pool, along with spa facilities, a restaurant and bar. Many of the old features of the Victorian building have been retained and restored and the end result is something of a work of art.
The vibrant colours of the freshly painted woodwork contrasting against the old features of the building such as the Victorian bargeboards and decorative pillars works really well, adding modern touches while maintaining the beauty of the old building.
I imagine I could (and probably will) spend plenty of time dining and drinking here, looking out onto the reflections on the water.
Reading is not all about modern redevelopments though. Wander through the streets and you will find plenty of beautiful old buildings sandwiched between the sleek new office blocks. The key to seeing the beauty of the old buildings is to look up. What may seem like a modern frontage at ground level may well distract you from the real character of the old building. We miss so much focusing our attention on the ground floor shop fronts, or our smart phones. OK, mostly our smart phones. Look up!
When I mentioned in the opening paragraph that there was no large shopping mall to speak of, this was true at the time – Friars Walk had a C&A (remember those) before that closed down, leaving the abandoned mall utilised for Zombie Experience events in more recent years. Broad St. Mall hosted a collection of smaller stores but was tired and dated even then, but merely weeks after I arrived in September of 1998 The Oracle opened it’s doors for the first time, changing the shape of the town centre. A fancy new two storey mall, which now houses all the high street brands you could ask for along with a couple of department stores. Nowadays, the main selling point for me is the The Riverside with a selection of ever changing restaurants, a multi-screen cinema and a couple of entertainment spaces, one of which hosts a beach bar in the summer and Christmas bar over the winter (which I love!).
Whilst it’s great having the all the usual chain restaurants and stores in town, the thing that stands out for me now is the independents. It seems that there has been an influx of new independent cafes, stores, restaurants and events companies trying to make the town a better place. This has been helped greatly by the use of social media, in fact it is on Twitter where I have been mostly introduced to my favourites.
Located on Gun Street and sandwiched between The Oracle and John Lewis, Tamp Culture Coffee serves the best coffee in town, in my humble opinion. Located in a kiosk with an outdoor seating area it’s always a stopping point to grab a Latte on my way through town. Friendly service and my favourite thing is that they make the coffee to a temperature that you can actually drink straight away (rather than scalding your mouth)! A novel idea, but one that most of the chains don’t seem to have cottoned on to.
Pop-Up Reading is the brainchild of Laura and Josep, who yes, you’ve guessed it ‘pop-up’ at various venues around town offering some culinary delights and events, bringing a taste of world cuisine to Reading. With locally sourced food and some excellent creativity, their events are always fun and the food is also delicious! It’s also worth mentioning that Laura runs the Nomad Bakery across the river in Caversham, and her sourdough bread is divine!
C.U.P. or Coffee Under Pressure is a lovely little cafe in the centre of town. Tucked away to the side of Reading Minster, off St. Mary’s Butts, you might miss it if you didn’t know it was there. Run by a lovely Greek couple, this cafe draws in a cosmopolitan crowd – sitting outside on a sunny day can feel like you have been transported across to the continent. Their coffee is great, they have a great variety of leaf tea (which is freshly brewed and served in large glass flasks) and their coconut cake is definitely a winner. It always looks crowded due to the busy outdoor seating, but make sure you call in as there will likely be a spare table inside.
Part wine shop, part wine bar and part events space, the Tasting House is one of my favourite places in town to go out for a relaxed few hours. With a huge selection of wines, this is a great place to experiment and try something new with the use of their Enomatic wine serving machines – you top up a smart card and sample wines from the machines as taster, small or medium glasses. They also serve great charcuterie and have some great wine tasting events, offering a fun and informative introduction to some great wine.
In a town full of run-of-the-mill barbers, 58 Barbershop gives a stylish and classic, yet contemporary take on the barber shop experience for men. An appointment only shop with no sitting around and queuing (a pet hate of mine at barbers) it offers a nice and relaxed experience. Us men like to be pampered too every now and again! There is also a new co-working space above the shop which has recently been opened.
If you are in town on Wednesday it’s definitely worth heading to the Blue Collar Street Food Market located in Market Place Square instead of grabbing a beige sandwich from a supermarket. With a host of local street food traders offering all kinds of flavours, there is bound to be something to everyone’s tastes. Blue Collar also run regular ‘Feastival’ events with street food in the park, a licensed bar and a great atmosphere. They are sure to be back in 2018 with bigger and better events.
Fancy yourself as a budding detective? If so, keep an eye on this company who run regular murder mystery events around the town centre. We’ve already had ‘A Gamble with Death’ following the murder of Jack Diamond which I have already reviewed here, and ‘A Melody for Murder’ hunting down the killer of the famous singer Stella Chord, but there will soon be news of the next event, likely to be happening early in 2018. These events are great fun with so much attention to detail and a fantastic way to spend an afternoon solving the case.
Ok, are you still with me? I hope so.
We have tackled some of my favourite features of the town centre. But what if we want to relax, I hear you say? What if we want a bit of peace and quiet? Where do we go?
Well, I’m just getting to that bit.
It only takes a few minutes walk from pretty much anywhere in town to escape the hustle and bustle. My number one spot would be Forbury Gardens, a beautiful and well tended park with the centrepiece of the Maiwand Lion – a lovely sculpture and war memorial. The park hosts plenty of great events throughout the year, but on the weekends where there are none it’s lovely and peaceful.
If you want to wander a little further afield, and by this I only mean a few minutes more, it’s definitely worth heading down to the River Thames. The Thames Promenade is a great public footpath and there are three bridges crossing the river in Reading, one of which is the recently opened pedestrian only Christchurch Bridge, crossing the Thames to Christchurch Meadows – another lovely park.
I can’t write a post about Reading without mentioning my favourite annual event – Reading Festival. From my first year attending in 1999, I have been every year since and will be racking up my 20th visit in 2018. Granted, I don’t do the camping thing any more – I like my home comforts far too much, but always feel like I have to attend regardless of which bands are headlining. It’s part of my year and always will be whilst I live in this town.
The festival is located on the banks of the River Thames, about 15 minutes walk from the railway station – very accessible in terms of a music festival, and runs for three days of the August Bank Holiday weekend.
If the weather is good, there is no better place for an amazing sunset than from the festival site. We lucked out in 2017 with glorious weather and some fabulous sunset scenes.
Speaking of sunsets, given that Reading effectively sits in a valley running west to east, you can always catch a great sunrise or sunset if you are anywhere near the low lying areas of the River Thames. Here are a few of my favourites that I have managed to capture.
And here ends my introduction to the town I call home.
You may have never considered stopping in Reading whilst passing through on the train. With London 25 minutes in one direction and Oxford 25 minutes in the other, why would you I suppose? Well I hope this post would give you at least a couple of reasons to think again about that.