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Tours > Royal County of Berkshire Towns > Reading

Royal County of Berkshire Towns
by David Nash Ford BA, Editor, History on Britannia

Reading
Reading is the county town of Berkshire and must be a high contender for the much disputed title of shopping capital of the South of England. With the recent completion of the enormous 'Oracle' Shopping Mall, the retail heart of the town now stretches in a vast swathe from the River Kennet to Reading Central Station, even moving up towards the Thames at Caversham. You can find all the major shops in Reading, including three enormous Department Stores; and don't miss the town's branch of Oxford's famous Blackwell Books in King's Road. There are also innumerable smaller vendors and specialist shops, like the Delicatessen in 'the Butts,' reknowned for its unusual cheeses from around the Country. The town is a pleasant place to shop, though sometimes rather crowded. The main, 'Broad Street' is mostly pedestrianized now and there is plenty of room for children's entertainment and street performers in the Summer. Down at the Oracle, the River Kennet is lined with restaurants and cafes as well as a multi-screen cinema: An ideal place to take a break and grab something to eat. A walk along the River will also bring you to the fascinating Blakes Lock Museum in an old Pumping Station. Here you can explore Reading's commercial, industrial and waterways heritage. Exhibits include full-scale Victorian shops and a locally-made Gypsy Caravan. There is plenty of parking at the Oracle, the Broad Street Mall, Queen's Road and elsewhere. Reading is, of course, one of the country's main railway junctions; but there are also park and ride scheme operating, on Saturdays, from the Shire Hall, the Showcase Cinema Complex at nearby Winnersh and Reading Football Club's new Madejski Stadium. The latter boasts out-of-town shopping facilties off the nearby Basingstoke Road.

Today the town is probably most famous for its annual music festival in July. The arts continue throughout the year at 'The Hexagon' Theatre, the Thames-Valley's major centre for big-name plays and concerts. Though not best known for historic buildings or tourist attractions, Reading, nevertheless, has hidden gems of this genre too. The museum in the stylish Victorian Town Hall will point you in the right direction. This treasure house of modern displays explains both the History of Reading and the Roman town of Silchester, not far to the south. This is one of the few such towns which have not been built upon in more recent centuries and was therefore open for complete excavation at the end of the 19th century. The vast collection of Roman artefacts at Reading are the result: from children's games to a bronze eagle - some think from a Military Standard! The pride of the museum is the only full length replica of the Bayeaux Tapestry to be seen in the UK.

Reading was once the site of one of the greatest monastic foundations in the Country, second only to Glastonbury and St. Albans. Reading was a rich and popular place of pilgrimage in medieval times having the hand of St. James enshrined within its walls. Henry I was even buried there. The sorrowful ruins can be found behind the museum and over the inner ring-road in the beautiful Forbury Gardens. Dominated by the biggest scultured line in the World, this is a popular spot for lunch-time picnics. The ruins are well looked after and nicely displayed with explanatory boards. Hidden away are the shells of the south transept, the chapter house and other associated buildings. The much restored Abbey Gateway stands in the adjoining road and the guest-house can be seen in the churchyard of St. Lawrence. This fascinating old church was built by the Abbey monks and is usually open to the public on Saturdays. Other churches of interest are St.Mary's, near the Oracle, Greyfriars (a restored Friary), near the Station, and St. Giles', a little out of town. They are rarely open. There are some old pubs in Castle Street and some fine Georgian buildings in London Street which heads up towards the University on the south side of the town. Here you will find the Museum of English Rural Life, the country's premiere collection of artefacts and archives relating to country life. Housed in its own building, just within the beautiful Whiteknights Park, the museum's emphasis is on farming and other rural industries. Just the place to step back into the lives of our ancestors. The Cole Museum of Zoology and the Ure Museum of Classical Archaeology are less accessible within their relevant facalties.

Next Stop: Newbury

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