Reading Abbey ruins tour

For eight years the gates to Reading Abbey have been closed.

Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out.

Okay, that’s not exactly true but a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reference was too good to miss!

The Abbey has been closed to the public since 2008 but for the last few years Reading Museum has been running guided tours for the Heritage Open Days weekend.

Ben and I talk about going each year but never seem to get round to it, so this year when I spotted it on the Reading Museum website I booked us in straight away.

All ready to go!
All ready to go!

Museum manager Matthew Williams ran the free, 90 minute tour, which we joined on Saturday, and he was an excellent host for the morning. His knowledge of Reading’s history is incredible and he told us so many interesting things, without any notes in hand.

We began in the Museum where we looked at a model of what the Abbey would have been like, and Matthew ran through its early history, from when it was built in 1121 by Henry 1. Matthew showed us how the Abbey stretched across a huge area of the town, enclosing all of what we now know as Forbury Gardens within its walls.

Forbury Gardens used to be inside the Abbey walls
Forbury Gardens used to be inside the Abbey walls

He also talked about the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538 by Henry VIII and I found it fascinating to hear that it was Henry who was largely responsible for the ruins we have today. I had always presumed it was just left to decay over time, but it turns out it was a greedy King with no sense of historical importance who was responsible for selling loads of the stone off!

After looking at the model in the Museum we set off outside, making our first stop at St Laurence’s Church where Matthew spoke about the Reading coat of arms held by a stone angel on the front of the Church.

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The coat of arms shows the King and four men, but Matthew pointed out that if you look closely at the crest on the Town Hall you can see the figures were later changed to be a Queen and four women, to mark Elizabeth I being on the throne.

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Matthew also covered more modern history, like the bombs which fell in Market Place in World War Two. If you look closely at St Laurence’s Church you can see puckers and dents in the stonework at the front which is where shrapnel hit the building during the blast.

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After that we walked through the church graveyard to see the grave of Henry West, an engineer working on the first Reading Railway Station who was knocked down and killed during a freak storm.

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Next was Forbury Gardens, where we were told the myth of the Maiwand Lion. The legend goes that the sculptor got the lion’s feet wrong and killed himself in anguish. But actually he made the statue of Queen Victoria in Market Place the very next year, and went on to sculpt a piece which stands in Central Park in New York. It’s amazing how a myth can carry through even when it’s totally wrong!

As we made our way to the Abbey Gateway, near today’s Crown Court, and to the Abbey Church ruins, Matthew told us about the restoration works which have been taking place. It’s a mammoth task trying to preserve and restore a site of such historical significance and it has taken a lot of hard work to try and secure funding. It’s an on-going project but there are hopes of restoring the ruins so they can be open to the public again, and to create an area which will celebrate Reading’s history.

When we arrived at the ruins we had to all pop on our hard hats and then we were taken inside to see behind the scenes.

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The ruins are spectacular and Matthew really brought them to life, describing what each room would have been used for so we could imagine what the working Abbey would have been like.

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We were also told how a piece of work was being done to neaten the grass in the middle of the ruins when the workers hit a floor of concrete. It puzzled them for a while until a man on a similar tour said the ruins were where he used to come as a schoolboy during air raids in the war. It turned out to be an air raid shelter, and although closed up, it’s still there today. Completely remarkable.

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Although it was exciting getting to go into the ruins, it was just the icing on the cake as the whole tour was fascinating. If you get the chance to go on a future tour I would definitely recommend it. Reading has such a rich and brilliant history and hopefully if the restoration of the ruins progresses, everyone will get to know more about it.

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