Reading

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Reading (/ˈrɛdɪŋ/ red-ing) is a large town and unitary authority area in England. It is located in the Thames Valley at the confluence of the River Thames and River Kennet, and on both the Great Western Main Line railway and the M4 motorway, some 40 miles (64 km) west of London.

Reading is a gateway town to the North Wessex Downs AONB. The Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre, in the care of English Heritage, are 11 miles south-west by road.

The core of Reading railway station was said to be “of note” in the lapsed proposal for the Great Western Railway World Heritage Site.

The town’s urban population was 232,662 at the 2001 Census; the Borough of Reading has a population of 145,700 (2008 estimate). The town is currently represented in the UK parliament by two members, and has been continuously represented there since 1295. For ceremonial purposes the town is in the county of Berkshire and has served as its county town since 1867, previously sharing this status with Abingdon.

The first evidence for Reading as a settlement dates from the 8th century. Reading was an important centre in the medieval period, as the site of Reading Abbey, a monastery with strong royal connections. The town was seriously impacted by the Civil War, with a major siege and loss of trade, and played a pivotal role in the Revolution of 1688, with that revolution’s only significant military action fought on the streets of the town. The 19th century saw the coming of the Great Western Railway and the development of the town’s brewing, baking and seed growing businesses.

Today Reading is a commercial centre, with involvement in information technology and insurance, and, despite its proximity to London, has a net inward commuter flow. The town is also a retail centre serving a large area of the Thames Valley, and is home to the University of Reading. Every year it hosts the Reading Festival, one of England’s biggest music festivals. Sporting teams based in Reading include Reading Football Club and the London Irish rugby union team, and over 15,000 runners annually compete in the Reading Half Marathon.

Reading may have existed as early as the Roman occupation of Britain, possibly as a trading port for Calleva Atrebatum. However the first clear evidence for Reading as a settlement dates from the 8th century, when the town came to be known as Readingum. The name probably comes from the Readingas, an Anglo-Saxon tribe whose name means Reada’s People in Old English, or less probably the Celtic Rhydd-Inge, meaning Ford over the River.

In late 870, an army of Danes invaded the kingdom of Wessex and set up camp at Reading. On 4 January 871, in the first Battle of Reading, King Ethelred and his brother Alfred the Great attempted unsuccessfully to breach the Danes’ defences. The battle is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and that account provides the earliest known written record of the existence of Reading. The Danes remained in Reading until late in 871, when they retreated to winter quarters in London.

After the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England, William the Conqueror gave land in and around Reading to his foundation of Battle Abbey. In its 1086 Domesday Book listing, the town was explicitly described as a borough. The presence of six mills is recorded: four on land belonging to the king and two on the land given to Battle Abbey.

Reading Abbey was founded in 1121 by Henry I, who is buried within the Abbey grounds. As part of his endowments, he gave the abbey his lands in Reading, along with land at Cholsey. It is not known how badly Reading was affected by the Black Death that swept through England in the 14th century, but it is known that the abbot of Reading Abbey, Henry of Appleford, was one of its victims in 1361, and that nearby Henley lost 60% of its population. The Abbey was largely destroyed in 1538 during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The last abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon, was subsequently tried and convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey Church.

By 1525, Reading was the largest town in Berkshire, and tax returns show that Reading was the 10th largest town in England when measured by taxable wealth. By 1611, it had a population of over 5000 and had grown rich on its trade in cloth, as instanced by the fortune made by local merchant John Kendrick.

Reading played an important role during the English Civil War. Despite its fortifications, it had a Royalist garrison imposed on it in 1642. The subsequent Siege of Reading by Parliamentary forces succeeded in April 1643. The town’s cloth trade was especially badly damaged, and the town’s economy did not fully recover until the 20th century. Reading played a significant role during the Revolution of 1688: the second Battle of Reading was the only substantial military action of the campaign.

The 18th century saw the beginning of a major iron works in the town and the growth of the brewing trade for which Reading was to become famous. Reading’s trade benefited from better designed turnpike roads which helped it establish its location on the major coaching routes from London to Oxford and the West Country. In 1723, despite considerable local opposition, the Kennet Navigation opened the River Kennet to boats as far as Newbury. Opposition stopped when it became apparent that the new route benefited the town. After the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810, one could go by barge from Reading to the Bristol Channel. From 1714, and probably earlier, the role of county town of Berkshire was shared between Reading and Abingdon.

During the 19th century, the town grew rapidly as a manufacturing centre. The Great Western Railway arrived in 1841, followed by the South Eastern Railway in 1849 and the London and South Western Railway in 1856. The Summer Assizes were moved from Abingdon to Reading in 1867, effectively making Reading the sole county town of Berkshire, a decision that was officially approved by the Privy Council in 1869. The town became a county borough under the Local Government Act 1888. The town has been famous for the Three Bs of beer (1785–2010, Simonds’ Brewery), bulbs (1837–1974, Suttons Seeds), and biscuits (1822–1976, Huntley and Palmers).

The town continued to expand in the 20th century, annexing Caversham across the River Thames in Oxfordshire in 1911. The Lower Earley development, built in 1977, was one of the largest private housing developments in Europe. It extended the urban area of Reading as far as the M4 motorway, which acts as the southern boundary of the town. Further housing developments have increased the number of modern houses and hypermarkets in the outskirts of Reading. The local shopping centre, The Oracle, opened in 1999, is named after the 17th century Oracle workhouse, which once occupied a small part of the site. It provides three storeys of shopping space and boosted the local economy by providing 4,000 jobs.

As one of the largest urban areas in the United Kingdom to be without city status, Reading has bid for city status on three recent occasions — in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium; in 2002 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II; and 2012 to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee. All three bids were unsuccessful.

Local government for the town of Reading is principally provided by the Borough of Reading, a single level unitary authority without civil parishes. However some of the town’s outer suburbs are in West Berkshire and Wokingham unitary authorities. These outer suburbs belong to civil parishes, in some cases with their own town status.

Reading has elected at least one Member of Parliament to every Parliament since 1295. Historically, Reading was represented by the members for the Parliamentary Borough of Reading, and the parliamentary constituencies of Reading, Reading North, and Reading South. Since the 2010 general election, Reading and its surrounding area has been divided between the parliamentary constituencies of Reading East and Reading West. The whole of the town is within the multi-member South East England European constituency.

Reading is the site of both a Crown Court, administering criminal justice, and a County Court, responsible for civil cases. Lesser matters are dealt with in a local Magistrates’ Court.

Reading has had some degree of local government autonomy since 1253, when the local merchant guild was granted a royal charter. Since then, the town has been run by a borough corporation, as a county borough, and as a district of Berkshire. The Borough of Reading became a unitary authority area in 1998, when Berkshire County Council was abolished under the Banham Review, and is now responsible for all aspects of local government within the borough.

Prior to the 16th century, civic administration for the town of Reading was situated in the Yield Hall, a guild hall situated by the River Kennet near today’s Yield Hall Lane. After a brief stay in what later became Greyfriars Church, the town council created a new town hall by inserting an upper floor into the refectory of the Hospitium of St John, the former hospitium of Reading Abbey. For some 400 years up to the 1970s, this was to remain the site of Reading’s civic administration through the successive rebuilds that eventually created today’s Town Hall. In 1976, Reading Borough Council moved to the new Civic Centre.

The government of the Borough of Reading follows the leader and cabinet model. The borough also has a (largely ceremonial) mayor.

Since 1887, the borough has included the former villages of Southcote and Whitley and small parts of Earley and Tilehurst. By 1911, it also encompassed the Oxfordshire village of Caversham and still more of Tilehurst. A small area of Mapledurham parish was added in 1977. An attempt to take over a small area of Eye and Dunsden parish in Oxfordshire was rejected because of strong local opposition in 1997. Today the borough itself is unparished, and the wards used to elect the borough councillors generally ignore the old parish boundaries and use invented ward names.

Reading’s municipal boundaries do not include all of the surrounding suburbs, some of which belong administratively to West Berkshire (centred in Newbury) and Wokingham. Its constricted boundaries create serious difficulties for the town, as it attempts to develop and grow. The diminishing amount of land suitable for development within the borough’s boundary can bring the council into conflict with its neighbours. This particularly affects education (many schools have catchment areas that cross administrative boundaries), and transport. An example of this is the planned third crossing of the Thames, which South Oxfordshire’s politicians and residents oppose. On this subject, Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, said in a House of Commons debate in January 2006:

“However, the process has been painfully slow and it appears that, for every two steps forwards, there are three steps backwards—mainly because of the view of South Oxfordshire district council, which is being incredibly parochial about this matter. Meanwhile, Reading borough council is adopting strategies that prioritise local traffic in Reading, obviously to the detriment of through traffic. We have now reached the point at which we desperately need direct Government intervention to break the logjam between those local authorities.”

Reading is 36 miles (58 km) due west of central London, 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Oxford, 70 miles (110 km) east of Bristol, and 50 miles (80 km) north of the English south coast. The centre of Reading is on a low ridge between the River Thames and River Kennet, close to their confluence, reflecting the town’s history as a river port. Just above the confluence, the Kennet cuts through a narrow steep-sided gap in the hills forming the southern flank of the Thames floodplain. The absence of a floodplain on the Kennet in this defile enabled the development of wharves.

As Reading has grown, its suburbs have spread: to the west between the two rivers into the foothills of the Berkshire Downs (part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty); to the south and south-east on the south side of the Kennet; and to the north of the Thames into the Chiltern Hills. Outside the central area, the floors of the valleys containing the two rivers remain largely unimproved floodplain. Apart from the M4 curving to the south there is only one road across the Kennet floodplain. All other routes between the three built-up areas are in the central area, which is a cause of road congestion there.

The floodplains adjoining Reading’s two rivers are subject to occasional flooding. However, in the 2007 floods that affected much of the UK, no properties were affected by flooding from the Thames and only four properties were affected by flooding from the Kennet.

Depending on the definition adopted, neither the town nor the urban area are necessarily coterminous with the borough. Historically, the town of Reading was smaller than the borough. Definitions include the old ecclesiastical parishes of the churches of St Mary, St Laurence and St Giles, or the even smaller pre-19th century borough.

Population growth of the Borough of Reading
Year Population Year Population Year Population
1801 10,792 1871 39,497 1941 103,518
1811 12,191 1881 47,336 1951 112,364
1821 14,547 1891 63,085 1961 125,177
1831 14,547 1901 72,946 1971 139,495
1841 21,103 1911 84,354 1981 130,888
1851 23,819 1921 89,690 1991 136,062
1861 31,658 1931 95,369 2001 143,124
Source: A Vision of Britain through Time.

The borough has a population of 155,300 and a population density of 3,844 per square kilometre (9,956 /sq mi) (2011 est.), while the Office for National Statistics’ definition of the urban sub-division of Reading is significantly larger at 232,662 people in an area of 55.35 km². This urban subdivision is itself a component of the Reading/Wokingham Urban Area with a population of 369,804 (2001 census), and is the most populous town in the United Kingdom not to have city status.

Reading is an important commercial centre in the Thames Valley and Southern England. The town hosts the headquarters of several British companies and the UK offices of foreign multinationals, as well as being a major retail centre.

Whilst located close enough to London to be sometimes regarded as part of the London commuter belt, Reading is a net inward destination for commuters. During the morning peak period, there are some 30,000 inward arrivals in the town, compared to 24,000 departures.

Major companies BG Group, ING Direct, Microsoft, Oracle Yell Group, have their headquarters in Reading. The insurance company Prudential has an administration centre in the town. PepsiCo and Wrigley have offices. Reading has a significant historical involvement in the information technology industry, largely as a result of the early presence in the town of sites of International Computers Limited and Digital. Other technology companies with a significant presence in the town include Agilent Technologies, Cisco, Ericsson, Nvidia, SGI, Symantec, Verizon Business, and Websense. These companies are distributed around Reading or just outside the borough boundary, some in business parks including Thames Valley Park in nearby Earley, Green Park Business Park and Arlington Business Park.

Reading town centre is a major shopping centre. In 2007, an independent poll placed Reading 16th in a league table of best performing retail centres in the UK. The main shopping street is Broad Street, which runs between the Oracle in the east and Broad Street Mall in the west and was pedestrianised in 1995. The smaller Friars Walk in Friar Street is derelict and will be demolished if the proposed Station Hill redevelopment project goes ahead.

There are three major department stores in Reading: John Lewis Reading (formerly known as Heelas), Debenhams and House of Fraser. The bookseller Waterstone’s has two branches in Reading. Their Broad Street branch is a conversion of a nonconformist chapel dating from 1707. Besides the two major shopping malls, Reading has three smaller shopping arcades, the Bristol and West Arcade, Harris Arcade and The Walk, which contain smaller specialist stores. An older form of retail facility is represented by Union Street, popularly known as Smelly Alley. Reading has a street market in Hosier Street. A farmers’ market operates on two Saturdays a month.

Every year Reading hosts the Reading Festival, which has been running since 1971. The festival takes place on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the August bank holiday weekend. For some twenty years until 2006, Reading was also known for its WOMAD Festival until it moved to Charlton Park in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. The Reading Beer Festival was first held in 1994 and has now grown to one of the largest beer festivals in the UK. It is held at King’s Meadow for the five days immediately preceding the May Day bank holiday every year.

On the south side of Friar Street there once stood the Royal County Theatre, designed by Frank Matcham and built in 1895. It was destroyed by fire in 1937. Within the town hall is a 700-seat concert hall that houses a Father Willis organ. Reading theatre venues include The Hexagon and South Street Arts Centre. Amateur theatre venues in Reading include Progress Theatre, a self-governing, self-funding theatre group and registered charity founded in 1947 that operates and maintains its own 97-seat theatre.

The demonym for a person from Reading is Readingensian, giving the name of the local rugby team Redingensians, based in Sonning, and of former members of Reading School. An alternative demonym is Readingite.

Jane Austen attended Reading Ladies Boarding School, based in the Abbey Gateway, in 1784–86. Mary Russell Mitford lived in Reading for a number of years and then spent the rest of her life just outside the town at Three Mile Cross and Swallowfield. The fictional Belford Regis of her eponymous novel, first published in 1835, is largely based on Reading. Described with topographical accuracy, it is still possible to follow the steps of the novel’s characters in present day Reading. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol from 1895–97. While there, he wrote his letter De Profundis. After his release, he lived in exile in France and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on his experience of an execution carried out in Reading Gaol whilst he was imprisoned there. Ricky Gervais, who is from Reading, made a film Cemetery Junction although filmed elsewhere in the UK, is set in 1970s Reading and is named after a busy junction in East Reading.

The Maiwand Lion in Forbury Gardens, an unofficial symbol of Reading, commemorates the 328 officers of the Royal Berkshire Regiment who died in the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. The Blade, a fourteen-storey building completed in 2009, is 128 m (420 ft) tall and can be seen from the surrounding area. Reading has 5 Grade I listed buildings, 22 Grade II* and 853 Grade II buildings, in a wide variety of architectural styles that range from the medieval to the 21st century. The Grade I listed buildings are Reading Abbey, the Abbey Gateway, Greyfriars Church, St Laurence’s Church, and Reading Minster.

Reading has three local newspapers, the Reading Chronicle, published on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Reading Post, published on Wednesdays and Fridays and the Reading Midweek published on Wednesdays.

Reading has over 100 parks and playgrounds, including 5 miles of riverside paths. In the town centre is Forbury Gardens, a public park built on the site of the outer court of Reading Abbey. The largest public park in Reading is Prospect Park, previously an estate owned by Frances Kendrick and acquired by the Reading Corporation in 1901.

The Reading Borough Public Library service dates back to 1877. Initially housed in Reading Town Hall, the central branch of the library relocated in 1985 to a new building on King’s Road.

Reading’s location in the Thames Valley to the west of London has made the town an important location in the nation’s transport system.

The town grew up as a river port at the confluence of the Thames and the Kennet. Both of these rivers are navigable, and Caversham Lock, Blake’s Lock, County Lock, Fobney Lock and Southcote Lock are all within the borough. Today, navigation is exclusively for purposes of leisure: private and hire boats dominate traffic, while scheduled boat services operate on the Thames from wharves on the Reading side of the river near Caversham Bridge.

Reading was a major staging point on the old Bath Road (A4) from London to Avonmouth, near Bristol. This road still carries local traffic, but has now been replaced for long distance traffic by the M4 motorway, which closely skirts the borough and serves it with three junctions, J10-J12. Other main roads serving Reading include the A33, A327, A329, A4074 and A4155. Within Reading there is the Inner Distribution Road (IDR), a ring road for local traffic. The IDR is linked with the M4 by the A33 relief road. National Express Coaches run out of Reading Coachway, at Junction 12 of the M4. The Thames is crossed by both Reading and Caversham road bridges, while several road bridges cross the Kennet, the oldest surviving one of which is High Bridge.

Reading is a major junction point of the National Rail system, and hence Reading station is a major transfer point and terminus. Reading station will be redeveloped at a cost of £850m, with grade separation of some conflicting traffic flows, and extra platforms, to relieve severe congestion at this station. The project is scheduled to finish in 2015. Railway lines link Reading to both Paddington and Waterloo stations in London. Other stations in the Reading area are Reading West, Tilehurst and Earley. Green Park railway station is planned on the Reading to Basingstoke Line to serve Green Park Business Park.

There have been two airfields in or near Reading, one at Coley Park and one at Woodley, but they have both closed. The nearest airport is London Heathrow, 25 miles (40 km) away by road. An express bus service named RailAir links Reading with Heathrow, or the airport can be accessed by rail by taking the Paddington train and changing to the Heathrow Connect rail service at Hayes and Harlington railway station.

Today local public transport is largely by road, which is often affected by peak hour congestion in the borough. A frequent local bus network within the borough, and a less frequent network in the surrounding area, are provided by Reading Buses. Other bus operators include First, Thames Travel and Newbury Buses.

The OYBike bicycle sharing system operates in Reading, with approximately 15 bicycles and with docking stations at Reading station, Holiday Inn (Basingstoke Road) and Green Park. In March 2011, Reading Borough Council approved a larger scheme similar to Barclays Cycle Hire in London, with 1,000 bicycles available at up to 150 docking stations across Reading.

Reading School, founded in 1125, is the 16th oldest school in England.

Reading College has provided further education in Reading since 1955, with over 8,500 local learners on over 900 courses.

The University of Reading was established in 1892 as an affiliate of Oxford University. It moved to its London Road Campus in 1904 and to its new Whiteknights Campus in 1947. It took over the Bulmershe College of Higher Education, a teacher training college, in 1989, becoming Bulmershe Court Campus. The Henley Management College, situated in Buckinghamshire and about 10 miles (16 km) from Reading, was taken over in 2008, becoming Greenlands Campus. The University of West London maintains a presence in the town for its higher education students, principally in nursing, but has now divested itself of its previous ownership of Reading College and its further education students.

The Museum of Reading opened in 1883 in the town’s municipal buildings. It contains galleries relating to the history of Reading and to the excavations of Calleva Atrebatum, together with a full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, an art collection, and galleries relating to Huntley and Palmers.

The Museum of English Rural Life, in East Reading, is a museum dedicated to recording the changing face of farming and the countryside in England. It houses designated collections of national importance. It is owned and run by the University of Reading, as are the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Cole Museum of Zoology and the Harris Botanic Gardens, all of which can be found on the university’s Whiteknights Campus.

The small Riverside Museum at Blake’s Lock tells the story of Reading’s two rivers, the Kennet and the Thames. In the suburb of Woodley, the Museum of Berkshire Aviation has a collection of aircraft and other artefacts relating to the aircraft industry in the town.

Reading Minster, or the Minster Church of St Mary the Virgin as it is more properly known, is Reading’s oldest ecclesiastical foundation, known to have been founded by the 9th century and possibly earlier. Although eclipsed in importance by the later Abbey, Reading Minster has regained its importance since the destruction of the Abbey.

Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121. He was buried there, as were parts of his daughter Empress Matilda, William of Poitiers, Constance of York, and Princess Isabella of Cornwall, among others. The abbey was one of the pilgrimage centres of medieval England, it held over 230 relics including the hand of St. James. Today all that remains of the abbey are the inner rubble cores of the walls of many of the major buildings of the abbey, together with a much restored inner gateway and the intact hospitium.

The mediaeval borough of Reading was served by three parish churches: Reading Minster, St Giles’ Church and St Laurence’s Church. All are still in use by the Church of England. The Franciscan friars built a friary in the town in 1311 and after the friars were expelled in 1538, the building was used as a hospital, a poorhouse and a jail, before being restored as the Church of England parish church of Greyfriars Church in 1863.

The Bishop of Reading is a suffragan bishop within the Church of England’s Diocese of Oxford. The bishop is based in Reading, and is responsible for the archdeaconry of Berkshire. There are a total of 18 Church of England parish churches in Reading.

St James’s Church was built on a portion of the site of the abbey between 1837–40, and marked the return of the Roman Catholic faith to Reading. Reading was also the site of the death of Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Catholic missionary to England in the 19th century who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic faith. There are now a total of 8 Roman Catholic parish churches in Reading.

Reading is the home of Reading Football Club, an association football club nicknamed The Royals, formed in 1871. Formerly based at Elm Park, the club plays at the 24,161 capacity Madejski Stadium, which opened in 1998. After winning the 2005–06 Football League Championship with a record of 106 points, Reading F.C. spent two seasons in the Premier League before being relegated to The Championship. For the 2012-2013 season, the club will again compete in the Premier League, after securing first place in the The Championship for the 2011-2012 season.

Reading is a centre for rugby union football in the area, with the Aviva Premiership team London Irish as tenants at the Madejski Stadium. Reading is also home to another three senior semi-professional rugby clubs; Reading Abbey R.F.C., Redingensians R.F.C. and Reading R.F.C..

The Reading Half Marathon is held on the streets of Reading in March of each year, with 16,000 competitors from elite to fun runners. It was first run in 1983 and took place in every subsequent year except 2001, when it was cancelled because of concerns over that year’s outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

The British Triathlon Association was formed at the town’s former Mall health club in 11 December 1982. Britain’s first ever triathlon took place just outside Reading at Kirtons’s Farm in Pingewood in 1983 and was revived 10 years’ later by Banana Leisure with one of the original organisers as Event Director. Thames Valley Triathletes, based in the town, is Britain’s oldest triathlon club, having its origins in the 1984 event at nearby Heckfield, when a relay team raced under the name Reading Triathlon Club.

Reading is twinned with Düsseldorf, Germany; Clonmel, Ireland; San Francisco Libre, Nicaragua; Speightstown, Barbados.

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