Category Archives: 2016 England

Inside of Reading Gaol

Ballad of Reading Gaol

When I told people that I was going to take a tour around the Reading Prison the general question was “why?” My response is that other than Porridge and on news reports I haven’t been into a prison – not having the pleasure of being at Her Majesty’s pleasure and all that! It’s just not something that you get the opportunity to do normally.

When the Reading Prison closed in 2013 there was a lot of debate about what should be done with it, a conclusion to which has yet to be reached. The buildings are grade II listed and part of Reading Abbey lies underneath it, including (maybe), the grave of King Henry I, inevitably under the car park, so it can’t be ripped down and replaced with flats fortunately. So while the debate rages on the prison has been opened up for a couple of months for an art exhibition and for guided tours.

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I think the first thing to state about the place and this might be stating the obvious but it is pretty grim. This is partly due to the buildings dating back to the Victorian era and the warren type nature of the place. When it first opened every prisoner had their own cell. This is not as great as it sounds as prisoners weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone else, at all, ever. Breaking this rule got Reading Prison’s most famous occupant, Oscar Wilde, two weeks in an isolation cell as punishment. This was a cell in the basement of the prison that had no light whatsoever. They were fed bread and water twice a day and that was it. I spent a few seconds in the closed room and that was enough for me, it can’t have done much for the mental state of those who spent longer.

The main body of the prison looks just like it does on Porridge long corridors with cell doors off each side and netting strung between the two sides of each corridor. The cells themselves were, of course, tiny. The picture is taken from inside Wilde’s cell. Clearly the fixtures and fittings have been updated since his time.

Inside Oscar Wilde's Cell at Reading Gaol

It was an interesting experience to see a prison up close and some more than others will have deserved to have spent time in Reading but it cannot have been a comfortable experience during the days of no communications. Now we wait to see how the building is repurposed but still retains its character – that is going to be an interesting challenge.

A Wild Weekend in Manchester

It can’t be a coincidence that on both the occasions I have visited Manchester a fight has broken out. I suppose some might see me as the catalyst but in both cases I was an innocent bystander.

We had chosen a weekend in Manchester solely because it is equidistant between the homes of ourselves in Reading and our friends in Newcastle. It isn’t somewhere that instantly springs to mind for a weekend break but is just a three and a half hour train ride away.

Our first day there was spent in the town itself looking round the odd mix of architecture on offer. We visited the John Ryland’s library a fantastic building which looked very much like the interior of Hogwarts. Also passing the central library, the imposing town hall and the surprisingly small cathedral.

Interspersed between these fine old buildings were the usual mix of glass fronted shopping centres, run down high streets and huge numbers of coffee shops.

We had the second day of our visit all mapped out. We were to get a tram out of Media City at Salford and visit the BBC where we had booked a studio tour. Much of Manchester seems to be being dug up at the moment while upgrades are made to the lines. When we checked the tram times to Media City we were disappointed to discover that the line out that way was shutting until August starting… today! So we got a cab.

It was while sat in said cab that we looked across while waiting at a set of traffic lights to see two blokes throwing punches and wrestling each other to the ground while partners tried to pull them apart. This was road rage taken to the extreme. I have to admit that I was pretty flabbergasted at the scene but not as much as when our friend undid his seat beat, got out of the car and ran across to help break it up!

Media City is vast, sparse and modern and home to the BBC in the North. We had booked on one of the regular tours laid on by the BBC and I am really glad we did. I had been a little concerned about just what we might be able to see and whether we would be able to take any pictures. I needn’t have worried as two incredibly knowledgeable and friendly guides took our small group through a fascinating tour right into the heart of the action.

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First it was into a radio studio used primarily for BBC Radio 6 Music. Rather than being held back we were encouraged to sit at the desk and take as many pictures as we wanted. Next, it was into a radio drama studio where we were shown how it was setup to allow them to record any number of different scenarios including a set of steps with four different types of tread on them to get different sounds.

Finally, we were taken to the studio where Blue Peter is recorded. Another myth shattered – it was tiny! The presenters apparently have to take smaller steps to ensure that they don’t cross the floor too quickly!

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All the way round the guides imparted a number of great stories that were entertaining and informative. Telling us, for example, that people write in to the Archers to say things like “the migratory birds you played was wrong as they would already have left the UK by now” and that Blue Peter has between 8 and 10 people whose sole job it is to reply to all the letters they receive. They also made me look at wildlife shows in a new light and said that they practice the announcement of the death of the queen twice a year. So she not only gets two birthdays a year but also two deaths!

And that was our two days in Manchester. Would I recommend it? Well the BBC studio tour is definitely worth it and there are some interesting places to visit and but it’ snot somewhere we’ll be coming back to regularly I suspect.

Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Like many people I have a bucket list of things that I want to do and this week I managed to tick another one off the list with a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show.

I’m sure that if I could go back to my younger self and tell me that one day I’d have a hankering to go to a flower show I would have laughed so hard it would have hurt. However, tastes change and as you mature you appreciate different things – is the line I’m now taking to explain this volte-face! And so it was that last Thursday we found ourselves setting off early to join the crowds of other horticulture aficionados at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

It’s a curious thing, holding a flower show in the grounds of an old people’s home, but that is what the Royal Hospital Chelsea is and there were plenty of Chelsea Pensioners enjoying the displays in their back gardens.

While the hospital grounds are a large area for a few hundred pensioners it isn’t really large enough to accommodate all those that wish to attend the flower show. When we arrived it was comfortably busy and with a little patience and a little light elbowing you could get to the front of the displays. By midday, however, it was heaving and it became necessary to employ more devious tactics. The numbers weren’t helped I suspect by the great weather we had with the sun pouring down making the displays look magnificent, as you can see in this short video.

There is an amazing amount of work goes into all the displays and there is plenty on display that is flowering at what must be the wrong time of year. Having never been before I can’t be sure but I am pretty certain that there must be some sort of floral arms race going on with people trying to out do what others (and themselves) have done in previous years.

There is a good reason to put on a good show as there are prizes but the whole thing did seem to have the feel of a junior school sports day where everyone wins a prize just for turning up. Every stand seemed to have received a certificate or gong of some description.

One worthy winner, however, was this unassuming grey box looking a bit like the Pandorica in Dr Who. There was a queue wrapped twice around the box to get to see what it contained and being typically British we joined the end.

When you reached the head of the line and to the box itself there were three holes drilled at different heights on two sides through which you could look in and see the miniature garden within. It was, like so much else at Chelsea, incredibly well done. You can see some pictures of the inside of the box and many of the other features on display below.

Helped by glorious weather we had a great day and we will certainly go again.

Eight Days, Five Counties, Five National Trust Properties

Christmas is such a time of overindulgence so it is really good to get out and blow away a few cobwebs and work off a little of the turkey. Last year we managed five National Trust visits over five counties in seven days so we decided to try and do something similar again this year.

In theory we had the opportunity to visit one more property this year than we did last but we were thwarted by the awful weather. As you will see from below we almost didn’t make the fifth property.

I have included the price we would have paid had we not been members and it is interesting to note that the prices don’t seem to have increased since last year.

Basildon Park, Berkshire
First up this time was Basildon Park which is great for a longer walk. As always seems to be the case with NT places we visit the car park and the tea room are teeming but just walk a little beyond the property and all is quite. And so it was at Basildon today.
Saturday 26th December
Amount saved: £15.00

Grey’s Court, Oxfordshire
Another place where the grounds were empty but the car park was full. I really like Grey’s Court as it is a lovely mixture of wooded walks and walled gardens.
Monday 28th December
£22.50

The Vyne, Hampshire
This trip will be remembered for my losing my National Trust card on the walk around the grounds and having to retrace our steps in an effort to locate it. As it happened some kindly soul had found it and returned it to the tea room.
Wednesday 30th December
£14.40

Osterley Park, Middlesex
All pleasant walk on a dull day. The formal gardens were lacking in colour with the exception of the very early daffodils.
Thursday 31st December
£8.50

Hughenden, Buckinghamshire
We’d never been here before and I can’t say we saw it at its best as it was chucking it down when we arrived. We got soaked just walking from the car park to the tea room. We never got to see the house so will have to come back another time.
Saturday 2nd January
£8.50

Our selection of places this year meant that the total cost was less than last year at £68.90 but still a significant amount towards the cost of our annual membership. More importantly we got out of the house got some fresh air and walked off some turkey!