Reading Abbey, Heritage Open Days 2014

Once a year places of historic interest that wouldn’t normaly be open to the public throw open their doors for Heritage Open Days. I read somewhere that these places are obliged to do so annually as part of the conditions of government/lottery funding, although I can’t find any evidence to back that statement up. Either way it is great as you get to visit places that would otherwise not be accessible.

Reading Abbey is a great example of this. Closed four years ago when it became too dangerous to allow public access this is now the only way you get to visit. Actually this was a lot more than simply a tour of the abbey as this encompassed the whole of the Reading abbey quarter, something that I didn’t even know existed until our guide, Matthew Williams, manager of the Reading Museum, took us round.

You wouldn’t know it from looking at what is left of the abbey but it covered a huge area and cost a fortune when it was built in 1121. Much of it is now under other more modern buildings, such as the prison, also a listed building. It also shaped the layout of the rest of the town too as London Street was built as a new road leading to the abbey with Broad Street and Friar Street being added at the same time.

The tour also touched on the difficulties of managing the upkeep of the ruins and the surrounding area. For example the wall that runs around St Laurence Church has been in a poor state for as long as I can remember. In fact Matthew told us that the scaffolding holding up the wall has been there for forty years and should also be listed! The issue in this case is not simply one of money but of conflicting priorities. The wall is being forced back by trees that are planted close to it but the trees also have a preservation order and in law have the same status as the wall. Simply put you cannot make a change to one that will affect the other. Classic Catch 22.

With Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries Reading abbey was hard hit and much of the stone was sold off leaving only a few buildings intact. Now the abbey is in a poor state and the flint walls that once would have been lined with limestone are now crumbling. With the help of lottery funding the grounds could be reopened to the public in four to five years time, so dig deep! In the interim the intention is to add much more information around the town signposting the areas of significance. This should also tie into the opening of the prison site, the use of which is still being decided. Before that is done I am hoping that we can get to see inside it as is because it is said to be like you see in the TV show Porridge. Maybe that’s a tour for next year’s heritage open days…