Wargrave Local History Society

Latest News - August 2021

Reading Abbey Guided Walk

Members of Wargrave Local History Society enjoyed a guided walk around Reading's Abbey Quarter on a sunny August afternoon. The abbey was founded 900 years ago, in 1121, by Henry I, and the parish of Wargrave was part of its endowment.

The Group listening to John Painter on Forbury Hill

Our guide, John Painter of the Friends of Reading Abbey, began by St Laurence's church at the east end of Friar Street. The church would be visited by pilgrims visiting the abbey, before they entered through the west gate which stood on the south side of the church. Previously, Reading had been centred on the Minster church of St Mary's, but the monks developed the area between there and the abbey site, including the market place, and St Laurence's would have also served the needs of the traders there. After the dissolution of the monasteries, St Laurence's was rebuilt, and became a church for the townspeople.

The rest of the abbey site is the area east of here, bounded to the north and east by Forbury Road, and to the south by the River Kennet. Reading was - then as now - an important hub for people travelling across the country, and also convenient for meetings of important matters of state. It was land that had belonged to the Crown, and so meetings of government also took place here. Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, most such establishments were destroyed, but the king wished to retain the Reading abbey site as a royal palace, from which he could enjoy hunting. However, as Lord of the Manor, the monarch was also responsible for the maintenance of roads and bridges. When Elizabeth I became queen, she wanted to rid herself of these responsibilities, and so granted a Royal Charter to the borough. As part of that, the town took over the maintenance of the roads and bridges - and were allowed to use stones from the abbey to do so.

View of the Hospitium.

Passing along the north wall of the church, behind the Town Hall, stands another ancient building, which had been the hospitium for the abbey. This was a place where hospitality was offered to visitors to the abbey, lodging in the large dormitory there.

In later time, this became Reading Grammar School, and in due course it also served as the Guildhall for the town. It also served as the site of the original Reading University College in the early 20th century. Alongside had been almshouses and a refectory, but these were replaced in the 19th century by the present town hall and museum building, as the borough needed to have rather larger premises than the Guildhall provided.

St Laurence's did not originally have a graveyard, burials taking place within the abbey precincts, but Mary Tudor later provided land for the present one - the churchyard wall (or at least the lower part of it) dating from Tudor times.

Beyond here is the open area known as Forbury Gardens, which was used in medieval times for events such as fairs which the public could attend - only monks and lay brothers being allowed into the monastery itself. Pilgrims would come here to see the religious relic known as the Hand of St James (although as the saint is buried at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, complete with 2 hands, the actual source of the relic is unknown). The Forbury Gardens also includes various borough memorials, the best known being the Maiwand Lion which records the massacre of members of the Royal Berkshire Regiment in the Afghan War. In the north west corner of the gardens is a mound, known as Forbury Hill. Its origin is uncertain, but some archaeological work found that it consists mainly of 16th and 17th century rubble - so maybe associated with activities in the Civil War era. A good idea of the layout of the site could be had from the top of the mound. To the east lies the much later St James church - an early work by Augustus Pugin (and in Romanesque style, rather than the Gothic with which he is more usually associated), whilst Reading prison covers the area where once the chancel of the abbey church once stood.

To the south of here are the remains of the south transept of the abbey church, its chapter house and dormitory, leading down to the river. Responsibility for this royal asset after Henry VIII died passed to the Lord Protector, who stripped off the roof and removed and saleable materials. The walls would have originally been faced with cut stone (which came from Taynton quarry, near Burford in Gloucestershire), and much of that was sold, whilst some was carried down river to build accommodation for the Poor Knights at Windsor. The inner core of the walls, however, were made of flint, which being readily found in the area had little value, and so were left standing. The church was large - and its chapter house is thought to be the largest ever built in this country. A stone tablet on the wall of this building records "Sumer Is Icumen In" - written down at Reading Abbey in about 1240, and believed to be the oldest vernacular noted music written in English. The chapter house also was used in the 17th century for meetings of Parliament, when the Great Plague made it necessary to move out of London.

This is the southern end of the site with the dormitory wall - the Chapter House being the other side of the wall

The Group in the Chapter House

The southern end of the site with the dormitory wall - the Chapter House being the other side of the wall

The southern boundary is the River Kennet, where the path leads to the Holy Brook. This runs under the town centre in a culvert, and had provided the power for the Abbey Mills. As it served a useful purpose for the local population, it continued to function until well into the 20th century. Turning from here back towards the Forbury Gardens the group came back to the Abbey Gateway. In monastic use, this had housed the court, and later a school occupied the upper room. In the Victorian era, it was in need of restoration, which was arranged by the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. His design reflected what he thought a medieval gateway would have looked like, rather than how it was actually built. One of his ideas was to enclose any downpipes within the structure for a neater appearance. Unfortunately, these pipes leaked water, but being hidden away was not discovered for very many years, and so extensive and expensive restoration work was needed earlier this century.

In more recent times, the walls were found to need some remedial work, but the process put in place to cap the walls with concrete had an unfortunate effect, in that water came down the surface and washed out some of the lime mortar. The led to the structure being considered unsafe, and only able to be accessed by those wearing a hard-hat. However, with the aid of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Reading Borough Council along with the Friends of Reading Abbey have been able to restore the site, add information panels, and make it available for people to discover again.

Those wanting to know more about the history of Reading Abbey will find a report of John Painter's talk to the society at www.wargravehistory.org.uk/nov20.html