“ The Forbury Gardens The Forbury Reading Berkshire RG1 1QH Tel: 0118 9399800. Admission Free. „
It was January, lunch time and a bright cold day. The frost still clung to the grass in long shadows, but the wind had dropped and the sunshine felt warm through the shoulders of my work coat. I pushed through the crowds by the corner of the churchyard and crossed into the Forbury Gardens.
In contrast to the rest of town, this remaining oasis of green was once circled by the walls of the Abbey and since it's purchase by the council in 1835 has been used as a public park.
Having been a refuge for junkies and predatory men in recent years, the gardens have undergone a facelift, leaving them free of hedges and corners and fishponds, covered by the all-seeing CCTV. Despite the fact that they are of more use in their current state, they look somewhat bare, all shrubbery and folly removed to allow wide lawns and sweeping gravel paths. A few pieces from my childhood, when the Forbury was the place for hide-and-seek are still there; the bandstand where no band plays; the Maiwand lion, a memorial to the men who died in Afganistan in 1886; the fountain where we used to fish for coins in dirty water. When I was little, I believed the story of the ghost who lived through the little door under the bandstand and my Mum had to tell me time and again that there was nothing under there but chairs!
The chilly air meant that there were no crowds from the nearby offices on the benches today and I followed the path along the flint wall, hiding from the outside world. An odd scene caught my eye. The fountain had frozen, even the plume of water hung in stalactites and PC World in the distance made for a strange red and yellow backdrop. I headed under the ancient bridge in the corner of the gardens, the low gargoyle sitting just over my head.
Here is where the Abbey ruins start. Not 'The Abbey' because there are so many parts of that left to see, but the jagged, soaring, flint ruins of the church. Against a blue sky, these are both a reminder of how some things last indefinitely, but also how somewhere so established can be gone in the blink of an eye. The archway has been shored up with new, paler, bricks and if you look around the scattered stone there are still handcarved stone bricks and one of the column capitals from the pillars sat in the walls of the path.
The new signposts have finally given the place some recognition. Reading Borough Council has a well-deserved reputation for destroying ancient sites and indeed anywhere of historical interest, but this has (so far) stood the test of time. Although they have taken few steps to preserve Reading's biggest attraction, this has in fact gone in its favour. There are no fences or tickets, not even placards to warn the unsuspecting visitors to mind their heads or watch for falling stone. The only nod is these signposts which finally alert people to what the place is. And there are always people here.
I watch the people every day. There are an Asian couple who hide behind the stones for forbidden romance, the lady who eats her sandwiches on the bench and the man with the 5 litre bottle of cider who talks to himself. Sometimes there are groups of tourists, looking up at the walls of the transept and the treasury, in awe of the size. Sometimes a lone man with a camera taking calendar style pictures. The needles and roaches and abandoned trainers that littered the ground have gone and even on busy days, The Abbey is remarkably tranquil.
The Norman (South) transept of the church still stands, close to the burial site of the first King Henry. As you walk past the end of the corridor to the treasury, there is a completely enclosed Chapter House with gaps only where wooden doors, stained glass windows and the vaulted roof have vanished. On hot summer nights, local actors perform Shakespeare here; on quiet days it lures visitors to read the engraved plaque with 'Summer is icumen in' inscribed on it.
On one side, the Victorian silhouette of Reading Prison dominates the skyline with brooding intent and on the other, a leafy walk heads down to where the Kennet and Avon canal joins the Holy Brook. The grassy space in between reminds me of sitting there in summer with my parents and Little Brother in his pushchair. This was the refectory and the dormitories. There are a series of half-buried archways (the ground level has risen substantially since mediaeval times), one where a much younger Dad found a box of Guinea Pigs.
It's worth making the walk down to the start of the Holy Brook. Dug by the Monks, you can follow it as it winds through a Dog-tooth arch where the Abbey mill stood and underneath the Kings Walk shopping centre where it can be seen through a glass circle embedded in the floor. If you walk back towards the Forbury, the Abbey gateway stands, complete, perfect and until recently, in use. The worn stairs lead to an archway at the top, but there's no entry. St James' Church is made of the abbey stone, as are the walls of the Forbury and so many of the surroundings. There are few places in Reading town centre that don't enjoy the pillaged remains.
It's said that there are passageways leading underground from the Abbey as far as Mapledurham house, north of the river and that some were filled with concrete to support the Inner Distribution road that roars past in a haze of headlights and car stereos. I remember hearing tales from a friend's dad who was a builder; skeletons heaved from the foundations of The Oracle shopping centre and dumped in skips. Doubtless many were found when the prison was built, underneath is the Abbey's burial ground for Lepers, their heads separated from the bodies.
The Abbey saw a great many events in its lifetime; opened by Thomas 'A Becket, it housed the hand of St James for a while and was the chosen venue for Parliament when the plague hit London. Hugh Farringdon, the last Abbot was executed at the Abbey gate, giving his name to the local Catholic school. I won't go into detail on the history of the Abbey as this leaves something for you to discover if you choose to visit it. For a full description of all parts of the Abbey, an insight into its history and some impressive photographs <http://www.berkshirehistory.com/maps/reading_abbey/rdgab03.html> is well worth a look. (Please remove the space between the 'a' and the 'b' of 'abbey to make this link work.) Reading Museum also houses some remains and is only a minute's walk away.
The Abbey is Reading's reason for being. The wealth of the monks, prior to the dissolution, paid for the land and the magnificence of the building work, but also gave rise to a new settlement that would one day form the shape of a cross around the abandoned ruins. I've seen a lot of Abbeys; Fountains, Rievaux and many more, but this place remains close to my heart. Perhaps because it's so peaceful or perhaps just because it's one of very few places worth visiting in my hometown.