Things to do in Reading: A tourist guide to the Berkshire town

How many of you have realised in a desperate attempt to see the world, you completely ignore what’s on your doorstep? I, for one, am definitely in this group. As a young twenty something I settled in the university and commuter town of Reading, Berkshire. It wasn’t planned. A work opportunity and some quick decision making resulted in a last minute relocation from North Wales. Being a transient town, my first decade was spent socialising (and working) with people who, for the majority, weren’t from Reading. It’s only in the last decade that I’ve really got to know the locals, got to know the history and got to love the town. Which got me thinking, if you were a tourist, what would do on a visit? So I decided to put together a short list of things to do in Reading, to show off the best of the town.

There’s a reason I have decided to put this together now. I am leaving. My time in Reading is coming to an end. It’s time to head back to the stunning coast and mountains of North Wales. It’s not that I have fallen out of love with Reading. In fact, I love it more now than ever before. The incredible changes the town has seen over the past few years make it a vibrant, exciting and interesting place to live. So it’s not going to be a ‘Goodbye’, but more of a ‘See you later’. Leave on a high, and look forward to even greater changes for my (inevitably) regular visits back.

Forbury Gardens in Reading

Forbury Gardens and The Blade, Reading

Things to do in Reading

Anyway, enough rambling on about me. Let’s focus on these things to do in Reading I speak of. It’s fair to say that the town is not really on the tourist map. With Oxford 25 minutes on the train in one direction, and London 25 minutes in the other, Reading has a bit of a hard sell as a stopping point. If you do stop though, despite the heavy focus on shopping in the town centre, there’s plenty more to see if you explore a little further. Given my impending departure, I had a list of things I wanted to do before I left. Those things that you keep saying you’ll do soon, but never get around to it. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

1. Take a River Cruise down the Thames

Waterways are a huge part of Reading. With the River Thames and River Kennet passing through the town, you are never too far from the water. Thames Rivercruise run seasonal cruises along the local stretch of the Thames. These cruises all begin and end at Caversham Pier, adjacent to Caversham Bridge. There are a range of cruises available. These include a 30 minute taster, a 45 minute cruise, and 80 minute Thames Explorer and the Sundowner Cruise. In addition to this, for the 2019 season there are special event cruises including Afternoon Teas, wine and food cruises. The wine and tasting cruises are in partnership with local independents The Tasting House and Bench Rest.

Thames Rivercruise - Things to do in Reading

The River Thames, seen from Caversham Bridge

Thames Explorer

We opted for the 80 minute Thames Explorer cruise. So, on a bright and sunny spring Saturday we headed towards Caversham Pier. It actually turned out to be the first cruise of the season. Thames Rivercruise have a variety of vessels ranging from the larger flagship Caversham Princess, to smaller boats such as the Caversham Lady. This was our vessel for the day. The Caversham Lady was a compact boat, seating up to 60 passengers with an on-board bar. There was a small outdoor area to the front with some seating and standing room. Being early in the season, the cruise wasn’t heavily booked so we had plenty of space to move around and were able to stand outside.

Caversham Pier

Caversham Pier

The Caversham Lady, Thamescruise vessel

The Caversham Lady, our boat for the day

The Thames Explorer heads out upstream from Reading into the surrounding countryside. This provides great views of the Berkshire Downs and surrounding villages. It was an interesting journey outbound where the skipper provided lots of local information about the stretch of river we were navigating. I was amazed by how much wildlife we saw along the way. Herons nesting in the trees (I had no idea they nested so high up) and Cormorants perched high above us on our journey. Along with the familiar sights of the swans, geese and ducks that reside on this section of the Thames, it was a really lovely experience.

A heron nesting in the trees above the River Thames

A heron nesting in the trees above the River Thames

A cormorant perched above the river

A cormorant perched above the river

A sunny day selfie on the Thames Rivercruise

A sunny day selfie on the Thames Rivercruise

Mapledurham

The halfway point of the journey sees a turnaround at Mapledurham House and Mill – a large country house and estate in the Berkshire countryside. At the point of writing (June 2019) the house and grounds are currently generally closed to the public. There are minimal weekday guided tours of the grounds and watermill offered on their website. I visited Mapledurham a few years back and it’s a beautiful setting. Hopefully when the extensive repairs to the house are complete, it will reopen.

Mapledurham Lock - the turning point of the river cruise

Mapledurham Lock – the turning point of the river cruise

Boats docked along a calm section of the River Thames

Boats docked along a calm section of the River Thames

We really enjoyed our river cruise and found it informative, relaxing and enjoyable. If I had more time, I would like to try out the Sundowner Cruise on a clear evening. The Thames runs west to east through Reading, and the sunsets (and sunrises) down near the river are absolutely beautiful.

Admiring in the properties along the River Thames

Admiring in the properties along the River Thames

Sunset at Caversham Pier

Sunset at Caversham Pier

2. Visit Reading Museum

The Reading Museum, located in the Reading Town Hall building in the centre of town is a must visit, if you’re looking to learn about the town’s heritage and history. Built between the late 1700’s and the late 1800’s, the stunning building has always been one of my favourites in town. The beautiful gothic facade with its clock tower and ornate details, towers over Blagrave Street around the corner from Reading Station. No longer the town’s administration building, the Town Hall is currently home to the Concert Hall, several conference facilities and the aforementioned Reading Museum.

Reading Museum - Things to do in Reading

The Reading Town Hall building

Reading Museum

Reading Museum

What to see in Reading Museum

Reading Museum offers free entry to the public, and is well worth stopping by. As well as several permanent galleries, the John Madejski Art Gallery is a space for temporary exhibitions for artists – always encouraging for repeat visits. The focus of the permanent galleries are mainly on the heritage of the town and surrounding area. The Story of Reading Gallery focuses on the history of the town including the Reading Abbey (which we will get to later) and Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde imprisoned. The Huntley and Palmers Gallery takes a detailed look at the history of the famous biscuit makers based in the town, whereas the Silchester Gallery has a collection of artefacts from the nearby Roman town of Silchester, where excavations began in the 1860’s.

The stunning architecture of Reading Town Hall

The stunning architecture of Reading Town Hall

Interior shot of the Reading Museum

Inside the Reading Museum

As well as the above, be sure to explore the Bayeux Gallery, which features Britain’s full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. The replica is 70 metres long and was created by 35 skilled embroiders in 1885. Once you have finished exploring the museum there is a gift shop selling items directly related to the local area. The cafe area is currently under refurbishment but due to reopen in the summer of 2019.

3. Reading Abbey

The summer of 2018 saw a huge change in the centre of Reading. After being closed to the public since 2008, the ruins of Reading Abbey were reopened to the public after extensive repair work. Along with work to the Abbey ruins themselves and the nearby Abbey Gateway, a number of information points were installed around the town detailing the heritage of the Abbey Quarter.  Having not visited the ruins in my early years of being in Reading (far too busy going to pubs and clubs), I always longed to see what was beyond the construction hoardings. In the summer of 2018 I had that opportunity when the site reopened.

Reading Abbey Ruins - Things to do in Reading

The Ruins of Reading Abbey

The history of Reading Abbey

Quick history lesson. The medieval Abbey was built in the 1100’s at the request of King Henry I. It featured a large impressive church as well as living quarters for dozens of monks. The Abbey church was officially opened in 1164, but sadly King Henry I died before it was completed. He was buried here in 1136. As the fourth largest church in Britain, construction continued for almost 200 years after initial foundations were laid. Monks lived and worshipped here for 400 years , until, under the orders of King Henry VIII the Abbey was closed in 1539. Henry VIII took all the valuable possessions and the Abbott was executed.

Reading Abbey Ruins in front of Reading Gaol

Reading Abbey Ruins in front of Reading Gaol

Exploring the Reading Abbey Ruins

Exploring the Reading Abbey Ruins

The lodgings were converted into royal accommodation and used up until the English Civil War. Much of the Abbey’s ruins were used as a source of stone for the towns defences from the siege on Reading. Following the Civil War, with ownership of the ruins in dispute, many land owners destroyed much of the ruins to make way for new buildings. This included removing the apse end of the Abbey Church and Abbey Infirmary to make was for the Reading Gaol which was built in 1786.

Present Day

The newly reopened Abbey Quarter offers a wealth of information about the history of the buildings. It provides the opportunity to get up close to the ruins of these amazing buildings. From the information boards around the site, maps and imagery show how the site looked. You get to see the scale and the amount of the space the Abbey would have taken up. It’s really quite fascinating. As well as being a site of local heritage, the site is now also a multi use space and has to date held music festivals, food festivals, outdoor cinema evenings and Shakespeare theatre productions. There are further events to come, all of which can be found on their website.

Historical details in the walls of Reading Abbey ruins

Historical details in the walls of Reading Abbey ruins

Reading Abbey and Reading Gaol

Reading Abbey / Reading Gaol

4. The Museum of English Rural Life

Owned and managed by the University of Reading, the Museum of English Rural Life (aka The MERL) is a short walk away from the centre of town. I have to admit that I wasn’t too familiar with The MERL until a few years ago, when I was encouraged by friends to visit. Awarded £1.8 million in 2014 by the Lottery Heritage Fund for redevelopment, the museum updated their galleries and reopened in October 2016.

The Museum of English Rural Life - Things to do in Reading

The Museum of English Rural Life entrance

The gardens to the rear of The MERL

The gardens to the rear of The MERL

Beautiful architecture and magnolia on a spring day at The MERL

Beautiful architecture and magnolia on a spring day at The MERL

The museum is based in a lovely red bricked building on Redlands Road, in the University area of Reading. It is packed full of information and collections telling the story of rural England. With a heavy focus on agriculture, there is a library of archives and papers and over 25,000 objects in their collections. A wide range of farm and rural historical vehicles are on display, as well as an archive of over a million rural photographs. This leads me conveniently into a particular photograph of an ‘Absolute Unit’ that made the national and international news in 2018.

The Absolute Unit

In this age of social media, having a good social media presence can have a massive impact. It’s priceless for the promotion of a company, a brand, or indeed a Museum of English Rural Life. You see, having a talented and highly amusing social media manager running your Twitter account, can lead to great things. This particular social media manager, using humour to promote the MERL on Twitter with a constant stream of amusing tweets one day posted the following tweet:

This tweet went viral and was picked up by the news sites. This resulted in a large increase in followers to the MERL’s twitter account (@TheMERL). There have since been hilariously long threads, and an interaction with Elon Musk of Tesla. This has subsequently resulted in the a new job role for the Twitter guy. At Tesla!! What a story.

Back to the museum though, it’s a really lovely space and full of interesting collections. I really enjoyed my time wandering through. There is a lovely cafe and gift shop, and a large outdoor garden space to the rear. It’s a lovely place to spend some time there on a sunny day, admiring the beautiful surrounding buildings. If you don’t have the opportunity to visit, at least follow the Twitter account and scroll back. You’re in for a treat!

Rural displays at The MERL

Rural displays at The MERL

The MERL cafe

The MERL cafe

Other things to do in Reading

As well as all of the above, the town of Reading is a lovely place to spend some time. There is a large and popular shopping area and an ever growing independent scene that you should seek out. There are beautiful green spaces around the town as well as some stunning architecture. There’s a very famous music festival you may have heard of, as well as a few smaller ones which are even better. The music scene is great with a number of cool little music venues.

It’s really a lovely place that needs to be explored, rather than just passing through on the train.

For a more detailed insight into other places to visit while in Reading, take a look at my article here.

Have you been to Reading and visited any of the above places?

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