(Reading’s Hidden Gem)
Reading to me is like a curate’s egg, good in parts.
There is the wonderful Town Hall and many handsome Victorian and Edwardian buildings but there is also the faceless urban sprawl and the endless traffic. In time I think the new railway station will be more loved although in my view it has some alarming design defects. Have you noticed that when it snows it can actually snow inside the vast overbridge? Yes I was walking across the many lines when to my surprise there was snow being blown in through the enormous vents on the roof. I would not imagine that the architects would have missed this phenomena or that when it rains heavily the overbridge floor becomes quite wet and those obvious yellow signs begin to increase.
But overall I love Reading station as I do the superb kinetic bridge that crosses the River Thames between the Reading and Caversham Bridges. It is a beautiful bridge and in my view is as graceful as the Millau Viaduct in the South of France. I am looking forward to walking across this elegant bridge very soon and I am planning a visit to see Norman Foster’s bridge the next time I am in the South of France. Although my Reading visit is more likely at present.
You may have noticed that I have dealt with the spectacular.
Reading Town Hall is a spectacular building.
Reading Railway Station is a spectacular building.
The kinetic bridge over the River Thames is spectacular in its own subtle way.
But there is an area of Reading which is quite small but in my view is the hidden gem of the town. Do you know that Jane Austin once played in the area as a child? Or that in its centre there is an enormous lion which commemorates a rather tragic battle which took place during the high days of our Empire.
I am of course referring to Forbury Gardens a small park which can be found not far from the centre of the town. Many of you may have visited it but how many know of its fascinating history? I certainly was not aware of its full history.
For those unfamiliar with Reading here is thumbnail guide on how to find the park. Essentially it is about five minutes’ walk from the railway station. All you need to do is turn sharp left when leaving the station and head towards the Town Hall where you will find a short street called Valpy Street. The park is at the end of this street and can be easily seen. It is surrounded in part by a decorative stone wall and be entered through an ornate gate again to your left (this is not the only entrance but the nearest to the station). As you enter the park you will immediately feel the Victorian ambiance of the gardens. Everything is pleasing to the eye.
But what of Forbury Gardens and its history how much do we actually know about the park? My researches indicate that the actual area of the park was the site of the outer court of Reading Abbey whose ruins can be found to the left of the gardens. Reading Abbey itself was founded in 1121 by Henry the First and soon became very influential within the town and beyond. The actual name Forbury is a meeting place where fairs could be held and the town could meet the Abbey.
Initially Forbury Hill did not exist but was built in 1150 during the civil war between King Henry’s daughter Matilda and his nephew Stephen. This was to fortify the Abbey. It has remained in its position to this day. All went well within reason until 1538 when the Abbey was mostly destroyed during Henry the Eight’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Indeed the final Abbot was actually executed in front of the Abbey Church. The building was plundered and robbed with anything of value stolen or used elsewhere. The English Civil War and the Siege of Reading (1642-43) further harmed what was left of the Abbey and the hill was again used for defensive gain.
During the next two hundred years the area was used for a variety of purposes including military use as well as the location for many markets and fairs. There was the famous Michaelmas Fair (later known as The Reading Cheese Fair) where stock and crops were sold. This fair has also been recorded as a Hiring Fair which was really was a place where prospective employers and prospective employees could be matched.
Jane Austin is one of our most famous authors and has been strongly linked with Hampshire and the City of Bath (which she disliked). But not many people know that Jane and her sister Cassandra were actually educated in Reading along with another cousin also called Jane. They had been taught in Southampton and Oxford but this proved unsuccessful and they moved to The Reading Ladies Boarding School (The Abbey School) which taught the Jane(s) and Cassandra the staple eighteenth century diet of music, sewing, dancing and spelling (which would serve Jane well in later life).
It is estimated that she stayed for three years leaving in 1786. The school may have been used as the model for Mrs Goddard’s school in Emma. Although it would be over sixty years before the park was actually created Jane is known to have played on the grounds in front of the Abbey ruins during breaks from lessons. Just think you might be sitting in the park eating your healthy Subway sandwich and not so healthy sugary drink in exactly the spot where Jane first thought of Mr Darcy. But why would you be sitting there in the first place?
This was because in 1854 the Forbury Hill and the eastern part of the present gardens were sold to the Reading Corporation for £1200. From then it was all systems go. The Victorians were at the heart of the park mania where every large town had to have a park (in my view this was one the greatest gifts bestowed on us by our forefathers).
Possibly with Kew in mind, the gardens were planned with a botanical character. A fountain was planned, a summerhouse and a tunnel was built to link the gardens to the Abbey ruins in 1859. The work started in 1855 and the park opened on Easter Sunday in 1856. However the western part of the Forbury was still being used for fairs and because of this the area had a refuse problem which was spoiling the enjoyment of the visitors to the park.
The situation was remedied in 1860 when the western area was purchased by the town for £6010. Fairs were no longer held in the park but a wall separated the two parts of the Forbury. Each had its own character. As far as I can see the western part was reserved for more recreational use whereas its eastern neighbour was more botanical in nature. This situation did not last long for in 1873 the western part of the Forbury was absorbed into the whole and the whole area became known as Forbury Gardens.
The familiar Lion was erected in 1886 and the Victoria Gates in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. To a great extent the gardens at the turn of the twentieth century are the gardens we enjoy today. However, the park was allowed to deteriorate as the twentieth century progressed (this was true of many parks in the country and many soon became no go areas after dark). Forbury was no exception. I had known the park vaguely since the 1960s and was shocked at its state when I visited the town in 1973. It seemed a place for drunks and addicts and other unfortunate activities and subsequent visits did nothing to improve my image of the park. I always felt the brave lion was on the verge of weeping at the decay that it was witnessing. Something had to be done otherwise the park would have faded in all but its name.
By 2005 a restoration project had been completed to the cost of £2.13 million pounds.
The historic features so beloved by the gardens were improved as well as safety and access. CCTV was added to deter the few who wanted to spoil others enjoyment but most of all the famous lion was spruced up. For anybody who visits the gardens what is the image that they do not forget? It is the Maiwand Lion. But who is this beast and why should he be position in the middle of a park in Reading?
The Maiwand Lion is actually a war memorial to commemorate the Battle of Maiwand in 1880 which was one of the principle battles of the Second Anglo–Afghan War (1878-1880) in which the Afghans defeated two brigades of British and Indian troops. The victory came at a high price for the aggressors as they lost some 2700 warriors whereas the Empire forces lost just under a thousand. Amongst these were 329 men from the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot and to be really precise the memorial actually commemorates these brave men.
Here are a few facts about the Maiwand Lion.
Its sculptor was a George Blackall Simmonds (1843-1929) and one of the most enduring urban myths concerns the sculptor. It is said that he committed suicide as it was observed that the lions gait was wrong and that of a domestic cat. But on closer study the gait is correct and George lived for another forty-three years. This said I have never been able to find the lion’s tongue.
The sculpture is made of cast iron and weights sixteen tons and is Grade Two Listed. It has an IPA named after it as well as appearing on the crest of Reading Football Club.
I was in last the gardens (apart from a whirlwind visit to the Ice Fair) as the summer grew tired and the days grew shorter. My wife was shopping in the town so I decided to escape to the tranquillity of the park. I had treated myself to a small volume of Keats poetry at the nearby Oxfam Books and sat silently reading, awaiting my wife’s return. Although there were many people in the park there was a quietness that I did not notice immediately but was soon aware of. The light and the semi-silence reminded me of that rather nice children’s programme In the Night Garden. True there we no oddly shaped creatures carrying red blankets with them or a young lady who always wanted to dance (forgive me I do not know their names). But the light and the vivid colours as well as the peaceful nature of the evening put me in mind of the night garden.
Soon after this my wife returned and John Keats was placed into my jacket pocket and my thoughts of the BBC programme and the gardens were committed to memory. I waved to the lion and we were on our way.
If you are in Reading do try to visit this amazing park and meet the lion and the young author of Emma and other books. Sit on the hill, visit the Trooper Potts memorial just outside of the gates. Take time to have a sandwich or a coffee and just take in the Forbury Gardens for a while.
You will not be disappointed.