Reading. Redding, they pronounce it. Red bricks. Red blood.
The English bleed. Over 125,000 deaths and counting, many avoidable. Failure – or worse, opportunities seized for blatant corruption – on practically every aspect of the pandemic response. The single thing that has actually gone reasonably well, the vaccination programme, becomes a basis to gaslight their population, successfully, into forgetting how far it was political blundering, not the COVID-19 virus itself, that caused them a year and a half of abject suffering.
They are eager to get ‘back to normal’, so one hears. Back to the neo-feudal normal of a country that feeds on its poor and its different, hurling aside the tethers of truth and care as they follow a clutch of crypto-fascist killer clowns to a promised land of eternal abuse in a cloak of hollow vanity, fairytale history and woke-bashing for sport.
They had a choice, the English. A chance to look at their country in the mirror of this virus and change its course before it was too late. Perhaps one day they will look back, and wonder if this was when they crossed the point of no return.
It was my hope to continue this expedition once COVID-19 had been defeated. However, with the English administration’s failure to take it seriously or mount any coherent broad strategy to suppress it (in which they are far from alone, to be fair), it is quite clear they have gifted the virus a permanent place in this land. In the same period my alienation from this country, and quite frankly, disgust at it, has deteriorated from hellish to terminally traumatic. This river journey can wait no longer if it is to reach completion before I get out of here for good.
Where we rejoin it, the river, too, comes at last to a crossroads.
Round a bend from the rowers’ capital of Henley, the villages and meadows recede before the largest settlement on the central Thames. The 150,000-strong town of Reading – really a city – sits halfway up the Great West Road (now the A4), halfway between this island’s east and west coasts, and halfway up the Thames where it cuts free of the Chiltern Hills. The middle of the middle: a pivotal position, strategically speaking, which has afforded the people of Reading foremost experience in the fortunes and woes of the most turbulent movements in English history.
|The ruins of Reading Abbey, for centuries one of the country’s wealthiest and the anchor of Reading's prestige.|
|In later industrial centuries, new wealth and prestige was found in biscuits.|
Why, then, is this air so laden with depression?
Perhaps it is the anxieties and insecurities of England in the age of COVID-19 that cast this gloom across the riverscape. To look on these people today – swimmers and sunbathers, lunchers and boaters – is to sense a society lost in a despondent limbo: cowering indoors one moment, rushing out to play defiant on the river the next; divided between those taking shelter in their privileged wonderlands, and those left behind to bear the worst of the consequences; a people torn between a destructive past that stubbornly refuses to change, and a future that will never be the same. They spin before us, this way and that, tugged in all directions at once – back to normal, new normal, third wave, learn to live with COVID – till the last sense of a journey together is lost, and all that remains is to spin on to the depths of an abyss where all that it means to be a society, all that it means to be real, no longer pertains...
Start: Henley Bridge (nearest station: Henley-on-Thames)
End: Reading Bridge (nearest station: Reading)
Length: 14.5km/9 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire; Berkshire – Borough of Wokingham, Borough of Reading
Topics: Henley Meadows, Shiplake, Sonning, Reading
It is a hot summer’s morning in Henley. The breeze blows fresh through a cloudless sky.
A handful of locals are out for a stroll. Is that surprising, with a year’s quarantine instincts telling them they should not? Or is the surprise that there are so few of them, when conditions like these more usually send them all out to pack their pleasant green spaces?
|The waterfowl are out, puzzled perhaps that there’s no-one to feed them.|
|Along Henley’s southern reach the pleasure-craft sit dormant down the bank.|
|Henley’s obelisk. It used to stand in the town centre and has an unexpectedly convoluted history as both a water pump and a signpost.|
Henley’s recreational parks, the Mill Meadows and Marsh Meadows, spread up its southern riverbank. The Mill Meadows are the more formally arranged with lawns, flower beds, playgrounds and kiosks.
|Kiosks such as in the world of COVID-19 are typically found shut. Conveniently for walkers, the public toilets at least have been re-opened.|
|Henley’s River and Rowing Museum stands over the meadows, with impressive exhibitions on both the history of the town and the sport of rowing.|
|Across the river the east bank begins as it means to go on: expensive private houses, expensive boats, and large trees symbolic of expensive ways of life.|
|Even in undeath, this tree is left with no resort but to throw up its arm-branches in despair at the political situation.|
The Marsh Meadows are a little wilder, with rougher grasses and hedges and a conservation area.
|An assortment of tree species has been planted here in a ‘healing glade’ to encourage reflection.|
|This tree has been decked in ribbons and the occasional face-mask. Public art? A commemoration of COVID-19 victims? An occult ritual? All of the above?|
|Narrowboats like these are commonplace among the vessels parked along here. Many are lived in, being relatively affordable in a country of impossible rents.|
As Mill Meadows’ name implies, the stretch ahead once held a cluster of mills – corn, paper – on both sides of the river. With them emerged weirs and locks that existed in rudimentary form for many centuries, but have now outlasted the mills as the modern Marsh Lock.
|Unusually the mills' position forced them to put the lock on the opposite side to the towpath. The unique result is this long wooden walkway, originally for horses to pull working barges through the lock but now used primarily by pedestrians.|
|The weir itself...|
|The walkway loops on to wilder pastures upstream.|
Now we are clear of Henley, and from here shall pursue the waters as they draw the (imaginary) boundary between Oxfordshire to the north and the Royal Borough of Berkshire to the south.
A stretch of open meadows sets the tone for most of today’s fare. And yet, the ubiquity of menacing warning signs, posh boats and affluent properties hijacks what must otherwise be an atmosphere of rural tranquility. This is still the territory of the monied Tory-voting classes; still the garland of green and blue about the turrets of the privilege forts of the Thames valley.
|Open meadowland beyond Marsh Lock.|
|Across the river is glimpsed the eighteenth-century Conway Bridge, which carries the Henley-Wargrave Road. The bridge is one of many structures in this area said to have been built from stones scavenged from the fallen Reading Abbey. The grounds beyond, nicknamed ‘Happy Valley’, are among the vast lands grabbed for the estate of Park Place, one of the area’s massive Toad Halls held formerly by the old nobility and latterly by hyper-rich tycoons.|
|Signs about mooring, fishing and camping hereabouts come in two variations: prohibitions like these, or permissions in exchange for large fees. For most of history they were free, and likely will so be for most of the future.|
|Alongside the large motorised pleasure-boats, frequent waterborne recreations here include skiffs, kayaks, and the occasional swimmer.|
Here we come to the corner of the riverbend. Within it dwells the scattered settlement of Shiplake, which over time has dispersed into multiple nodes.
It is regrettable, at this point, that the affluent mansions on the far bank now extend their colonial misbehaviour across the river. In typical scorn for the river’s provision for all people, the English propertied classes have Enclosed approximately the next mile of its banks and so excluded the commoner class from access. Where once the populace might have lived off its fish, reeds and other natural resources, they are now fenced out for the pleasure of a tiny multi-millionaire minority. So shameless is their extravagance that in some cases here they have even installed private narrow-gauged railways on their lavishly-landscaped holdings.
It should be recalled that these land-grabs were not a spontaneous or cosmically-inevitable process but one of the most violent and culturally transformative movements in English history. It empowered a new and exclusionary landlord caste, stripped vast numbers of people of their livelihoods, and turned them into factory meat or the perennial punching bags of a ruthless new regime of law courts and gamekeepers, fences and imaginary lines on maps – all designed by and for the new landowners – that criminalised those locals as poachers and vagabonds for seeking access to the land they’d always relied on. Thus were embedded the extreme imbalances in wealth, power and dignity that the English population inherits today, along with the punitive legal framework and ideological systems of excuses – of benign aristocracy, of the valorisation of property, of ‘scroungers’ and ‘undeserving poor’ – that perpetuate them still.
|There is evidence of strange relics once installed on these ways. An ancient anemometer?|
|A modular one? Customise with your security camera, radio antenna, gun turret or anti-commoner laser cannon of choice.|
At the top of the road is Shiplake’s one-platform train station. The old village centre lies further round the bend, but the coming of the railways transformed much of its surrounding farmland into housing and so built this reach into the village’s new economic hub, now known as Lower Shiplake. Its best-known resident was perhaps the young Eric Arthur Blair, later known as George Orwell.
|The commercial centre of Shiplake. There’s a butcher, a pub, and a convenience store with post office.|
|A residential street typical of Lower Shiplake.|
The name Shiplake emerged in the thirteenth century. Its meaning might sound obvious, but there appear two theories as to its origin and both are linguistically counter-intuitive. One holds it as akin to sheep-lake, “the stream where sheep are washed” in Anglo-Saxon Old English. The other goes in a Danish direction and interprets lake as lack, giving “lack of ships”; a suggestion, they say, of Vikings sinking their ships here, possibly because the river grew too shallow to navigate.
|At last a route back to the river is conceded to the serfs.|
|It crosses these pastures. Notice how flat the floodplain is here; the river runs beneath those houses in the distance.|
|There are also more agreeable presences who lack the humans’ rigid and obsessive fantasies of land-ownership.|
The river is rejoined at what was once the site of the Lashbrook Ferry. This too is a story from the English land struggle. Specifically it concerns Bolney Court, the single mansion which formerly dominated the riverside now occupied by those monied properties. When it came time to build the working towpath, the landlord of Bolney Court categorically refused to allow it to run through his land. Instead the barge crews were forced to take their cargoes and horses across to the far bank by ferry, where to bypass the property then cross back – with all the hazards this arduous process entailed.
|Site of the former Lashbrook Ferry. Eventually freight moved to the roads and railways and the ferries disappeared, leaving no means of reaching the orphaned bit of towpath on the opposite bank.|
For now at least we’re clear of their irresponsibility and can proceed for a while amidst more refreshing riverine scenery.
|The Henley Sailing Club on the outer bank, with people sitting around licking ice creams out of a kiosk.|
|These blue damselflies are plentiful around this bend.|
The historic village of Wargrave faces Shiplake across the river, but for want of a bridge or ferry is beyond our exploration. Supposedly its name has nothing to do with either wars or graves but rather derives from weir-grove, that is, a grove in Windsor Forest close to a weir.
|The George and Dragon pub on the Wargrave side. Windsor Forest has since been reduced and landscaped into Windsor Great Park, but the etymology evokes a time when it stretched all the way out here.|
Wargrave is larger than Shiplake, easier to reach by road and rail and thus enriched by its connection to both Reading and the commercial outskirts of London. Inevitably it too was dominated by another sprawling propertied domain, that being Wargrave Manor. That one goes back to at least the Domesday survey of 1086, but its current incarnation is eighteenth-century and was held till 2020 by the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
|Beyond Wargrave the parade of private residences stretches on up the Berkshire bank. Hereabouts is held the annual Wargrave and Shiplake Regatta, which this year, like so much else, has been cancelled due to COVID-19.|
|This appears to be a Depressed Caterpillar Tree, whose flowers’ disconsolateness increases in proportion to the structural injustice of the country around it.|
|Here on the Oxfordshire bank the bend is an open meadow, with damselflies dancing through the air and the occasional red kite high overhead. The bridge carries the railway south from Shiplake.|
|A contestation about the effects of Brexit is spotted atop the bridge. The participant on the right no doubt takes issue with having words put into its mouth.|
Beyond the rail bridge is Shiplake Lock, which like Henley’s Marsh Lock replaced older, more informal locks and weirs associated with a bunch of mills.
|In 1961 Shiplake Lock became the first of all the Thames’s locks to switch to hydraulic operation.|
|The lock’s island has been popular for summer camping holidays since the Victorian period. It is attested, in a reflection of this country’s misogynistic heritage, that for many years they attempted to forbid women campers from sleeping on it.|
|Recreational vessels queue up to pass through the lock.|
|There are also fluffies.|
The towpath then passes the closest part of the riverbank to Shiplake proper, up the hill to the north. This is the historic centre of the village, centred around its parish church.
|Shiplake College is a prestigious independent school located up in the village. This is its boatyard.|
|The tower of Shiplake’s St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, glimpsed beyond the roofs and trees.|
From here – at last – the private claims appear to fall away, and a long progress follows through some of the most isolated reaches of river yet encountered on this journey.
|The towpath keeps to the northern bank as far as the next village along, adjoining grassy meadows like these.|
|Reeds and waterlilies hint at a lush riverine ecology along this stretch.|
|Yet because this is England you are never far from signs of suspicious activity. What sinister and no doubt gratuitously violent incident would leave this exact combination of a food packet and three socks?|
|While the earlier parked vessels were actively lived in, those along here show few signs of life.|
If your interest in walking is to just get away from these people then this is about as good as it gets in these parts.
|There might be few humans here, but you can be assured of other interests lurking around to watch you.|
Regrettably, after a few kilometres humanity and its money percolate rudely back into the scene, heralding the approach to the next village.
|Here they come again.|
|The red-brick Sonning Bridge emerged in 1775. The vintage thing is only wide enough for vehicles to cross in one direction at a time, but as the only road bridge between Henley and Reading it gets badly clogged at rush hour.|
Sonning is a ford of ancient importance and the centre of a constellation of smaller villages, including Sonning Eye, which sits on its adjacent river island (or eyot, hence Eye). The name Sonning refers to the people (-ingas) of the Saxon chieftain Sunna, who were prominent enough in pre-English Berkshire to give their name to numerous settlements in these parts, among them Sunbury which we passed earlier. Accordingly they pronounce it Sunning and apparently used to spell it like that until, being English, they felt compelled to change it so it looks different to how it sounds.
Sonning’s significance was driven by the bishops, who found in it a convenient base for preaching in this region as well as a rest stop when passing through. Designated an Anglo-Saxon minster in pre-English times, by the Norman period Sonning was the centre of a diocese with its own cathedral and grand bishops’ palace, regularly hosting senior church officials, pilgrims, and travellers in general.
|St. Andrews Church, an 1850s neo-Gothic redesign and successor to Sonning’s ancient cathedral. Very little remains of the sprawling ecclesiastical complex that once stood here, but bits of Saxon stonework are said to persist in its walls.|
|The Bull Inn, now a Fuller’s pub, stands next to the church and was historically attached to it as a guest house for visiting pilgrims. It’s interesting how religion and alcohol tend to be found either hand-in-hand or as far apart as possible.|
In 1574 Queen Elizabeth I bought the Sonning estate off the Church. The bishops’ complex went into decline, crumbling to oblivion as locals quarried off its stone for re-use in their houses. The monarchy’s financial problems led Charles I to sell the land into private hands, and from there Sonning’s manor passed through a series of big titled names as the village negotiated the uncertainties of a new industrial age. Most infamously, it got its name attached to one of England’s first lethal railway disasters when only a year after the Great Western Railway was put through to the south in 1840, a train ran into a landslide, killing nine passengers.
Being England, there was an oppressive class aspect to this. The train was a heavy goods transport, but also carried poor itinerant working-class passengers reduced to riding in dangerous carriages attached to the cargo wagons. Their deaths led to new legislation in Parliament on minimum standards of safe carriage for so-called third-class passengers. But the rail companies, unconcerned for people who couldn’t pay, complied as grudgingly as they could get away with; that is, with shoddy and uncomfortable parliamentary trains which ran inconveniently early or late in the day and were so inferior in quality that they turned into a trope of cultural derision.
|Sonning Lock, a few minutes’ walk past the village.|
Befitting its tap in the Thames romance, Sonning Lock is one of the more picturesquely done-up of the locks along here. It has arranged flower bushes and, formerly, a tea garden run by the lock-keeper that was driven to closure by the Environment Agency in 2019.
|Sonning Lock, with somebody taking their craft through. This too replaced more informal lock and weir structures here in 1773 at the direction of the Thames Navigation Commission and has been rebuilt or upgraded several times since.|
|More fluffy river life takes its repose on a slipway.|
And then, beyond the lock, it is all peace and quiet again – but only in brief this time, for soon surface signs of a redoubtable presence ahead.
|Proceeding now on the south bank, the riverside opens up into public meadows.|
|The obligatory dog action.|
|And so they crop up on the horizon: a David Lloyd sports centre...|
|...big bulky business parks...|
For the first time since escaping London, we draw into the orbit of a major urban centre. Reading, the provincial capital of Berkshire, looms ahead.
|A boat club on Reading’s outskirts, apparently popular with geese and swans.|
|The towpath narrows and gains a layer of tarmac on the approach.|
|The boats moored along the bank are no longer the lavish party-pieces of the propertied classes, but begin to take on a quality of struggle. It is clear something frightful has happened to the captain of this one.|
The settlement of Reading grew up on the confluence of the Thames and one of its tributaries, the Kennet. The Kennet rises to the southwest, in the ancient hills of Wiltshire, before flowing through Reading in parallel with the Thames to join it right here.
|An inhabitant provisions the local waterfowl.|
|The far bank appears to have absorbed this ship into its structure. Note the smaller craft at the back which the river spirits have animated into a piranha-shark to prevent the larger one escaping.|
And here, for the first time in a long while, the Thames valley’s air of affluence recedes.
Reading is not a privilege fort. It might be better to think of it as a privilege bucket with holes. It has had its prosperity but also its perils and pains, for each time it mastered its world, that world transformed around it. Where the Thames has enriched most settlements along it, Reading is distinct in the struggle of its position.
In the present time, that means that like most English urban centres a substantial share of Reading’s population has been inflicted with poverty, such that a faint edginess, muted in the day’s bright sunshine but tangible in the weight of the air, seems to characterise its downstream approach.
|For lack of investment, the inhabitants are forced to make do with what resources they can scavenge.|
|This Tesco stands as one of this country’s more unusual supermarkets in having a berth for customers visiting by water.|
|The “regeneration” brigade hard at work disembowelling Reading of its precious and colourful heritage, so to replace it with characterless office blocks for the corporate serfs of a neo-feudal English modernity.|
Perhaps its shifting fortunes come with such a location. Reading has grown up in the dead centre of southern England: in the middle of the middle Thames, at an important confluence and crossing point, but also at a crossing of the region’s major land routes: east to London, west to Bristol, south to Winchester and Southampton, and north to Oxford and Birmingham beyond. We have come to the junction town, the town at the crossroads, the town where everyone comes and everyone goes, where every traveller stops to check their map, take their rest and spend their money...
...and in the great English power struggle, the town which everyone has to control at all costs.
|According to this map in the Reading Museum, we appear to be at the centre of things.|
Reading’s site was settled long before the invention of England. Under Roman rule it is thought to have been a trading post for the major settlement of Calleva Atrebatum (near present-day Silchester down in Hampshire). Its present name emerged later, following Anglo-Saxon immigration: it is attested as Readingum in the eighth century, after the Readingas who lived here. Readingas likely indicates the people of Reada, in the same style as their neighbours the people of Sunna; making it somehow apt that what would become a story of red blood and bricks started with an individual whose name, it is suggested, meant exactly what it sounds: the Red One.
Apt too, then, that it enters the written record with its first of many renowned bouts of bloodletting.
In the ninth century what is now England was split between some half-dozen Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with the Thames running through an oft-contested space between them. Then came the Scandinavian Vikings, who after decades of raids launched a Danish-led invasion in the 860s, overwhelming the northern and eastern kingdoms in the space of a few years. At the end of 870 they advanced up the Thames valley to begin their attempts on the final one: Wessex, with its capital at Winchester. This was the setting for their famous seizure of Reading in 871 under the renowned Halfdan Ragnarsson, where almost immediately they came under attack by the Wessex army led by its then-prince, the famous Alfred, later ‘the Great’.
This first Battle of Reading was a bloody defeat for the West Saxons, whose assault was routed on a Danish counter-attack. The two sides would drive on into the hills and marshes of the Wessex interior, trading blood in an eight-year struggle that saw Alfred driven from Winchester but eventually mounting the comeback the English celebrate so much – as though they existed yet – that led to the decisive Danish defeat in 878 and the partition between the Anglo-Saxon lands and the Danelaw.
|So it is written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This description of violent slaughter is the first known mention in writing of Reading’s existence.|
There would be more Battles of Reading. And more blood, much of it not so honourably spilt as in battle.
Reading’s rise went hand-in-hand with its singular landmark: Reading Abbey, whose ruined husk, scarcely a shell of its former glory, nonetheless dominates the town centre today. This monastery was special. Unlike other powerful religious houses on this river such as Chertsey, Reading’s was explicitly a creature of Norman state power.
Duke William of Normandy’s crossing of the Channel in 1066 is regarded by the English as the great watershed moment of their story. William’s blood-drenched subjection of England, and its combination with his native Normandy into a single polity, transformed the Anglo-Saxon people here under Norman cultural and administrative influences which have been part of what it means to be English ever since (including, to a great degree, the oppressive caste system and land settlement whose property obsession dogged us all the way here).
William’s fourth son was named Henry. His three elder brothers inherited all the stuff, i.e. England and Normandy, after William’s death. Left with nothing, Henry responded in typical Norman fashion by building up a support base and seizing power from his brothers in 1100, after the eldest, William II “Rufus” (another “Red One”), was killed in a suspicious hunting accident. This made him Henry I, king of a shambolic mess of territories teeming with manipulative and power-hungry barons, priests and vengeful elder brothers on both sides of the Channel. This he held together with surprising effectiveness – no small task – through some skilled manipulation and violence of his own.
These were the circumstances in which this first King Henry took the decision to found a monumental monastery: for the ‘salvation of my soul and all my ancestors and successors’, in his words, but also, we might imagine, to cement his culturally foreign and politically fragile dynasty’s legitimacy in England. In part this meant cultivating supportive voices – and arms – in the Christian Church, a serious political force in his day and source of quarrels that troubled much of his reign.
It would be his signature project, this new abbey. His statement. And of course, there was only one place to put it: at the crossroads of England, Reading. Its convergence of rivers and roads would make it easy to bring in the mountains of materials needed for its construction, and thereafter put it in reach of pilgrims and awestruck visitors from every direction of this troublesome English realm.
He spared no expense on it. Reading Abbey was enormous. It had Roman-inspired walls and arches, built both from local flint and finest-quality limestone shipped up from Normandy and down from Oxfordshire. It housed dozens of monks, and Henry personally endowed it with land from all over the country, much of it seized and apportioned off the Anglo-Saxon population by William. So ambitious was the Abbey’s design that it was still incomplete when Henry died in Normandy in 1135 – at which point, in his final investment in its fame, he had his corpse brought here and buried beneath its altar.
|Floor tiles from the Abbey, on display in the Reading Museum.|
It took thirty more years to get it fit for its grand opening, held in 1164 under direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury in that day: a certain Thomas Becket, with a few contributions of his own to make to the king-church struggles that coloured those centuries. And through those centuries, the works went on. It is unlikely a edifice on this scale was ever without repairs or upgrades underway in some part of it.
In the meantime it became everything its founder could have hoped for: one of England’s wealthiest and most prestigious religious houses, pilgrimage sites, relic collections and – yes – landowners; and a magnet for royal visits, political conferences and ceremonies and foreign embassies, with a growing list of royal and official cadavers joining its founder’s beneath it. And on this pile of wallets and attention, Reading itself grew into one of the most prosperous urban centres in the realm, integrating a network of marketplaces, mills, bridges and wharves around the economic and cultural life of the Abbey.
|As the newcomer structures helpfully point out, this was once the Abbey’s wharf, on the ‘Holy Brook’ which flows into the Kennet.|
And then, just as it looked like Reading Abbey would stand in permanent definition of the English crossroads – they annihilated it in a single blow.
As one of England’s supreme monastic houses, Reading Abbey received commensurately supreme destruction in Henry VIII’s brutal purge of the monasteries in the 1530s. The severity of the suppression varied across the country, but Reading stands as an example of the Tudor violence at its ugliest extreme. In 1538 the Abbey’s four hundred years of power over the junction came to a sudden end, just like that, when Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners swept in to force its surrender. Its last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, despite his record of long amenability to the king, was done for high treason in a political show-trial that lasted less than a day, and then – yes, the English shall face up to their violence in frank and honest terms – he was dragged around Reading on a hurdle, brought before the Abbey’s gates, and along with two others, hanged, taken down while still alive, then had his guts carved out and set on fire, his head chopped off, and his body cut into quarters and strung up around the town for display.
Once more the English drenched their crossroads red. Freedom and democracy, they say. Rule of law and human rights. Nah. This culture relishes the cruel abuse of power.
|The Abbey Gateway, in front of which Reading’s last abbot was publicly butchered. This gate with the abbot’s lodgings was re-used for numerous purposes, making it one of the only bits of the complex to survive intact.|
The king’s henchmen scattered the monks and carted away all the Abbey’s relics and treasures. While many former monasteries were converted into royal lodgings or facilities, Reading’s was for the most part left to rot, and in no time its carcass had been stripped of its materials – stone, glass, lead – by opportunistic looters.
The town at the junction had lost its centrepiece. There would be no streams of pilgrims or deep-pocketed visitors flocking here now. Instead, Reading would have to search for new meaning in an England entering a period of rapid change and fierce political and religious contestation.
And yet, this was still England’s junction. Its strategic importance and steady economic base might have equipped its 5,000-strong population well – had the aforementioned contestations not brought down this country in flames, and in so doing, turned the crossroads into a battlefield.
In the civil wars of the 1640s Reading was caught bang in the middle of the struggle between the armed and assertive English Parliament, based in London, and the Royalist supporters of King Charles I, who having been driven from the capital set themselves up at Oxford. They held abortive peace talks here in the opening stages of the war, when no-one could still quite believe what was happening. But after the king’s failure to drive back into London in late 1642 it became clear there was no stopping the oncoming storm. Retreating upriver, the Royalists fortified Reading into a tough garrison at the centre of a protective screen around their Oxford HQ. Commanding the garrison was a man called Arthur Aston, by all accounts a despotic bully whose authoritarian methods, such as forcing civilians to work on building the town’s defences, are said to have roused great pain and hatred in the local people.
The inevitable Parliamentary response came the following spring when an army under Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex and chief Parliamentary commander in the early years of the war, came up to lay siege to Reading. In the event it was all something of a farce. Aston was injured straight away when the Parliamentary artillery dislodged a tile onto his head, with command passing to his deputy, Colonel Richard Feilding. The latter lacked Aston’s contempt for his own soldiers and civilians, feared the might of the besieging army and had no idea if his appeals to the king for help would be answered, and so announced Reading’s surrender. No sooner had he done so than his reinforcements arrived after all, led by the king in person, and even attacked the Parliamentary army at Caversham Bridge. Had Feilding led the garrison forces out to join them they might easily have held the town – only he had already announced its surrender, and on the grounds of honour resolutely refused to go back on it no matter what.
And so the junction fell to Parliament, opening the way to Oxford. Feilding narrowly avoided getting killed by his furious king, and so the war dragged on, with Devereux eventually overshadowed in the Parliamentary leadership by the rise of Oliver Cromwell. The authoritarian Aston for his part recovered and eventually went to fight for the Royalists in Ireland, where he met an authoritarian’s fate in 1649, supposedly having his brains bashed out with his own wooden leg in the course of Cromwell’s infamous atrocities in Drogheda.
|Caversham Bridge, where the skirmish between the Royalist relief force and Parliamentary siege army took place. The bridge itself was badly damaged in the fighting and remained in disrepair for centuries. The current structure is a 1926 replacement.|
As for Reading, its new custodians proved no better than the old. The Parliamentary soldiers revelled in their victory like typical bad winners: they sacked the town, especially the taverns, and – sober Puritans all – drank themselves to disgrace on the contents of their cellars. And this, all this, was only the first act. The town at the crossroads would change hands repeatedly as the civil war battlefronts shifted, keeping it ever stuck in the centre of the chaos. The Royalists retook it in 1643, only to lose it again the following year, with each successive occupying army further draining the town’s energy and resources for further fortification.
Imagine the traumatic stress meted out on the populace over these long years. Getting bullied into giving over their houses and supplies to a military population almost as large as their own; the total stoppage of the trade that sustained the town; the sieges and accompanying starvations, the evacuations, the explosions, extortions, ransackings, the permanent atmosphere of panic. Nor did the conflict do any favours to their heritage, least of all the crumbling Abbey, whose stones were alternately abused for the town’s defence or blown up with gunpowder to prevent the other side from doing so, in the final instance on the orders of King Charles. For a place founded for greatness by one of England’s first kings, this decision by one of its last to hold real power was a sorry but somehow fitting way for the English crown to sign out of its involvement here.
|The cloister of Reading Abbey ran down this way. With the battering these ruins took in the civil wars it’s a wonder so much still stands.|
Needless to say, the civil wars devastated the life of this town. It would take generations to recover, in which time the English’s constitutional struggles would visit yet one more round of bloodletting on Reading’s streets.
The settling of those struggles, with the shunting aside of the monarchy in favour of a sovereign Parliament, is considered to have taken place after the Dutch invasion of 1688, in which Stadtholder William of Orange did a deal with Parliament to guarantee the latter’s powers in law in exchange for the throne. The English like to pretend they were never invaded, so disguise it with the term Glorious Revolution along with the insistence that it was bloodless.
It wasn’t. The blood was shed in Reading.
By this time most of the English had turned ferociously hostile to Catholics, the Irish, and their own king James II for his favouring of them. Thus there was broad support for the Dutch army that landed in Devon and moved on London to chase James out, and most resistance melted out of its path. But at Reading a force of six hundred mostly Irish Catholic soldiers loyal to James took position to impede the Dutch advance. In the English’s all-too-familiar racism, panic spread that these ‘Papists’ were about to massacre the population. Many of Reading’s inhabitants fled; those who remained appealed to the Dutch to come rapidly to their aid.
They did. A bloody skirmish followed on the town’s streets in which anywhere between twelve and fifty people were killed, depending on who you ask. The king’s defenders were scattered, leaving William’s Dutchmen free to march to London.
Most of this country has forgotten about this bout of bloodshed, but Reading apparently never did. Its church bells would ring out in commemoration, indeed celebration, for years to come.
Are we to believe, then, that Reading swapped blood for biscuits?
The town at the crossroads at last rose again under the industrial revolution. This was the hour of the merchant, and as a town of merchants Reading could not have found itself better positioned. No longer was the junction merely of roads and rivers. There were canals now, then railways, the beating bloodstream of a global industrial empire whose breadth of raw materials and products that infrastructure brought funnelling through Reading's resurrected marketplaces. In particular the canalisation of the Kennet in 1810 gave Reading a link to the Avon river, and thus to Bristol with all the blood-drenched returns of the Atlantic slave economy that city was built on. Thirty years later the trains were in place, putting Reading for the first time within an hour’s reach of London.
On these opportunities, Reading transformed. A population of thousands swelled to the tens of thousands. As the town’s merchants made it big, its traditional market fairs and coaching inns receded into the shadows of ironworks, factories, and most of all the ‘three Bs’ by which Reading manufacturing rose to international renown: biscuits, bulbs and beer.
|Huntley and Palmers vintage biscuit tins, on display at the Reading Museum. Founded in 1822, Huntly and Palmers was the archetypal English biscuit company. Their tins sat on every middle-class dinner table in the country, and sailed as exports to every continent, even – they were especially proud of this – Antarctica. They rose to become one of Reading’s three industrial giants, along with Sutton’s Seeds (‘bulbs’) and the H&G Simonds Brewery (‘beer’).|
|The crossroads’ routes spanned the whole world now. These posters were adverts for Huntley and Palmers biscuits in China.|
All of which rebirthed the physical town in the image of a fourth B: bricks. It was now that Reading took on its appearance as a red-brick town, as local brickmakers like S&E Collier took their experiments in patterns and compositions onto great public works like the town hall, as well as factories, shops and workers’ housing.
If red brick sounds more palatable than red blood, let us not forget the bloodshed that came as part and parcel of this industrial and imperial exercise: that is, slavery, colonialism, genocide, mass exploitation, scientific racism, and with them the physical and structural crimes against humanity on whose basis the English, in the form of the British Empire, reshaped the world. So much of modernity’s ingrained hatred for the dissident and the different, indeed, was baked into this world in these kilns, including the ongoing horror that is the persecution of people who do not fit gender and sexuality norms as rigid as they are arbitrary.
Because what else did Victorian Reading’s red bricks build, on a huge sweep of the ruined abbey no less?
Reading Prison was built in 1844, operated all the way up to 2014, and stands associated in English memory with its best-known inmate and perhaps most famous of all England’s prisoners of consciousness: Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer and poet so despised by the English establishment for his homosexuality that from 1895 to 1897 they put him in prison for it and there utterly demolished his life. The forced labour and harsh conditions of that incarceration wrecked his health, and its longest and most ruinous period took place here at Reading Prison. He would die broken and impoverished in French exile three years later, but not before immortalising the callous brutality of the English penal system in his prison writings and subsequent reflections – most famously, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
When it came time for further bouts of destruction, this time in the World Wars, Reading escaped the worst of it despite taking a nasty hit from a Luftwaffe bombing raid in 1943. Nevertheless, like most of England’s manufacturing centres it has since had to swallow the slow disintegration of the industrial and imperial projects.
By some measures it has done better than most in its embrace of the change in economic winds. Its post-war reconstruction boom drew in large numbers of immigrant workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, bestowing it with a lasting multicultural character. Its red bricks gave way to the glass and concrete monoliths of today as it joined the pursuit of a new modernity in the service sector. The Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory was reincarnated as insurance company offices; Sutton’s Seeds, as a business park; H&G Simonds Brewery, as the Oracle shopping centre. Most of all it is in IT that the junction town has sought its latest future, attracting a sprawling range of international technology companies to its campuses and business parks. These are its present-day successor to the Abbey complex: a temple city to the techno-capitalist creed of our times.
|Central Reading, with its St. Laurence’s Church at left and obligatory statue of Queen Victoria. The flint church goes right back to the Norman period but has been rebuilt several times and was damaged by German bombs during World War II.|
As for actual meaning in life, latter-day Reading has also generated a noted cultural scene. The annual Reading Festival has grown since 1971 into one of the largest music festivals in the country, in a town vibrant with musical and theatrical performances and grassroots art. These of course have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which perhaps informs the demoralised mood that seems to linger in the air here today.
A red town, named after a red chieftain and built on a heritage of blood and bricks. A town at the centre, a crossing of tracks in earth and water. Its mood feels strange, and not solely on account of a year of lockdowns and virus-enhanced deprivation. The sense one gets in Reading is of a place neither here nor there, that might be one thing or another but isn’t any one of them for sure. A crossroads in time as well as in space, where scenes from different eras shift into the picture whichever way you look, such that its timestream never truly feels stable.
Perhaps that’s the nature of a crossroads. But the concentrations of poverty, bloodshed and unreckoned cruelties in its ingredients? Those, surely, are what mark it out as an English crossroads.
And now this river expedition which here attains its halfway point stands at its own crossroads. I shall not deny that the demoralisations of struggling on in this country in its present condition have brought me close to giving up on any further attempt to engage with it; rather, that is, than considering it a write-off for the whirlpool of callous absurdities – the relentless lies, the carnival of ignorance, the deportations and wardrobe of disguises for modern eugenics; the dogged persistence of racist and sexist bigotries, some of whose permutations, such as the horrific wave of hostility to trans people, seem so ridiculous as to appear no more than prejudice for its own sadistic sake – the whirlpool, to which the nation’s inurement through years of austerity and Brexitification, seems to have committed it to spiralling down to a hell it might never escape again.
For all these explorations, I do not believe I will ever truly understand this country. I no longer believe it can solve its own problems; there are those here who want to, those who sincerely and passionately care, but the critical mass, the centre, has shattered to dust. Frankly I seek a way out at the earliest opportunity. I do not know therefore if I will complete this journey up the Thames. Already a new wave of infections breaks, further challenging the safety of these explorations. If I would like to see them through, then that is owed to the kindness and patience of the river itself, which is older than any country and guilty of nothing.
A crossroads whose paths lead everywhere – but I, for one, see no path home.
Many thanks to the Reading Museum for some of the information in this section, as well as for its great efforts to offer safe and rigorous access procedures in pandemic conditions.