As I stepped out of my house on my first day living in Reading, I found a dead pigeon.
‘This is Reading’
Five years later and I’m now moving out of Reading. It is one of the best places I have ever lived.
It is a place of genuine people, confident architecture, a long history and a vibrant cultural and independent scene (honest).
Living here has also made me sick of people who talk a place down without making an effort to make it a better place to live. A town doesn’t become exciting by accident. It requires normal people using their feet and their money to support interesting things.
Reading’s connectivity is its blessing and curse. It attracts investment and people, but it means people come to live in Reading because it is convenient, not because they want to.
Those transients who live in Reading but work in London can’t help but compare the two, despite one being an apple and one being an orange. Reading can never compete with London, and nor should it have to. It has an identity and charm of its own which it has to nurture and expand, or Reading will simply become Zone 8. Another Croydon.
I’m not going to give you a list of all the things that make Reading a good place to live. In more than a few ways it is an average, and at times awful place to live – just like everywhere else. Plus, Explore Reading already did one, so go look at that. Just forgive them for the bizarre omission of one of Reading’s two principal museums.
No, I’m going to give you my personal list of things I love and sometimes hate about Reading. Take it or leave it.
The cycling is amazing
Reading town centre itself is a circle of hell to cycle through, causing it to become the national capital for Cycling On The Pavement Like A Dick.
However, I love that within 10 minutes I can be in the countryside on my bike.
Being able to cycle means I haven’t just lived in Reading, I’ve lived in Berkshire. I’ve seen deer, red kites, muncjacks and hares in the Chilterns. I’ve cycled through the Vicar of Dibley’s village, through Windsor Great Park, the Maharajah’s Well, country houses and the longest ascent in England (Pishill — or, as I call it, Taking-the-pishill). I’ve been able to go down the Avon to Bath and Bristol, down and up the Thames to London and Oxford, and potter down to Silchester to cycle alongside Roman walls.
I love beer, and Reading is good for beer. Reading has its fair share of chain pubs, and even some chains in disguise (looking at you, Oakford and Abbot Cook). It used to have three Wetherspoons, now two, and still has the usual Pitcher and Piano, O’Neills, Browns and every other crappy boozer.
But luckily it also has a thriving Good Pub Scene.
The Nag’s Head pleases everybody, the Retreat is a classic, the Lyndhurst is a slice of London, the Greyfriar a worthy contender to my favourite pub, the Allied Arms has the most surprisingly good beer garden, and the Bull down the river is the cosiest pub near Reading.
I’ve also spent far more money in the Grumpy Goat than I care to admit.
Reading has been around for about 1300 years. It’s witnessed Romans, King Alfred battling vikings, the fourth largest abbey in England, the burial of King Henry I, the English Civil War, the Victorian boom and the UK’s Silicon Valley.
I’ve taken god knows how many people through Reading pointing out bomb damage, medieval houses, Abbey ruins, Oscar Wilde’s cell and echoes of Victorian industry.
Let’s all say it together: Reading is not a new town.
Yet, there is a reason it has a reputation as a new town. Reading is marketed as a place to shop and do business, not as a place of culture. That is slowly changing, but I feel like the perception has already taken hold in Reading that nothing of consequence has really happened there. The fact I have to tell many History students at the University that Reading once had an abbey is telling.
The people of Reading are a sight to behold.
From the working class old guard of Whitley to the gentrified streets of Caversham, the town has a diversity which defies its size. There are the suits of the Abbey Quarter, the student hordes of Whiteknights and Redlands, the colourful droves of Friar Street and the diversity of Cemetery Junction. We have characters too, like Reading Elvis and the local crackheads.
On the flipside there’s also the sad, seemingly unstoppable rise of homelessness.
One of the last things visitors to Reading seem to expect is good architecture.
But venture past the offices cluttering the skyline from the train station and you’ll find arrays of Victorian brickwork, medieval ruins, brutalist wonders and Georgian gorgeousness. There are some roads I take special pains to walk down, regardless of whether it gets me to where I want to go – School Terrace, Eldon Road, Alexandria Road and Castle Street.
I’ve got to thank Edible Reading for having some of the best food in my life in Reading.
And I’m not even kidding. Papa Gee do a pizza that tops anything I’ve had in Italy. I’ve never been to Lebanon but I’m sure Bakery House would give them a run for their money, and the pasta’s never been better than at Pepe Sale. Then there’s paella at the Fisherman’s Cottage, basically everything at the Lyndhurst, the fancy stuff at London Street Brasserie and Ethiopan at RISC.
That’s not to say I’m above a Sausage and Egg McMuffin every so often, and the fact is that chain restaurants vastly outnumber independents. Not all of them are that bad either, but it’s a fact that most residents reach for the low hanging fruit of Yo Sushi or KFC.
Reading has a vibrant independent food scene that needs nurturing, and it should cherish it.
My declared bias is my five years of work at the MERL and Reading Museum, but I’ve also had a chance to work with many other groups which keep the cultural heart of Reading beating. Jelly keep art alive, ArtLab take risks, the Reading Guild of Artists support local artists, Rising Sun put on an eclectic mix, South Street keep reminding us why we saved them from closure, and the Ure, Cole and Central Library all do amazing work which doesn’t get the exposure it often deserves.
We don’t have the collections or resources of places like Oxford and London, nor the big names they can attract, but we do have the people of Reading. The work we do is often intensely local, working with communities to make Reading a better place. Some projects are left-field (*cough* Reading International), but I feel like in the coming years we’ll see a knitting together of all the cultural efforts in Reading to make them more visible, and deliver what people actually want.
And the rest
There is so much else about Reading that I love. The fact we have a smelly alley. A bus company that isn’t for profit. A university staffed with passionate people. That I once saw John Madjeski driving round the IDR with a young girlfriend. That an area is called St Mary’s Butts. The Thames Walk. The vibrant Twitter community. The exciting work the local colleges do. Reading Hackspace. The train station. The imminent reopening of the Abbey Ruins.
What I’m trying to say is that Reading has a lot going for it. Stop comparing it to London. Reading is its own place, and deserves to be judged on its own merits, of which it has many. Support the good things, get involved and make Reading a better place to live.
Oh and the shit stuff
One of my favourite things about Reading is Shit Things in Reading (STIR). Self-deprecation is a national trait, but is most pronounced in places like Reading and Birmingham. STIR is an account which plumbs the depths of shame and shitiness of Reading, and yet I come out the other end loving Reading even more. It’s a real account of everyday life in Reading.
Reading could also be better. The Council seem more interested in supporting the influx of chain restaurants and shops than promoting an independent scene that feeds profits back into the town. The roads are just awful. The rent is ridiculously high. Those of us working in culture could be better at reaching more of the town. There are some absolute bastards who live here, my former neighbours among them. People still litter, spit, vomit over the streets at 2am and vote UKIP.
And yet, without those things, the whole of Reading would just be like Caversham Heights, wouldn’t it? And who the fuck would want that?