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1 Aug 2016

Reading a Top 20 UK Destination? Why not?

I have a sharp ear for Reading being mentioned on TV.  We've had entries for Robot Wars two weeks in a row now!  On The One Show this evening it was mentioned that Reading was in the top 20 UK holiday destinations.  The presenters were a bit surprised although Alex Jones said it is a nice town.

I tweeted this gem and the (friendly) cynics responded. Surely Reading isn't a destination town?  Well I think it is and here's why:

Christchurch Bridge
The Thames and Kennet - our beautiful, somewhat under utilised, rivers.  We have lovely Thameside open spaces like Caversham Court Gardens and Christchurch Meadows (complete with paddling pool, beautiful Christchurch bridge and, next year, a Lido/spa!).  You can take a cruise to Mapledurham House, the likely inspiration for Toad Hall. The Kennet runs through The Oracle shopping centre filled with shops (no surprise there) and restaurants.
Caversham Court Gardens with Progress Theatre production
 Theatre - we have The Hexagon which puts on dance, music, comedy and theatre as well as the very popular pantomime.  We have the gem that is South Street, currently undergoing an upgrade but will reopen better than before.  It will be able to build on it's impressive programme of more alternative acts and it's well respected comedy festival.  We have Progress Theatre (with Reading boy Kenneth Branagh as patron!) who have a year round series of productions and the very popular outdoor shows in the summer.  I finally made it to one this year and A Midsummer Night's Dream was brilliant.  In November Reading Between The Lines will premier their dramatisation of Henry I.  I saw the preview and it will certainly be something worth watching. We also have Reading Rep and the joy that is Reading Fringe Festival.

Awful photo but I'm of the age where I sit near the back in a chair.
Music and Festivals - well the first entry requires little research.  It is of course the Reading Festival held (partly) in my very own Battle Ward. This is an internationally renowned music festival pulling in some of the biggest names in the world!  For the rest of the year we have The Purple Turtle, Sub 89, the Readipop Festival and brilliant home grown bands.

Reading has an ever growing Pride event - one of the last free Prides in the country.  This family friendly event takes place on the first Saturday of September - 3 September this year.

Moving away from guitar based music we are lucky to have CultureMix who perform throughout the year and will shortly be at Arena - Carnival of the World.  We also have Reading Symphony Orchestra, Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra, Reading Operatic Society, the Phoenix Choir and the Sainsbury Singers who put on concerts and musicals all year round.

Carnival and World Music - as well as Carnival of the World coming up in a few weeks, recently we had a samba parade through town accompanied by BeatRoots.  We have, until recently, had the West Reading Carnival which I hope will soon be back on the Oxford Road soon.

The Rising Sun Arts Centre (designed by Waterhouse - the same chap who did the Natural History Museum) has a huge variety of music, dance and performance from around the world and recently was awarded a Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.  Just down the road is RISC, also offering a wider world view and home to the awesome Tutu's Ethiopian Table (and moving cleverly onto food).

Our Eat Reading lunch - German, Ethiopian and a burger from Mal!
Food and drink - well you certainly won't go hungry in Reading.  We have your usual chain restaurants but also some very good independents.  There's no way I could compete with the excellent Edible Reading so just take a look at their blog.  This summer we had the Eat Reading food festival and the, now annual, Reading Chilli Festival - the hot wing challenge was a joy to behold.

We have a wide variety of cafes like Picnic and the gluten free Nibsy's and also a fair few pubs. Check out Reading CAMRA, although there are many others both in the town centre and around.  Historically the town was world famous for beer, biscuits and bulbs (don't eat the bulbs).

History - Sir John Betjeman said 'No town in the South of England hides its attractions more successfully from the visitor' and for that I'm sorry and we'll stop it now.  Reading is an ancient town.  It was mentioned in the recent drama The Last Kingdom charting the reign of Alfred the Great and his Dane friend Uhtred.  History tells of a Battle against the Danes in Reading.

Over the years it flourished, being famous for its wool trade among other things.  The town's crest includes two rams in reference to this part of the town's history. Read more here.  But what can you visit?

Reading Abbey and Prison
 Most famous at the moment in Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 by Henry I as his final resting place.  Reading Abbey Revealed  is restoring the Abbey so it can be visited again and the wider Reading Abbey Quarter will see the abbey placed in the wider context of the town.  There is also the Hidden Abbey Project which, using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is hoping to discover the extent of the buried Abbey and event the High Alter where Henry I was buried (no - they're not going to dig him up). You can occasionally take a tour of the Abbey but it will be fully reopened by 2018.

The Abbey Gateway
The Abbey Quarter also takes in the gateway, were Jane Austen went to school.  We also have Reading Prison which, this autumn, will be home to Art Angel and world renowned artists. It's most famous inmate was Oscar Wilde which inspired the Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Reading Museum is a lovely museum and home to Britain's Bayeux Tapestry.   It also has the Silchester Gallery which holds finds from the nearby Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum as well as galleries on natural history and, of course, Reading.

In October the University of Reading's Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) re-opens.  The university also has the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology and the Cole Museum of Zoology as well as an award winning 'green' Whiteknights campus and the London Road campus with it's beautiful cloister.

We have a rather impressive collection of blue plaques including William Henry Fox Talbot! Famous names from the town include the aforementioned Kenneth Branagh (we went to the same secondary school, at different times I'll add), Kate Winslett, Marianne Faithful, Mike Oldfield and, of course, Ricky Gervais who made a film based on his life in Reading and named it after our very own Cemetery Junction!  Bugsy Malone has scenes filmed here. There's a long list of notable types from Reading here.

Art and Culture - we are lucky to have a thriving arts scene in Reading.  It's well worth looking up Jelly, OpenHand OpenSpace, The Whiteknights Studio Trail, Caversham Arts Trail, and Reading Arts Week.  New to the town is the Art Scope Gallery and if you are looking for something with a bit more history, Reading Museum has a very impressive collection!

                                                                          2016 is also Reading's Year of Culture.  We may be over half-way through but there's still loads to see and do. There are regular festivals and celebrations held by Reading's diverse community.  Highlights this year include Chinese New Year and and at the very end of last year, The Winter Giant.

And finally shopping - During my travels around the UK I've visited many a shopping centre.  I may be biased but few match Reading.  For a start the main shopping street, Broad Street is pedestrianised.  I'm always surprised when the main shopping street isn't.  We have two shopping malls, The Oracle and the Broad Street Mall, both in the town centre ensuring trade doesn't vanish out-of-town. We have a nice bit of architecture if you glance above the modern shop fronts and you can still find some independent gems in places like the Harris Arcade.

So as you can see there's lots to do in Reading.  You could easily fill a weekend and there are plenty of places nearby to stay.  We have a spanking new station and you can be in London in 25 minutes.  We are close to Heathrow and the M4, with park and ride schemes and the best bus company in the UK - Reading Buses. Oh, and we've just got an Ikea which we're very excited about.

This list is by no means exhaustive.  Follow Alt Reading and Get Reading to keep up to date.

Disclosure: I was Mayor of Reading 2015/2016 and patron of the year of Culture and Reading Pride so I am biased.