Reading, England: It’s close to a lot of other, better places to visit.
Warning: This assessment of Reading won’t be in any way fair for three reasons. First, I spent my stay ensconced in a mid-level business hotel. Second, the hotel was a full 15 minutes outside of Reading, so I didn’t spend much time in the actual town itself. And third, my trip took place during the Winter Solstice, when daylight in Britain is more scarce than a straight set of teeth.
So my experience in this undeniably quaint town wasn’t ‘Thee Olde’ romanticized one you’re probably imagining. There were no Lords or Ladies walking cobblestone streets toting parasols, doffing hats or pouring human feces into the town street gutters.
Instead, my stay consisted of staring mindlessly out the window of a 3rd floor hotel room overlooking a barren parking lot and a mammoth, slowly turning wind-powered turbine at GreenPark which reportedly produces enough green electricity for around 1000 Reading homes. Hardly the stuff of Victorian fantasies, though, considering the hotel’s torturous wifi charges, it did resemble a kind of Medieval hell.
Had our room faced away from Green Park, we would have had the even less picturesque view, if that’s even possible—a view of Madejski Stadium. This 24,500-seat capacity arena is home to The Reading Football Club Royals, and is named after John Madejski, who has owned the team since 1991, a seemingly impressive 9-year run until you consider that the team was formed back in 1871, decades before football was even invented. Also taking up residence in Madjeski Stadium was the London Irish (presumably a fight club of some kind), and an American football team called the Berkshire Renegades, none of whom were playing during our stay.
Most days, while my wife was working, I was able to cab or bus my way into Reading City Center to stroll the streets, The Riverside and The Oracle alongside hordes of local shoppers doing last-minute Christmas shopping. What I’m sure would have been a charming town in any other season took on the harsh, bleak feel of a Soviet death camp thanks to brutal, subzero temperatures and an good, continual pelting of snow.
How cold was it really, you ask? Well, let’s just say that we didn’t have it nearly as bad as the more than 2000 passengers who spent a chilly and hungry night stranded in the Channel Tunnel between France and Britain after cold weather caused five trains to break down.
Still, despite less than ideal conditions, we were able to walk the length and breadth of the city center in under an hour. And that included stopping to take pictures of all the sights, eating lunch and, in my case, growing a full beard. So what’s the appeal of this tiny, out-of-the-way hamlet? Location! Well, kinda.
Founded at the delta of the Rivers Thames and Kennet in the 8th century, Reading is now the Silicon Valley of Southern England. Reading is an easy half-hour train ride into London (US$25) and home to such technological giants as Agilent Technologies, Bang & Olufsen, Cisco, Harris Corporation, Intel, Nvidia, SGI, Symantec, Verizon, and Xerox. But since the offices are in the suburbs outside the city, you’d never really know it.
Reading’s also a half hour away from way more interesting places like Oxford, Stonehenge, and Windsor Castle (where the Queen ostensibly and pompously “Winters”). But again, due to problems with scheduling—pronounced shed-u-ling in England—we didn’t go. (I did warn you that this Report was going to be thin on details from the outset, did I not?)
One of the places we did have time to visit was the Reading Abbey, or at least, the outside of it. Established in 1121 by Henry I, the Reading Abbey was nonetheless destroyed 400 years later by Henry VIII who, while not a fan of religious authority, was a fan of hanging, drawing and quartering anyone claiming such. We wandered around the Abbey, photographing the barren gardens surrounding it until some very nice workmen delightfully asked us if we’d like to “bugger off.”
Still, Reading was not without the quaint, crazy-quilt, “who the eff built these stupid roads” charm you can only find in every old English town. But you have to forgive a place for its city planning transgressions, considering it was founded and populated well before the Age of Reason (way back in the Age of Drunken Slapdashery from the looks of it). And we did, embracing the cozy ambiance of Reading’s neighborhood hearths. On several occasions, we briefly considered pursuing some fine cuisine but then remembered where we were and went to a pub to get pissed instead.
All told, we only stayed in Reading for a few days. But in that time, we had seen and experienced enough to make us feel that next time we’re in England, we should make a bee-line straight to London.