Find out everything you need to know about the reopening and restoration of Reading Abbey ahead of the reveal ceremony on Saturday 16 June 2018. Find out about the conservation work behind the ruins, what to expect at how to get involved and see the newly opened Reading Abbey quarter.
Main image: Chris Forsey
So, what’s the big deal with Reading Abbey?
The ruins of Reading Abbey are reopening to the public on Saturday 16 June after nine years behind gates. The ruins were closed in 2009 after a few incidents of falling stonework, and conservation work has been in place to make the ruins safe to access and to preserve the ancient masonry for the future.
Founded in 1121 by King Henry I, Reading Abbey was once the fourth largest Abbey in Europe. Matthew Williams, the manager of Reading Museum, told me that in the 12th Century Reading Abbey would have been longer in length than Westminster Abbey and its spire was likely as tall as The Blade is today.
Popular as a place of pilgrimage and trade, development of the Abbey built the Reading we know today – Broad Street and Friar Street are both mapped out inline with roads leaving the Abbey gates. The religious quarter was later demolished during the Reformation period, leaving us with only the ruined portions still standing.
Historians estimate the 900-year-old ruins we still see are only around one third of the size of the original Abbey site. The removed stone from the Abbey didn’t go far either, it was used to build Reading Minster, parts of Windsor Castle and Magdalen College, Oxford
Reading Abbey is also the site where King Henry I was buried, although we haven’t found him yet (check out readingshiddenabbey.blogspot.co.uk for more on that).
Reading Museum, in conjunction with Barnaby Wheeler, and CRL Restoration have rejuvenated not just the Abbey Ruins, but also the Abbey Quarter, the full area of the former Abbey site. It includes Forbury Gardens, once the public courtyard, St Laurence Church, The Abbey Gateway, next to the Crown Court, where Queen Elizabeth I stayed on visits and Jane Austen once went to school and more.
How have they done it?
The conservation team revived Medieval construction techniques to bring the Abbey Ruins back to life. According to Matthew Williams, some of the issues with the ruins previously were a result of imposing 20th Century materials like cement, which can’t breathe, onto the ancient rock face.
To correct that, the team re-pointed the masonry using a traditional hot-mixed lime mortar, mixing lime and water in a specially constructed wooden trough (it would melt plastic).
They’ve also soft capped the tops of the walls with turf, using grass originally growing the courtyard area to add a natural rain hood to the ruins. The remaining structures we still see are inside walls and not intended to hold up well to weather, so the grass toppings are designed to absorb rain damage from the wall’s core and insulate them in winter.
For more insights to the conservation, watch the video below.
What can I expect?
I got a preview tour of the ruins the week before opening, and they look very impressive indeed. Inside, the historic stone work is gleaming and fresh. On the ground, the team have added markers to indicate where walls would have stood, without rebuilding anything. This is really helpful to get a sense of the scale of the Abbey and what the rooms were used for.
There’s also a series of informative panels pointing out what you’re looking at, so you can now see more clearly what was the monk dormitories, the chapter house and the church high altar.
On the wall, the tablet inscription of Sumer Is Icumen In, reportedly the first ever recorded song, from 1240, is gleaming on the walls.
It’s definitely worth getting yourself a tour, or taking a walk around, to get a sense of the history in Reading and to remember we’re not just a town of offices and shopping centres.
How do I get involved?
There are loads of ways to experience the new Abbey Quarter this month, starting with the official opening ceremony on Saturday 16 June at 11am, led by Reading Mayor Cllr Debs Edwards and the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, James Puxley. After the ribbon cutting, there’ll be a series of performances on the Abbey stage, including Dolly and The Clothes Pegs, the Readiophonics and the Reading Morryes Morris dancers.
After the ceremony there will be a host of activities taking over Forbury Gardens to continue the celebrations. There’ll be historical reenactments, a pop up history experience from Reading Museum and a food market all weekend from Blue Collar Street Food. Water Fest will also see a parade of canal boats along Chestnut Walk.
If you can’t make it on the opening day, there are a series of tours taking place throughout the summer, book those online here. Also worth booking in for is the Sitelines production, In Ruins. A series of immersive walking tours, they see ten audience members at a time being led through the ruins while experiencing scenes from the Abbey’s history from a team of actors.
Also exciting is the arrival of a Cult Screens open air cinema in the Abbey Ruins. Films include ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri’ (20 June), ‘The Lost Boys’ (21 June) ‘The Greatest Showman’ (22 June) and ‘Top Gun’ (23 June).
The big event of the summer though is Progress Theatre’s open air Shakespeare production, which this year returns to the Abbey after nine years away. This summer, it’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. It was the highlight of my summer as a teenager and is always an impressive, imposing production making the most of the striking stone space.
And if you just want to explore it all from the comfort of your sofa, check out the impressive interactive map guide to the Abbey Quarter at www.readingabbeyquarter.org.uk/explore, which features historical notes, images and locations.
Find out more at www.readingabbeyquarter.org.uk
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.