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Gas Holder Four – a guest post from Zoë Andrews

We are on the edge, aren’t we? It’ll be gone soon. Slowly dismantled, one piece of Victorian iron and steel at a time. The peregrine falcons helped for a bit: as they nestled in for a while, it felt like they were silently protesting themselves. Those birds granted us one last summer.

Many won’t care, won’t mind. Some will think it an eyesore that’s ready to go. Some would say that progress is progress, that in a town like Reading we need housing and the only way to build is up. This might all be true, in its way, but I’ll miss the Victorian beacon of Newtown.

In the summer I was out and about with my partner taking photographs. We ventured around the old cemetery at the junction and then down onto Cumberland Road, where the sun was beating down onto the street and the light was lovely. We both snapped pictures of the gas holder and one passing resident said “make the most of that, it’ll be gone soon.” Whether you like it or not, Reading’s last gas holder is a piece of history. A piece of Newtown.

Gas holder four, as seen from Newtown’s Cumberland Road, summer 2021
Gas holder four, as seen from Newtown’s Cumberland Road, summer 2021

Nostalgia can be a lovely thing. It carries a silent currency, it makes us feel things. Never has that been more prevalent and powerful in society than it is right now. But nostalgia can also forever tether you to the past. It tethers you to a forgotten place that, in your minds eye, was better. But if you relived those days today, would you feel the same way?

What is it about looking back that makes us smile and makes us sad? Is it that we see our past selves as people with opportunities and pathways not yet closed off? That we look back and see friendships that thrived, not knowing that they would fall away? Or, at its most fragile, is it that we are reminded of the people we loved and who are no longer here, and that we miss them?

It’s powerful, nostalgia. It should come with a polite warning: be careful not to let this reminiscing   ruin your day, or how you feel about the present.

Gas holder four was the backdrop to many a summer bike ride with my dad and my sisters, bike rides that also gave my mum some well-earned peace and quiet. Sometimes my dad would do wheelies along the stretch of grass by Thames Valley Park. Sometimes my little sister would come flying off the back seat. And sometimes we’d ride with a boy called Darren whose garden backed onto ours, because he loved his bike and he didn’t have a dad.

We’d ride into Reading along the cycle path from Woodley, and to spot gas holder four was to know that we weren’t far from a pit stop at the Fisherman’s Cottage for a packet of Brannigan’s crisps and a bottle of Coke. Nostalgia, you see: it’s powerful stuff.

Reading had several gas holders, and gas holder four is the last one standing. It fuelled Newtown, kept the lights on and the space alive. Gas holder four is our last remaining relic of that particular piece of Victoriana. I’ve posted many photos of it over the years on Instagram. A recent comment on one of them called it “Reading’s majestic crown”. I love that.

Christopher Costelloe, previously director of the Victorian Society, has campaigned to preserve the gasometers. He said this, which I think sums it up wonderfully: “Gasometers, by their very size and structure, cannot help but become landmarks. [They] are singularly dramatic structures for all their emptiness.”

As I grew up, I zipped in and out of Woodley on the bus or by foot. I seldom used the canal as a walking route, until I got together with a boyfriend who happened to live on Coventry Road, in the heart of Newtown. That was the summer of 2006, and I spent a lot of it in his company. I remember sleeping so well, after a year where I’d barely slept at all.

I’d hear the hum of the railway tracks and it never bothered me, just as I doubt it bothers anybody in Newtown. I’d walk the canal into town and once again I’d see gas holder four as I slipped past New Town Primary School. I remember wondering why it didn’t move much anymore: I remembered its rusty hues as a child, but I hadn’t realised that it was decommissioned now.

Nostalgia has its limits. I’m definitely not here to say that things shouldn’t change and develop and move on: I understand that you can’t save everything. But wouldn’t it have been nice to have seen some vision, seen something that brings the past and the future together? Couldn’t we have tried harder: couldn’t a developer have made something brilliant out of it? Something that celebrated the now while holding on to our Victorian heritage: sustainable housing, for example, powered by green energy. The framework of the old holding up something made with the technology of the present.

I imagine it would cost too much, and no developer in this country would want to do it. But wouldn’t that have been nice.

It was beautiful and sunny this afternoon. I’m all too aware that the evenings are drawing in quickly, that it’s a matter of weeks before those clocks go back. I felt a real need to rush home from work, drop my bag off and rush straight back out to do a loop of Palmer Park, to catch the remaining warmth of the sun.

As I walked parallel to St Bartholomew’s Road I turned out of the park and decided that I’d take a route to the canal instead. I knew the time had come for gas holder four, and I half expected to see it missing a piece of its frame but to my surprise, it wasn’t. It was still intact, there for another sunset. I took one last photo.

Gas holder four, as seen from Kennet Side, October 2021
Gas holder four, as seen from Kennet Side, October 2021

It will be so strange to walk down Cumberland Road in the future and not have it there, staring back at me. I wonder if it will be like a phantom limb, that I’ll turn the corner of Cholmeley Road, down to the canal and still see it in my mind’s eye.

And I know what I’m like, and what I’ll do. I’ll tell others that it was there. I’ll walk with my niece one day in the heat of the summer sunshine and I’ll say “there used to be this massive gas holder over there, near where your mum used to live.” I’ll show her a picture, and she’ll probably ask me innocently what a gas holder is. And I’ll realise that I can’t even really explain that myself, not in any meaningful detail. But it won’t matter, because we’ll have nearly reached the Fisherman’s Cottage, where we’ll take a breather for a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke.

~

Zoë Andrews writes about music, popular culture, history & life in Reading. This post originally appeared on her blog Zoeonpop.

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Jacksons – a poem by Victoria Pugh

Jacksons

So many hat boxes, stacked on the shelves by the door;
full of flat caps, trilbies, bowlers, top hats – or nothing?
Terraces of wooden trays beneath a glass counter;
striped ties, driving gloves, grey socks, lying sideways.

Behind the counter, rows of closed compartments,
goods to be viewed, only on request; each vest or shirt
taken one at a time, unfolded, viewed, folded away.
Asking to be shown anything is an act of bravery.

I ask you. You take your life from the nearest drawer
and lay it out with its perfect stitching, brown edging,
leather buttons; its Harris tweed, fully-lined in fawn.
This is not what I asked for. Look in the deepest drawer.

Let me see what you showed me once, rough blanket
stitches on fraying borders, the red twisted satin cord
that coils around inside you; your fine gold embroidery,
the watered silk lining you made from your tears.

The hat boxes, those cabinets and containers remain
unopened, and then there’s the stockroom, at the back
of the shop, or maybe in the attic, full of things that have
never seen the light of day. But Jacksons is closed now.

~

This poem was originally published (in a slightly different form) on a local blog called The Whitley Pump.

Victoria Pugh has lived in Reading for over thirty years and taught at Reading College. Her collection of poetry, Mrs Marvellous, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2008.

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Night Driving – a poem by Kim Whysall-Hammond

Night Driving

Night, made yellow by
sodium lights arrayed at road edge
car headlights picking out trees
hedges, pedestrians
all the houses spread on Reading’s skirts.
Sitting at the back, seatbeltless
I would stare into windows as we passed
peer at other lives being lived
as if through a series
of sequential flash-dramas
enacted in deep silence.
Wonder at their variety
ache to be part of them.

Kim Whysall-Hammond

~

Kim Whysall-Hammond has worked in Climate Research and then in Telecommunications. Her poetry has been published by Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Alchemy Spoon, Total Eclipse, London Grip, Crannóg and others. She is currently working on that difficult first chapbook – when she isn’t dancing to Billy Nomates.