Over Water, Under Ground
Fahad Sperinck goes for an urban swim beneath the streets of Reading
It’s cold in the Holy Brook. Water crowfoot and pondweed wave under the surface like a siren’s tresses, and seem flecked with gold in the sun. I began my swim near Brook Street West, the stream’s last gasp of freedom before Reading proper. The wildlife is surprisingly varied here – there are moorhens screeching, herons hunting, cormorants diving out of sight. There is also wildlife of other sorts: as I was floating under the footbridge, I was assured in the strongest terms that there were rats in the brook, “right where you are now”.
The water wasn’t deep, and what began as a swim quickly turned into a wade. By the time I hit the A33, it was up to my shins. The tunnel under the main road seemed lifeless at first – none of those pesky rats – then I suddenly noticed rows of pigeons tucked into their roosts left and right, like quiet sentinels judging my ill-advised expedition.
I had decided to swim the Holy Brook under town after reading Adam Sowan’s fascinating history, The Holy Brook or The Granator’s Tale. The brook’s elusive past stretches back to antiquity. Parts near the town centre were extended by Reading Abbey monks for the use of their mill; it is mostly natural further upstream. It was open to the sky in the town centre in 1610, according to John Speed’s map; by 1835, it was culverted.
Wedged between two famous rivers, the Holy Brook has a modest beauty, and several long walks from its source to the romantic crumbling walls of the Abbey had left me enchanted. For six miles, the stream accompanies you through lush green meadows, but then – sadly, unexpectedly – disappears into a gloomy hole, and a pleasurable waterside walk becomes a frantic search for your missing companion. There are only hints of its once proud flow: the glimmer of running water under a grate, the pleasant stretch under the north Oracle entrance, and a glint in King’s Walk beneath a frosted glass window.
These glimpses inspired two canoers, Pip Hall and Jonathan Coleclough, to row the brook upstream from the Abbey ruins, right under the town centre; they told their tale in Catalyst, September 1991. Their article was the nearest thing I had to a field guide. Much has changed in thirty years – the Oracle didn’t exist at that time, and the Ship Hotel still did – but the brook has largely wandered along the same centuries-old path.
I wanted to see those last few enigmatic tunnels for myself. Swimming was an easy choice – I’d had a traumatic episode with a kayak, so canoeing was out of the question. I had toyed with the idea of a skin swim, but there are harsh materials and sharp angles in urban waters, so I prepared a wetsuit, dry bag, and head torch. On the tenth of August, I set out.
Coming to the Salvation Army hostel, my leg sank up to the thigh in a sludgy riverbed that latched on with otherworldly strength. It didn’t take long to conjure up all sorts of scenarios from quicksand to demonic mud creatures, all ending in my certain death. I felt strangely thrilled. Fear and fascination often go together.
The detritus gets more treacherous the nearer you get to town. There were shopping trolleys, wheelie bins, bicycle frames, and apparently endless tents in the water. Through a filter of adrenaline, everything seemed animated with life. A tent draped over a large branch came into view like a ghoulish swamp creature dancing in the current.
An ominous cave loomed ahead here, and the current became frothy. I turned my head torch on full whack. I still couldn’t see anything, so held out a hand at arm’s length – there it was, spotlit in white; beyond it, utter darkness, a stygian murk that would have put off a vampire.
It was here I began to doubt my own sanity and the whole stupid enterprise. Aside from the lack of visibility, the water was eighteen inches deep, the bed rocky and slippery, the arching culvert roof only two and half feet above the water. There was no sign of the end. I later drew a map of this culvert to lodge the journey in memory, and pencilled ‘Mordor’ in the margins.
It was too shallow to swim, so I developed a kind of upside-down crab motion with my feet floating in front of me, dry bag bobbing and weaving at my side like an anxious familiar, my hands pushing at nameless horrors in the depths. All I could feel was texture: slime, rock, and slippery moss. Looking up made matters worse; I was keen to see the Abbey stonework that the intrepid canoers spotted on their adventure, but first came the ‘huge black-bodied spiders’. The arched roof is one vast web, a translucent film suffocating the bricks above. This is a real-life Cirith Ungol.
Eventually, some light appeared ahead. There was a laddered shaft, and six feet above it a grate. It was the shaft by Reading Civic Offices, one of my first checkpoints on the route – hard to believe that the tunnel behind had been barely two hundred yards. Limestone began to replace brick. The 12th and 13th century Abbey stonework was all in this section: it wasn’t far to Reading Minster, which reused Abbey stone after the dissolution in 1539. Flat limestone blocks were decorated with spirals and chevrons. One had a broken protruding centre, possibly a carved head. There was a long section of attractive arches, vaulted and ribbed.
There were once seven waterways here, forgotten now except by those wise in Reading-lore. They gave Bridge Street its old name, Seven Bridges; five of them are shown on Speed’s map. The Holy Brook survived the longest and was used for washing and laundry, and as a source of clean water to ‘brew, bake and dress meat’, until mains water arrived in 1820. Our brook then suffered a similar fate to the underground rivers of London – it was slowly culverted over decades. The River Tyburn flows in conduits for its entire length, notably under Buckingham Palace. Indeed it seems the lot of all British rivers deemed unnecessary for transport to be sacrificed at the altar of progress, and concreted over without reverence.
Looking up, it appeared odd that arches were used for part of the roof, and flat keystones for the rest. The stone is not quite the same colour, so perhaps the arches were exposed to air and grime for a while before the culvert was built. Could it be one of the extinct Seven Bridges? Alas, ancient maps being what they are, it is difficult to know for certain. A 1985 survey states that the whole was likely a 16th-century construction, the ribs used to support a road.
After the arches, another obstacle: shopping trolley, branch, and estate agents’ placard – Winkworths. Here Mordor ended at last, and blinking in full sun I found myself behind Zero Degrees. I saw the footbridge in the Purple Turtle garden, and heard voices. It was nigh-on impossible to wade here. There were pint glasses, beer bottles and all manner of drinking vessels underfoot, and it was not only slippery but fragile – a cracked glass in my foot now and the fun would have ended pretty sharpish. I pulled out a beer bottle, hoping to find something older than the Turtle, some sleeping relic of the nearby Simonds brewery.
Gordon Spring, an engineer for the council, used to inspect these lengths. He found he could identify where he was by the litter: bottles below Simonds, crockery under the Ship Hotel, tools under the ironmongers. We too are living through history. The Purple Turtle is leaving its mark on the land (or water, anyway).
Under the Oracle walkway, I got a few sideways glances. Two staff members outside Buenasado called as I entered the next tunnel: they wanted me to see if a customer’s phone and wallet were still down there. They weren’t, but I didn’t stop to investigate for long.
The next tunnel began low but soon opened out very tall, like an underground cathedral. The entire ecosystem seems built on pigeons and spiders. Soon the brick turned into a huge circular corrugated steel pipe – I could feel the ridges underfoot. The change must have happened under the old Telephone Exchange. The hum from the Oracle came at me from all sides, like Dolby surround – it was pleasant to hear the hubbub of human activity in such a lonesome, forbidding place. It was only later I realised the noise was made by a tinkling water pipe, and the corrugated ribs made it sound like laughter, giving it a long-tailed reverb. It was a sonic version of pareidolia, the tendency to see faces in inanimate objects. When I realised the noise wasn’t made by people, it became menacing, somehow.
There followed a long darkness with lots more spiders. A bleary light appeared, and I looked up to see the King’s Walk hole, partially covered by the proprietors of Ding Tea. Before I could get too excited, several pigeons flapped at my face and flew away. I looked up to see a huge mound of pigeon poo like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: black and white and decrepit. They had made a home under the glow of the porthole. That would explain why the glass is frosted now.
Behind the old Ship Hotel, I found a plate in the riverbed: “Grindley Hotel Ware, England, Vitrified.” I later found that this trademark was in use in the early 1950s. If the first thing I picked up was seventy years old, what could be found a few inches down? Many holes in the culvert roof were boarded up; some establishments must have had access to the water at one point. The canoeing duo looked through a window in the roof here into what was once the Army Recruitment centre: “fire alarm on the wall, tasteful dried-flower arrangement perched on top of the glass.” This is now Madras Kitchen – there is no window any more.
On the right, “Ken McDonald 25/3/66” was painted in whitewash. A birthdate or the date of a significant journey? In any case, the culvert engineers who worked here in the summer clearly decided to leave it be. I was under the library by now. I saw the Abbey Mill arch ahead, a vestige of the last water mill powered by the Holy Brook, Soundy’s Mill, operating as late as the 1950s. It was demolished in 1964, with the arch left standing defiantly in the midst of modern office buildings.
A final swim out to the Kennet, and the journey was over. I got out at Blake’s Lock and walked home, feeling every inch Sowan’s “wetter sort of troglodyte”. Trudging home in the late afternoon sun, I fell into daydream: I wondered whether Reading could ever be traversed like Venice, on subterranean gondolas, like a town-sized Willy Wonka factory. We’d first have to get over the need for instant travel, and settle for a slower pace of life. Water is too slow, too ponderous – it took an hour to get from the Holy Brook Nook to the library.
Two star-crossed lovers, a monk at the Abbey and a nun, also coloured my thoughts. The story goes that he saw her body floating in the brook one day, and drowned himself in a fit of passion. The story is fictional, but that doesn’t diminish it: it just gives a sense of the deep wells of rumour that surround the brook. Having seen it up close, I’m inclined to believe anything.
Fahad Sperinck is a maths tutor living in Reading. When not earning his crust, he writes or makes art or music, or just as often, goes on long walks near water. Most days he can be found idling in bed with a good book.