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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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Be a Reading Detective!

There are fun and informative walking tours around our town in this little book for children of all ages.

Author Kerry Renshaw writes:

One of the silver linings of lockdown is that it has got families exercising together. Currently, families who live together can exercise together, and grandparents can join in if they are part of a support bubble. Even if not, a grandparent can exercise with one grandchild.  Town walks are a great alternative to country hikes, especially at muddy times. The great thing about a guided walk around town is that children (and adults!) can be connected to Reading’s intriguing local history. There are so many clues in our statues, plaques and buildings that give us glimpses into Reading’s past. The book asks children to spot the history they will find on Reading’s streets and answer questions. There’s a real sense of achievement in tracking down things that others miss.

What happened to Queen Victoria’s finger? Is she turning her back on the town? Why are there cartwheeling German boys in Reading? Why did loads of steamrollers crowd onto Reading Bridge? What battles were fought in Reading – yes, even in Broad Street! Which of our churches was regularly visited by Good Queen Bess?  Which Norman knights fought a duel by the Thames? Who was the unlucky young man was killed by a whirlwind? These and many other questions are waiting to be solved.

The book has loads of excellent photographs of Reading past and present. And there are longer pieces on the Abbey, the “three B’s”, the bridges, and many other shorter, fascinating tales.

~

Reading Detectives is by Kerry Renshaw and Electra Colios. You can buy a copy here, or via local or online booksellers.

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A playlist of local artists featured in When Reading Really Rocked

When Reading Really Rocked is a hugely well informed and entertaining account of live music in Reading between 1966 and 1976, from the emergence of psychedelia to the dawn of punk. Author Mike Warth has put together a fantastic playlist of some of the local bands and artists that feature in the book, which will be a trip down memory lane for many, or a great introduction to some of the music from the local area that you might not previously have heard.

You can find the playlist on YouTube, and the commentary below from Mike provides some background information about the artists and tracks. I hope you enjoy listening!

ALMA COGAN. Although born in London Alma Cogan moved to Reading with her family where her father set up a tailor’s shop in Kings Road. She was educated at St Joseph’s Convent and prompted by her mother began her singing career with a performance at The Palace Theatre in Cheapside (demolished in 1961). Her first record was released in 1952 and was the first of many. ‘Dreamboat‘ featured here was released in 1955 and became her only record to reach number 1 in the charts. Sadly she died of ovarian cancer in 1966 aged only 34.

THE GANGBUSTERS were fronted by Cal Vincent who in the week delivered bread and rolls and at the weekend delivered rock and roll. ‘The Memory Of Your Face‘ was their only record release. They were actually from Wallingford but played the Reading clubs and halls on a regular basis.

THE MOQUETTES. Formed in 1962 The Moquettes had become Reading’s top band by 1964 when they were snapped up by famed producer Mickie Most. ‘Right String But Wrong Yo-Yo‘ their sole record soon appeared and received plenty of tv and radio airplay but sadly sales were not enough to crack the charts and following a tour of Germany the band split up.

MARIANNE FAITHFULL moved to Milman Road, Reading in 1952 with her mother after her parents’ divorce and like Alma Cogan before her she attended St Joseph’s Convent School. Having made the acquaintance of The Rolling Stones she recorded ‘As Tears Go By‘ a Mick Jagger-Keith Richards song. It propelled her to number 9 in the charts and many records followed. Her mother apparently ran a cafe in Reading’s Harris Arcade adjacent to and incorporating part of what is now the wonderful Sound Machine record store.

PLATFORM SIX. This band was formed out of The Jellys, themselves a popular attraction in the town’s clubs and halls who had been formed by members of the REME staff band from nearby Arborfield. Dodgy management sadly led to the demise of Platform Six but not before they recorded the fine ‘Money Will Not Mean A Thing‘ and also another backing singer Billie Davis. Some members of the band then moved on to join The Amboy Dukes.

ARTHUR BROWN. A student at Reading University where he studied Philosophy and Law, Arthur Brown realised his passion was actually in music and could be heard singing in a number of the town’s pubs and halls with various bands, among them Dave Morgan’s Jazzband and The Dominoes. With the latter he recorded ‘You Don’t Know‘ for the 1965 Reading University Rag. It appeared on flexidisc and is now a sought after collector’s item. By 1967 he had formed his own band The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and in 1968 took the charts by storm with the brilliant ‘Fire’. He has been recording ever since.

MIKE COOPER AND DEREK HALL were mainstays of Reading’s folk clubs in the mid sixties especially that in the Shades Coffee Bar, Gun Street. In 1965 they produced the 4-track EP suitably titled Out Of The Shades from which the song ‘Livin’ With The Blues‘ is taken. Released in a tiny number it was the first record either had played on. Mike was a champion of the live music scene in the town and continued his career with a string of interesting and varied albums.

THE AMBOY DUKES. Formed in 1965 The Amboy Dukes were Reading’s finest appearing all over the town and before long all over the country after they were picked up by the prestigious Rik Gunnell Agency. A record deal with Polydor was secured and this delightfully titled single was the third of their six releases. Sadly, neither ‘High Life In Whitley Wood‘ a great piece of fun ska music, and a popular part of their live repertoire, nor any of their other releases cracked the charts and in 1970 this fine band called it a day.

THE SALLYANGIE. Brother and sister Mike and Sally Oldfield formed The Sallyangie in 1967 and secured a recording contract with the assistance of John Renbourn who played in Reading on numerous occasions. Their 1968 album ‘Children Of The Sun’ was followed by the single ‘Two Ships‘ featured here, in ’69. Sally was the elder by some six years and with her parents moved to Reading where Mike was born in 1953. Sally had been a scholar at St Josephs Convent (or Holy Joe’ s as it was affectionately known) where she struck up a friendship with Marianne Faithfull. Mike attended St Edward’s Primary School and Presentation College which was just over the road from their home in Monk’s Way (off Southcote Lane). They also lived at some point in Western Elms Avenue. Sally’s musical career took a backseat for a while after this LP but Mike pursued his with the extraordinary Tubular Bells appearing in 1973.

OEDIPUS COMPLEX. This Reading band could be found honing their skills around the town in 1968 and put out a couple of records on the Philips label in a pop/rock style. Unfortunately a hoped for album did not materialize and they disappeared. Included here is ‘Empty Highway‘ which was actually the B side of their second release.

MIKE COOPER. Your Lovely Ways‘ appeared in 1970 at a time when his record label Dawn were releasing ‘maxi-singles’, basically 4-track EPs played at the same speed as an LP rather than the usual 45rpm. It didn’t catch on but allowed Mike to stretch out with two good songs followed by a couple of jazzy arrangements displaying more than a hint of the avant-garde.

HERON. Take Me Back Home‘ was included on their second album Twice As Nice And Half The Price as well as being released as a single. This local band had strong association with Reading Technical College where they played countless times as well as other venues across the town. Their gentle folk/rock sound is a delight with both albums having been recorded outside in the country rather than a pukka studio, the first at a cottage the band lived and rehearsed in at Appleford, the second in Devon. Lead singer Gerald T. Moore had previously been a member of Reading band The Memphis Gents and would soon be fronting his own band G.T. Moore and The Reggae Guitars. He’s still at it to this day.

THE BOATMEN. Local folk singers Eric Blackburn and John Grace teamed up with a few others to produce an album’s worth of traditional songs relating to inland waterways entitled Straight From The Tunnel’s Mouth. ‘Waterways Lament‘ is from that album released in 1975. Eric could be found regularly around the town’s pubs at this time singing in The Tudor Tavern, Ye Boar’s Head and The Three Tuns amongst others. In fact he formed his own folk club in the latter called The Brick ‘n’ Fret.

TUDOR LODGE. Here’s another outfit with connections to The Tudor Tavern although they were perhaps more often seen (heard) in The White Horse, Caversham Road, spiritual home to Reading’s folk scene for a good few years in the 70’s. They released a delightful album of acoustic folk songs on the renowned Vertigo label which has become a major collectable and ‘The Lady’s Changing Home‘ is from that album. Founder member John Stannard continued playing with various blues and folk bands he put together until recently but sadly died earlier this year.

SHILLINGFORD MILL. Two Bulmershe College students Steve Hall and Chas Seward were the creators of this little known outfit. They released ‘Frightened‘ and one other single as Shillingford Mill and then changed name to Richmond (they had their own studio on Richmond Hill). ‘Frightened’ is a fine song which they re-recorded and included on their sole album. They even went as far as using it for the album’s title. Falling into the folk/pop category and being perfectly listenable it remains a total obscurity.

MIKE COOPER’S MACHINE GUN COMPANY. Not one to sit still and become typecast in any one genre Mike Cooper put together a band of local musicians and released two albums of tracks with a touch of blues, folk, jazz and country. ‘Song For Abigail‘ kicks off the second album simply entitled The Machine Gun Company with Mike Cooper. On both of these can be found Les Calvert (bass)  who played in The Memphis Gents in the mid sixties.

GRAPHITE. Reading University was where this band were formed around 1969 and they continued gigging until 1973. If you headed off to see a known band at the Uni between those years there was a strong possibility Graphite would have been the support band. They managed just one single at the time but recent retrospective releases give a better idea of their laid back progressive rock sound – as exemplified by this track ‘Starflight Over The Skies‘.

G.T.MOORE AND THE REGGAE GUITARS. Following spells in the r’n’b styled Reading band The Memphis Gents and the nationally admired folk/rock outfit Heron, G.T.Moore veered off in a different direction yet again forming a white reggae band. Such a line-up was virtually unique in the UK but their ability to play with such authenticity brought them considerable respect both from the music press and music fans. Two albums resulted with ‘I’m Still Waiting‘ appearing on their eponymous first as well as on a 45. After they split in ’77 G.T.Moore pursued a successful solo career with a number of albums to his name.

THE DAVE MORGAN JAZZ BAND. Whilst Reading was something of a hot bed for trad jazz through the 60’s and 70s with the nation’s top musicians regularly appearing at The Upper Deck, the town had its own legend in the genre with Dave Morgan and his band. Trombonist Dave Morgan was inspired as a 16 year old having seen the great Chris Barber and put together his own outfit which played virtually every venue in the town for many years way beyond the period covered in When Reading Really Rocked. In the 70’s the band produced an album entitled Jazz Merchants which offers a real taste of the band’s sound.

AFT (AUTOMATIC FINE TUNING). Edgy progressive rock is on offer on this seasoned Reading band’s sole LP from 1976. ‘Queen Of The Night‘ which closes the album is more of a straightforward rock sound with vocals, largely absent elsewhere on the album. Some members had previously played in another local outfit, Glyder and were often to be seen at the (in)famous Target pub in town.

CLAYSON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Former Bulmershe College student Alan Clayson put together this wonderfully named band in 1976 and caught the eye of the music press resulting in plenty of publicity. A record deal with Virgin followed with ‘The Taster‘ their debut single. Alan has in more recent years become a respected rock biographer whilst continuing to gig with the band up to this day.

THE SHAMBLES. Patrick Wass and Brian Jefferson landed in Reading in 1970 after their time at Exeter University. They soon could be found playing the local folk circuit including being resident at The Red Cow, Southampton Street amongst others. This version of the traditional ‘John Barleycorn‘ appeared on a privately pressed EP released in small numbers and gives a clear indication of the duo’s talents. Patrick is still writing and performing to this day.

Buy the book

 

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Martin Richards writes about Alfred Waterhouse in Reading and beyond

A famed Victorian architect’s time in Reading and beyond

A guest post from Martin Richards

What is the connection between the great Victorian architect, Alfred Waterhouse and Paddington Bear, who arrived at the London railway station from deepest Peru? Well Michael Bond the bear’s creator was brought up in Reading and his witnessing the evacuees arriving at Reading General station at the beginning of WW2 was an inspiration behind the Paddington Bear books. In his late thirties Alfred Waterhouse who hailed from Liverpool and Manchester built a house, Foxhill (1867-8), for himself and his family on the Whiteknights Park estate on the edge of Reading, while running his practice in central London. Concurrently Waterhouse was designing London’s Natural History Museum, which just happens to be Paddington Bear’s favourite building as witnessed in his first film outing.

In a career of nearly fifty years Waterhouse became a foremost exponent of Victorian Gothic architecture and was involved in designing, adapting or restoring around six hundred and fifty buildings, including town halls, university colleges, museums, private homes and ecclesiastical buildings. In Manchester for instance he designed the Assize Courts, a much praised early work that established his reputation for large and well-planned projects. Much damaged, it was pulled down after WW2 but his imposing Strangeways prison close by and his towering gothic masterpiece, Manchester Town Hall are still extant.

In the 1850s the Whiteknights Park estate (now the University) was divided into six plots of land that were sold off with a sizeable house built on each. After retirement Waterhouse’s wealthy textile manufacturing father, also Alfred, and Quaker mother bought one of these in 1859 and a few years later leased a part of his land to his son to build Foxhill House, by Whiteknight’s lake. Waterhouse had already built a house Erlegh (sic) Park on the opposite side of the lake for a plantation owner from the West Indies; this was pulled down in the nineteen sixties to make way for Wessex Hall, student accommodation for the University that had recently been re-sited to the park. His third building on the estate, Wilderness House was also demolished in the nineteen fifties.

In the ten years before he moved his family to the delightful west Berkshire village of Yattendon in 1877, Waterhouse left his mark in the Reading area. He built the south end of Reading Town Hall which included the iconic clock tower; the north end – nearer the railway – was started in 1877 but was the work of Thomas Lainston, a cheaper option. His rebuilt and greatly expanded Reading Grammar School (1868-72) was relocated to Craven/Addington/Erleigh Road from its central site: it is one of the oldest schools in the country, starting out in the mid-twelfth century as the school for Reading Abbey but by the nineteenth century had declined and needed reinvigorating. East Thorpe in Redlands Road was built as the marital home for George Palmer and his bride Alice Exall; it was later given by Palmer, the founder of Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits, to University College, Reading (later Reading University) and is now the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). In 1877 he was asked to build a Temperance Building in Silver Street, a poor area just south of the centre of the town. By the 1980s the Rising Sun Institute, as it was by then known, was in a semi-derelict state and after a semi-squat by campaigning local artists, was reopened as the Rising Sun Arts Centre.

Oh yes, there is another connection with children’s literature. Not a bear but a squirrel and a rabbit. Early on in his life as an architect he built two neighbouring houses by Derwentwater near Keswick in the Lake District. Beatrix Potter when holidaying from London stayed in both of these and was inspired to create Squirrel Nutkin and Peter Rabbit, well-known characters in her children’s books.

A lot more can be read about these matters in Alfred Waterhouse, architect. The life and works of a Victorian Goth, a ninety-page A5 illustrated book that can be bought privately from Martin Richards, £10 incl. p&p.

Email Martin at: newleafdesign@waitrose.com

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Reading’s Influential Women – an inspiring read!

Reading’s Influential Women features more than 60 individual Women who have a connection with Reading and have made a notable difference in the world. Some are well known international names, others deserve to be. They are pioneers, familiar faces, recognisable voices, unsung heroes, campaigners, world changers, socialists, celebrities, Olympic and sporting champions, writers, artists, and scientists. It’s an inspiring read!

Authors Terry Dixon and Linda Saul write:

‘There are innumerable men and women from Reading who have achieved significant things or contributed to the life of the town and/or the wider world. Some, unfortunately, have gone unrecognised or are forgotten. Also, we know that in the past, the contribution of women was often dismissed, overlooked or attributed to somebody else.

In this book we can’t hope to document all those women connected to Reading who deserve to be mentioned but we can raise the profile of some, especially those whose connection to Reading is relatively unknown. To be included, women need to have been born, bred, educated in the greater Reading area, or to have lived there, or else have made an indelible mark on the town. We have included a couple of ‘unsung heroines’, but we know there are many more.

Many of the women in this book will have had their lives affected by misogyny. Several have played their part in challenging such attitudes. Edith Morley was a Suffragist (although Lady Wantage was antisuffragism), Ethelwyn Trewavas campaigned for married women to be able to keep their jobs. Some, such as Lettice Curtis, just got on and proved how good they were in a field dominated by men. Modern campaigns, such as Me Too, and the under-representation of women in many fields and the top tiers of organisations remind us there is still more progress to be made.

One area which has seen massive improvement in recent years is sport. Elite sportswomen are clearly influential in encouraging wider participation in sport, at all levels, and we have several examples in this book. But who knows how many more there might have been if women’s sport had not been discouraged in the not-too-distant past.

In writing this book some interesting threads emerged, and there are always questions. It is fun to try to find any connections between the individuals – were Jane Austen and Mary Mitford friends? Is it coincidence that one of the first female professional photographers set up a business in the same town where William Fox Talbot had made major advances in photography just a decade earlier?’

The authors’ royalties from the book are to be donated to Berkshire Women’s Aid.

About the Authors:

Terry Dixon was born in Tilehurst, Reading, and held the post of National Publicity and Development Officer on the National Federation of 18 Plus Groups NEC for 6 years. In his day job he was an electronics engineer and project manager. Taking early retirement in 2016, he started ‘Terry’s Reading Walkabouts’ to get fitter, and to introduce visitors and residents to the hidden culture and history of Reading. In 2017 he decided to celebrate Vote 100 by creating a new guided walk called ‘Famous/not-so-famous women of Reading’ which was launched in February 2018 to coincide with the date the Act of Parliament received royal assent. His research for that walk is the basis for this book. His walkabouts have raised over £7500 (including £1000 for Berkshire Women’s Aid) for local charities and he is a member of Reading Civic Society’s committee.

Linda Saul was born and raised on the Isle of Wight but has lived in Reading for about 35 years. After studying at Cambridge, she embarked on a successful career in IT. In her younger, wilder, days she developed a habit of falling out of aircraft before finally learning to fly one. She is now a full-time artist, her work focusing on the built environment. She exhibits regularly in London and is an active member of the Reading Guild of Artists. A perpetual student, she has completed a physics degree with the Open University and is now studying for a Masters in mathematics. In 2019 Linda cocurated an exhibition of art inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Galvanised by the campaign to save Reading Gaol for the town, she conceived and organised the Reading Gaol Hug with the help of many others, including Terry.