One of the largest settlements in the UK without city status, Reading is a university town 20 minutes west of London.
And despite being in the capital’s orbit, Reading is an economic powerbase of its own, with companies in the insurance and IT sectors.
The town is on the Thames, at the very end of the Kennet and Avon Canal, and in the Middle Ages was the site of an influential abbey, the ruins of which can be seen around the central Forbury Gardens.
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned at Reading Gaol between 1895 and 1897 after being convicted of homosexual offences, and would later write the Ballad of Reading Gaol while in exile in France.
The prison, now HMP Reading, is still here and finally closed down in 2013.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Reading:
1. Reading Museum
In the neo-Gothic Town Hall, the Reading Museum explores the town’s past, from its earliest days as a Saxon Settlement, through its Medieval abbey, industrialisation and up to the 21st century.
There’s also a gallery for the nearby Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), which has artefacts like a lifelike bronze eagle cast in the 1st or 2nd century and discovered in 1866. There are also pieces excavated from Reading Abbey, and the country’s only copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.
There’s art by Jacob Epstein and Auguste Rodin in the Windows Gallery, while the Huntley & Palmers Gallery charts the biscuit-making industry that buoyed Reading’s economy in Victorian times.
2. Forbury Gardens
A couple of streets east of the railway station, Forbury Gardens is a neat public park on the outer court of the former Reading Abbey, which we’ll talk about later.
After the abbey was dissolved in the 16th century the space was left open and used for gun emplacements in the English Civil War and then for military drills during the Napoleonic Wars.
It became a public park in the middle of the 19th century, and the attention-grabbing monument in the centre, the Maiwand Lion, was erected in 1886 to commemorate the dead from the 66th Berkshire Regiment at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan in 1880. The park has a dainty bandstand and ample lawns that fill up with office workers at lunchtime on sunny days.
3. Abbey Ruins
On the southeast boundary of Forbury Gardens, mingling with more modern buildings are the ruins of Reading Abbey, which was founded by Henry I in 1121. Like all monasteries across Britain and Ireland, the abbey was suppressed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1538, and it’s last abbot Hugh Cook Faringdon was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Even though the complex has been disused for almost 500 years the ruins are Grade I listed, and you can enter the shell of the former chapter house.
The hospitium, a dormitory for pilgrims is intact, and has become a children’s nursery, while the Gothic abbey gateway on Abbey Square once housed a school attended by Jane Austen and was restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1861.
4. Basildon Park
A short trip into the Chiltern Hills, just northwest of Reading, Basildon Park is a resplendent Palladian country house designed by John Carr and built between 1776 and 1783. After being used as a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War, the house, constructed from honey-coloured Bath stone, was completely dilapidated in the 1950s and scheduled for demolition before a thorough restoration by Lord and Lady Iliffe.
Cared for by the National Trust today, the property looks better than ever.
You can go in to appreciate the restoration work, and learn how the Iliffes searched for appropriate fittings across the country.
The Staircase Hall, Octagon Drawing Room, Dining Room are all lovely, and you can have a cup of tea by the fire in the kitchen.
Outside, Lady Iliffe’s Rose Garden is a joy in spring and summer.
You can see Silchester for yourself at a free English Heritage site ten miles southwest of Reading.
The Roman city was built in the late 1st century over an earlier Iron Age oppidum, and was abandoned between the 5th and 7th centuries.
The city walls form a polygon and were first excavated at the turn of the 20th century.
They are claimed to be the most intact Roman defences in the UK and are visible for most of the city’s circumference, but most impressively on the north side.
The spring that flows from inside the walls once fed the Roman baths and now trickles into Silchester Brook.
Just beyond the eastern walls you can step into the remains of Silchester’s amphitheatre, ringed by earthworks long since taken over by trees and undergrowth.
6. Caversham Court
In a conservation area on the north bank of the Thames, Caversham Court is a garden on the grounds of a former mansion.
Some of Reading’s most powerful families lived here in the centuries after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and you can see pieces of its plasterwork and the 17th-century staircase at the Museum of Reading.
Today, there’s no more than a footprint of the house at Caversham Court, but the gardens are the real reason to come.
These flow down to the river and have beautiful mature trees like an Atlas cedar, a Bhutan pine, a cedar of Lebanon and a black mulberry.
If you’re in town in July you could watch a play during the Reading Open Air Shakespeare Festival, while Cult Screens organises film screenings, which you can watch from the comfort of a bean bag or deck chair.
7. Museum of English Rural Life
Operated by the University of Reading, this museum can be found at the back of the London Road campus near the town centre.
The attraction was founded in 1951, through the university’s historic ties to agriculture, and has had a long refurbishment, opening its doors once more in 2016. The galleries map more than 250 years of the English countryside and are stocked with manual tools, clothes, ploughs, antique portraits of livestock, carts and tractors, both steam and diesel-powered.
There’s multimedia to keep youngsters engaged and they can also dress up in period costume.
If some of the old-time contraptions seem confusing the museum’s staff are on hand for any questions.
8. Mapledurham House
A few short miles up the Thames is an exquisite Elizabethan stately home, constructed in 1585 and offering tours on weekdays.
When this post was written the house wasn’t part of the visit as it was being refurbished, but if you are able to go inside you’ll be shown authentic 16th-century priest holes, built to hide Catholic clergy at a time when the denomination was persecuted in England.
You will be able to see the Mapledurham Mill, first constructed in the 1400s and altered in the subsequent centuries.
It produced flour until the end of the Second World War and is in full working order.
Also in the building is a hydroelectric turbine using an Archimedes screw and selling its energy to the National Grid.
In the grounds is the 13th-century St Margaret’s Church, and a tea room in the stables coach house serving freshly baked scones.
9. Kennet and Avon Canal Walk
Reading is at the conclusion of the Kennet and Avon Canal, coursing along the West Country for 87 miles from Bristol.
This long waterway was constructed between 1718 and 1810 and was mostly used to ship coal and building stone from Somerset to London.
The canal towpath, traced by chestnut trees is another way to get to know Reading.
The waterway is busy in summer and has swans and geese, while the towpath takes you past the former prison, where there’s a gate with a quote from Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”. At the confluence with the Thames, you’ll join the Thames Path national trail.
If you keep going east you’ll reach the cute village of Sonning, home to Reading Sailing club, tea rooms and pubs.
10. Museum of Berkshire Aviation
The Reading suburb of Woodley has a small but diverting aircraft museum, open Wednesdays and weekends.
The attraction is in a hangar at what used to be the Woodley Aerodrome, which operated in the first half of the 20th century.
The collection has machines built by the firm, Miles Aircraft (previously Phillips & Powis), which was based at the aerodrome at that time.
Some of the exhibits are unique in the world, like a Miles Student jet trainer, an experimental Fairey Jet Gyrodyne and a Miles Martinet, a Second World War target tug.
Also on show are a Miles Magister training plane, a Fairey Gannet anti-submarine bomber and a Handley Page airliner.
11. Wellington Country Park
In the Hampshire countryside, seven miles south of Reading, there’s a big outdoor recreation area opened in 1974 by the 8th Duke and Duchess of Wellington.
The park has 350 acres of hardwood and softwood forest, woven with four nature trails and a habitat for fallow and red deer.
The park also has a 35-acre lake with a cafe on its shore, and when the summer comes there’s loads for children to get up to.
Domestic animals await at the animal farm and petting barn, there are adventure playgrounds, a miniature train, sandpits, a maze, “enchanted forest” and 12 holes of mini-golf.
12. Beale Wildlife Park and Gardens
On the Thames side of Basildon Park is a kind of zoo that opened in 1956, and blends animal exhibits, amusements for younger children and landscaped gardens.
In the walk-through aviary are snowy owls, barn owls, blue and gold macaws, spectacled owls, caracaras and many more.
You can also check out enclosures and paddocks with rheas, alpacas, meerkats, lemurs, prairie dogs, Cameroon sheep and red-necked wallabies.
Added to that are a miniature train, indoor play area, and a delightful water garden and dry garden, scattered with interesting sculptures and planted with exotic trees like a gingko and swamp cypress.
13. Cole Museum of Zoology
Another university museum, this attraction is attached to Reading’s School of Biological Sciences at the Whiteknights Campus.
The collection was put together at the beginning of the 20th century by the namesake Professor of Zoology Francis J. Cole.
Of its 3,500 zoological specimens, some 400 are on show at any one time, all arranged in taxonomic order, so you can get a complete summary of the Animal Kingdom in under an hour.
Some of the outstanding pieces kept on display at all times are two giant spider crabs, and skeletons of a false killer whale, Indian elephant and a reticulated python five metres in length.
14. The Oracle
If you find yourself at a loose end or fancy a shopping expedition, the obvious choice in Reading is the Oracle, a mall that opened next to the Kennet in 1999. There are more than 100 shops at the centre, counting all the usual high street brands like Zara, Topshop and H&M, all anchored by large branches of the department stores House of Fraser and Debenhams.
The Oracle is also a dining destination, with popular chains like Wagamama, Five Guys, Starbucks, Pret a Manger, Cafe Rouge and Nando’s.
And if you have a couple of hours at your disposal there’s a 10-screen Vue cinema for the latest Hollywood releases.
15. Reading Festival
Officially world’s oldest pop music festival, the Reading Festival takes place at Little John’s Farm on the bank holiday at the end of August.
The event grew out of the National Jazz Festival in the 1950s and in the early-1970s evolved into a purely rock extravaganza.
That rule has been loosened in recent years and in 2018 one of the headliners was rapper Kendrick Lamar.
In the past, some non-rock acts have even had to flee the stage after being pelted with plastic bottles.
Over the last 50 years, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream and the Kinks have all played the event, and since 1999 the event has been held simultaneously in Reading and Leeds in West Yorkshire.
To avoid missing out, the lineup is normally announced in February and tickets tend to sell out around June or July.