Almost a decade ago, the crumbling remains of Reading Abbey – once one of the most important medieval religious centres in northern Europe – were closed to the public. Now, following major conservation work, the site has reopened. Carly Hilts paid a visit.
At its medieval zenith, Reading Abbey was a religious powerhouse. Founded in 1121 by Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror, it became one of the richest and most prestigious monastic sites in northern Europe (see CA 336). Pilgrims flocked from far and wide to visit Henry I’s tomb before the high altar (established in 1136), and the relic of St James donated by Henry’s daughter, the Empress Matilda; from their donations, the abbey flourished. Its vast footprint covered some 30 acres of what is now modern Reading, and today the street patterns are still affected by the former course of its precinct walls. Yet however successful this institution was, it was not immune to the ravages of another king Henry – Henry VIII – and like its contemporaries across the country, the abbey was closed down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
By 1548, demolition of its buildings (apart from the abbot’s lavish house, which became a royal palace particularly favoured by Elizabeth I) had begun, and its fine Caen stone was being recycled in construction projects at locations including Windsor Castle, while some of its wooden panelling went to Magdalen College, Oxford. Only ragged stretches of ruined walls (as well as a better-preserved gatehouse) survived to mark the presence of this once celebrated site – and these were further damaged by the excesses of the English Civil War and exposure to the elements. Fast-forward to the present day, and the remains were in such poor – and dangerous – condition that in 2011 the site was closed to the public.
Now, though, following major conservation work supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Reading Borough Council, and Historic England, the abbey has triumphantly reopened its gates to visitors once more, as part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project. Focusing on the complex’s standing remains, this undertaking is separate from but complementary to the Hidden Abbey project, which has been exploring archaeological traces beneath the surface (CA 320).
Painstaking conservation work lay at the heart of efforts to restore the ruins – and in part this has involved undoing the damage caused by well-intentioned but counterproductive attempts from the early 20th century. Then, Matthew Williams (Manager of Reading Museum) says, the emphasis was on stripping all vegetation from upstanding remains and repointing exposed masonry with strong cement mortar. This offered no protection against water damage, however, and the current project has instead emphasised ‘soft-capping’ the tops of all the walls with local turf with plugs of sedum. The result is picturesque, but also guards against the destructive freezethaw cycle of encroaching water.
More sympathetic ways of restoring the walls themselves have been developed during the initiative, including researching and applying previously little-understood medieval techniques such as using ‘hot lime’ mortar (mixed in a wooden trough, as the chemical reaction melts plastic buckets), which was employed in the original abbey buildings. During this process, long-lost elements of the complex’s fabric were brought to light once more: a large stone block, uncovered in the abbey church’s Founders Chapel (where monks and pilgrims prayed for the soul of Henry I), is thought to have formed part of a side altar, while the ruins of the refectory, where the monks ate, were found to preserve rare traces of 12th-century lime plaster, now recorded and covered back over.
REMAINS OF THE DAY
Today, parts of the monastic complex’s footprint lie beneath a neighbouring nursery school and the grounds of (now-closed) Reading Gaol, but visitors can wander through surviving fragments of structures including parts of the abbey church, dormitory, treasury, and the impressively complete chapter house. New information boards offer context to each space, while the latter structure also houses plaques commemorating former abbots as well as the composition, in Reading around 1240, of one of the first songs to be written down in English, ‘Sumer is icumen in’. It is an atmospheric place to explore, with missing walls picked out in flat shapes on the ground to complement the towering ruins.
A short distance away, the best-preserved part of the abbey – though it was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1861 – is the inner gatehouse, which once divided the public area of the complex from the monks’ private domain. This too has been conserved under the present project, including repairs to mitigate water damage caused by Victorian cast-iron drainpipes, embedded into the walls, which had cracked and soaked the surrounding masonry. Interior plaster has been replaced, and the exterior surfaces have been cleaned and sympathetically restored – modern intervention is only really visible in a couple of places, such as a newly replaced upper corbel that is noticeably cleaner than its neighbours. The gatehouse is set to host Reading Museum’s popular ‘Victorian Classroom’, which is visited by thousands of schoolchildren each year in its current location – a fitting new role, given that the building went on to become a ladies’ boarding school in the 18th century, attended by, among others, Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra.
The wider town centre has been enhanced into an ‘abbey quarter’, with 27 new information boards scattered through the streets, and a new permanent gallery in Reading Museum which opened in February. Extensive digital modelling of the abbey buildings, reimagining how they may have looked at their peak (see www.readingmuseum.org.uk/blog/rebuilding-reading-abbeyvirtually), as well as an interactive online map (www.readingabbeyquarter.org.uk/explore/explore-abbey), offer further resources for those who want to find out more.
‘Modern Reading is a medieval town,’ Matthew Williams said as he showed us around the restored remains. Thanks to this new initiative, future visitors will be left in little doubt of this rich heritage.
For more on the project, see www.readingabbeyquarter.org.uk. Visiting the abbey ruins is free; the site is open daily from dawn to dusk, but it may be closed for occasional ticketed events and private hire – please check the website before setting out.
This review appeared in CA 341.