900 years old

By | Category: Travel destinations

It is just a fortnight to the main celebrations surrounding the 900th anniversary of Reading Abbey.

part of the remaining Reading Abbey. Image – Reading BC

On the 19th of June, historical workshops, a medieval village, Civil War Camp, artist-led workshops, four music stages including a floating stage on the River Kennet, a brand-new piece of site-specific theatre, excerpts from RABBLETheatre’s new production, The Last Abbot, a photo exhibition highlighting the history of the Abbey, special children’s shows, boat trips and more will comprise the celebrations.

But Reading Abbey is the key, an abbey of which few people realise the significance. It was an influential abbey in the early middle ages. Founded by Henry I in 1121, the abbey was one of the largest royal abbeys in the country and one of the largest monasteries in Europe. It is also here that Henry was buried as, bizarrely, are some parts of his wife – a daughter of a Malcolm III of Scotland.

Henry’s grave was lost when the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII brought about its destruction. The very last abbot was hung drawn and quartered and locals filched parts of the castles stones and glass for their own benefit which hastened the destruction.

Many people are still trying to work out where Henry I might be buried. After the success in finding Richard III underneath a car park in Leicester there is hope that Henry’s grave may be found one day somewhere in the vicinity of the abbey. If successful, that would bring a real shot in the arm to the tourist industry in the city.

Reading’s museum is also the home of the only full-scale replica of the Bayeux Tapestry in the UK. As every school child knows, the tapestry (really needlework rather than a tapestry) records the exploits of Henry’s father, William the Conqueror.

It was Henry I who centralised justice in England and who established the exchequer based on a check cloth that was used to count and calculate the sums –  a bit like an abacus –  that were payable to the king.

The abbey has remained open through the lockdowns and remains open throughout 2021 for visits every day, from dawn to dusk.

Part of the abbey, after the dissolution, became a girls’ boarding school and it was here, in 1785, that a 10-year old Jane Austen had part of her education.

Still later, the neighbouring former Victorian prison saw a famous prisoner, Oscar Wilde, who wrote De Profundis here and then later published a reminiscence of his time locked up, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Another famous member of the arts world, Banksy, has created an artwork on the walls of the former gaol.

Reading is a stop on England’s Great West Way, a new national tourism trail from London to Bristol and many other events like the annual WaterFest celebrations will take place throughout the year linked to both the abbey and the trail.

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