The Holy Brook, one of Reading’s most fascinating features, is a loop off the Kennet that runs from Theale, through central Reading into the Abbey Backwater near the ruins and the prison. Possibly man-made in places, the brook meanders serenely through the town centre, making appearances here and there, whilst disappearing beneath buildings for much of its journey. One intrepid schoolmate of mine claimed to have canoed the full length, much of it bent double in darkness under those long enclosed sections. That sounds a bit frightening to me, but such a mission is slowly becoming easier.
This month the latest refinements to plans for a development on Gun Street have been submitted. The property is next door to the Purple Turtle bar and under the same ownership. The proposal is to excavate a basement behind the building which will be accessed from the adjacent nightspot for use as a live music venue. Then a two-storey extension will be built above the new basement, joined to the main building to function as a cafe/restaurant-cum-arts centre. It will have a garden, including a section of the Holy Brook that will be uncovered. Across the brook will be a micro-brewery to supply ale to the Purple Turtle, which has already made a great feature of its stretch of the brook in its recently renovated gardens and decking area.
It’s an imaginative and highly welcome scheme – bringing a building back into use, supporting the arts, enhancing the offer of the already much-improved Purple Turtle, and making a feature of a hither-to hidden section of the Holy Brook. The owners are clearly aware that a position on one of Reading many waterways is a great asset. It’s more than the relaxing sound of water flowing by, it’s a defining feature that distinguishes one place from another. Buildings come and go, but the waterways provide a more permanent geography and context to the activity around them.
I would argue the Oracle’s success, certainly in relation to imitations in Basingstoke and High Wycombe, is down to the riverside part of the development, which allegedly include some of the most expensive restaurant rents outside London. The Oracle also uncovered a section of the Holy Brook. However, its biggest mistake was then to do precisely nothing with it other than provide a glorified smoking shelter for shop workers.
Last year, proving my point somewhat, the Oracle shoe-horned a new two-storey restaurant onto its Holy Brook entrance to house Cau, an Argentinian steakhouse. They’ve just about made it fit, and chairs and tables finally spill out to provide waterside eating besides the Holy Brook. Had the Oracle’s planners, some 20 years ago now, set back the huge blank walls of the wall only another few metres, and the same with the shops and flats on the north side, you could have had a whole stretch of half-a-dozen cafes and restaurants lining the brook until it disappears under the Telephone Exchange. And given the runaway success of the Kennetside, it’s hard to argue that those wouldn’t have enjoyed similar patronage.
Further east, the Holy Brook reappears and passes “The Blade”. I preferred “Abbey Mill House”, which was the office building’s working title during planning – a reference to the site’s one-time use as a mill, of which only a brick archway survives. A ground floor restaurant unit built as part of the Blade development has surprisingly stood empty ever since. It’s now being marketed with the sad possibility of conversion to office space.
Restaurants and cafes, it seems, like to cluster together. Whether it be The Oracle, Gun Street, St Mary’s Butts… they seem to feed off one another, if you pardon the pun. It’s particularly unfortunate, therefore, that just across the brook from the Blade and its empty restaurant, is a wasted stretch of the Holy Brook. The office building that once housed tenants including ICL and the Rural Payments Agency, uses a considerable flat area adjacent to the brook as its car park. The office block is currently being refurbished to be relaunched as The White Building. But sadly the imagination of its website is not matched by the development itself. A huge opportunity is being missed to provide a waterside eatery. Accessible on foot from refurbished pathways and a footbridge over the brook, a small development here would enhance the appeal of the White Building, require the loss of merely a dozen parking spaces, and provide the critical mass to underpin a restaurant tenant in the vacant unit by the Blade. Alas, the chance to bring some life to this stretch of the Holy Brook seems destined to be missed, for the time being at least.
I would propose, therefore, once developed, we all make our way to the Purple Turtle, and drink as much on-site-brewed ale as we can. Then we hope the owners make enough money to continue their single-handed quest to bring to the Holy Brook the attention, activity and colour it deserves. It seems only they know how.