175 Friar St – Past, Present and Future

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On Friday, I called into the exhibition showing new development proposals for 175 Friar Street – the former Bristol & West Arcade.  The developers appear to be trying to a new tactic of keeping expectations incredibly low.  The advert for the exhibition, which was shared on social media, was a grainy black and white image of their proposed Friar Street frontage, which people on reading-forum had assumed must be the building to be demolished!  Then they chose to host the event in Novotel.  If you’re thinking of hosting a gathering of people potentially concerned with the evolution of modern Reading then the ONE PLACE you don’t take them is Novotel.  The high-rise hotel, which has added some life to an area of no-man’s-land between the station and shopping area, did sadly herald the demolition of the art deco ABC cinema.  That frontage should have been retained, and Novotel’s upper floors constitute a grey lumpy box that can be seen from miles around.   When I entered the event, the bemused town planning consultant found herself listening to complaints about Novotel rather than her proposed scheme.  I appeared to have stumbled into a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous hosted in a local boozer – was this going to end well?

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Reading has certainly undergone a lot of changes over the years, with various sites redeveloped multiple times.  Having lived in York for a time, where nothing ever changes (quite understandably), there are great advantages to living in a place like Reading where we appear to have more flexibility for the town to change around us to respond to the needs of the time.  So I enter these events with interest and optimism about what might be coming next and what benefits it might bring.

By this point our consultant was busy re-selotaping her low budget paper print-outs to the wall as they kept falling down around her.  But whilst the exhibition might have been a bit of a shambles, the proposals were not the dreary edifice that had been advertised.  In fact, the narrow passageways and courtyard look like they could be a great asset to the town centre, even if they won’t quite be Reading’s answer to The Shambles.  Some modern extensions to the rear of historic buildings on Market Place will be demolished and the exteriors cleaned up.  This should create a quirky, higgledy-piggledy perimeter of chimney stacks and angled rooflines to surround the courtyard, although I do worry that the height of the block of flats might make it gloomier than these images imply.

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I’m no architecture expert; I’m some considerable distance from being qualified to use the “neo-” prefix correctly in a sentence.  One of the main talking points of the proposals is that the existing four-storey Georgian-like building will come down and make way for a different style.  It is apparently the council who were reticent to persist with a red brick frontage, instead encouraging the developer to adopt a more subtle colour scheme to blend with St Laurence’s Church.  Beige brickwork seems to be fashionable at the moment, replacing the trend for full-height glazed frontages – take this example in Slough.  But there is a sense they might not have the design quite right, perhaps failing to either blend in or strike out.

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The layout is different to the old Bristol & West Arcade.  To accommodate larger retail units, the pedestrian route through the site moves to the east, which means it no longer emerges in line with the back entrance to Sainsbury’s.  I understand that cutting through Sainsbury’s is a designated through-route, but it doesn’t really work.  To walk out of a supermarket empty-handed is socially impossible – you just know everyone suspects you’ve stolen something, or thinks you’re strange for having come just to browse.  It’s a shame the Sainsbury’s development didn’t have another bash at a viable arcade when it replaced the failed “Market Way”.  I asked whether there had been any investigation into re-providing a side entrance to M&S, which I’m convinced used to exist somewhere along there.  Our town planning consultant said she didn’t believe there had been any thought of that, and she hadn’t known of any previous link.

With this new proposed courtyard effectively cut-off from the main Broad Street shopping area, it’s hard to see major retailers showing interest, and the plots might be too big for independents (were any to materialise).  My suspicion is that the units are optimised to provide space for a kitchen and 60+ diners, to attract chain restaurant and coffee shop operators, which is clearly the booming sector right now.  One unit will be allocated for use as a pub, which should prove a popular move.

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Whilst the history of the 1950s-built Bristol & West Arcade is not particularly note-worthy, its predecessor has a significant and sad place in Reading’s story.  A restaurant called “The People’s Pantry” had been opened to help keep people fed in the midst of wartime rationing.  One winter Wednesday afternoon in 1943, a German bomber dropped four bombs on Reading – the only such attack to strike the town.  Two exploded further south in Broad St and Minster St, where half-day closing fortunately limited the casualties.  One bomb landed outside the Town Hall – Queen Victoria’s statue lost a finger.  But the worst casualties were at 175 Friar Street, where the bomb landed in the backyard of the restaurant, which is presumably the exact site of the proposed new courtyard.

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The interior of the building collapsed into the basement.  I can’t find exact details, but it sounds like the majority of the 41 deaths from the raid were from that third bomb at The People’s Pantry, which makes this site the tragic location of Reading’s most significant loss of life in modern times.   There’s a small plaque outside the Town Hall commemorating the raid, but I think there’s an opportunity to do something more within this modern redevelopment.  If nothing else, some information poster boards could be displayed in the covered walkway section leading into the courtyard, which could perhaps inherit a reference to its past by being named “The People’s Place”.

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The fine buildings in the photo became unsafe and had to be pulled down.  The site remained undeveloped until the 1950s when the current Bristol & West Arcade was built.  Incredibly, one of Reading’s most famous names, Paddington Bear creator Michael Bond was working within the building at the time of the raid.  He sadly died very recently, but he did recall his experiences in a video for Reading Museum:

A planning application for the latest chapter in the story of 175 Friar Street is likely to be submitted in the coming months for a four to nine storey development of 64 flats, a public courtyard, six shops or restaurants, and a pub.  I’ll post a link to it on this page once it’s available online.

Your comments are very welcome, and can be left below (without registration!).

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175 Friar St – Past, Present and Future

19 thoughts on “175 Friar St – Past, Present and Future

  1. Anonymous says:

    There was indeed a side access to Marks & Sparks. In fact I believe its closure was a major factor in the Bristol & West Arcade traders going out of business (that and rent increases) since it massively reduced footfall. But access to Marks & Spencer wouldn’t work now that the passage has moved. Did they explain exactly what they plan to do with the listed buildings facing onto the Butter Market? Presumably they are part of the ‘pubs and shops’ part of the plan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for confirming my memory! Very surprised they haven’t explored it. They could let a bordering unit to M&S for a cafe and side entrance. The footfall would boost the attractiveness of the other units too.
      The Market Place buildings will return to use as shops/cafes, and the pub. I presume the upper floors will be flats.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I can see no reason for demolishing the “mock Georgian” facade of the building in Friar Street (except that it’s easier !). It is not wonderful, perhaps, but with the facades above M&S and the Court Building it forms one of the better views in Friar Street.

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  3. Reading General says:

    Looking at the site plan above and the pictures it looks like the friar street frontage will be moved back in line with the building line of the neighbouring buildings. I guess this was moved back in the 50’s rebuild with later road widening in mind. This, i guess is the reason the mock georgian frontage will be demolished. There are other areas of friar street with a similar step back by the more modern post war buildings. One section of the previous market arcade frontage does remain to give an impression of what it looked like in the fourth photo down above the left hand side of the marks and spencer entrance. Matching this facade should really be what the developer is aiming for. Additionally, i think our town was bombed more than once in nuisance raids but this was the only one which caused a loss of life.

    Great blogging once again, cheers

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says:

    I went to the exhibition and submitted my comments, I thought red brick would look nicer, but as the article says, it was the council that didn’t want that! I also said the plans look too blocky, and too tall. They could make a much nicer job of it to fit in with the nearby historic buildings. The side entrance to M &S referred to in the article was actually closed off by the store way before the arcade closed as it was a shoplifters paradise with exits on all 4 sides.
    Steve Lewis

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  5. Anonymous says:

    “Reading General says:
    “Looking at the site plan above and the pictures it looks like the friar street frontage will be moved back in line with the building line of the neighbouring buildings.”………..Actually I believe the GROUND floor would still slope back, but the UPPER floors wouldn’t.

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  6. Michael Bond, who survived the 1943 air raid, was at the time working for the BBC as what was known as a YiT (Youth in Training). Along with so-called “Technical Assistants (Female)”, these young people often staffed the many low-powered BBC transmitters in various British towns and cities that made up the wartime “Group H” network.

    At the start of the war, the BBC Home Service was aired on mediumwave (AM) from just a few high-powered transmitting stations in the country, each one covering a large area. This was problematic. During an air raid such transmitters had to be switched off as the Luftwaffe approached, to prevent the bombers using the BBC signal as a navigation beacon. Listeners would still be able to hear the Home Service (albeit more faintly) from a more distant BBC transmitter, but if the air raid was extensive these would also eventually shut down in turn as the enemy aircraft drew near, potentially leaving all the transmitters in the network off the air at once.

    The solution was to build a separate network of low-powered transmitters. Because of their low power each of them would only act as a reliable radio beacon when aircraft were close by, meaning that during an air raid they could stay on the air for longer. But because of their low power they had to be sited in or very close to the towns they served (unlike their high-power sisters, which were generally in open sites in rural areas).

    A total of 61 of these Group H transmitters were established across the country. Most used existing buildings. Because they were in urban areas a number of them suffered air-raid damage.

    Reading’s Group H transmitter in Friar Street went on the air in May 1941. The excellent book “BBC Engineering 1922-1972” – which notes that it was installed in “Restaurant Buildings” – describes the air raid as follows:

    “On 10 February 1942 the Reading Group H transmitter was destroyed during a night raid, but fortunately the staff had sought shelter and were uninjured. A temporary service was restored during the evening of the following day, using a mobile transmitter. A new site was found near Reading where a replacement transmitter was installed in a large gazebo in the grounds of Sutton’s Seeds Ltd and took over the service on 22 February 1943.”

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  7. SG says:

    The closure of the side entrance to M&S lead to a legal case when M&S were sued by Bristol and West in an attempt to keep the entrance open. It ended up being quite an important legal precedent on a point of principle and is in a fair number of law text books, though I don’t think the judgment is freely available online. The judgment says that the entrance was closed in 1990, and (from the judgment):

    “There was an immediate and vigorous protest from the other shopkeepers in the arcade. To them the presence of Marks & Spencer and the presence of the entrance to Marks & Spencer was an important matter in keeping up the flow of traffic past their shops. The closed doors simply added to the existing gloom. I should add that a large shop, not itself forming part of the arcade but closely abutting it, which had been occupied by Next, is now also closed and dark. The shopkeepers in the arcade made their protests to the landlords and, as a result, the landlords examined the lease to see what could be done about the position.”

    News to me that Next used to be around there.

    Liked by 1 person

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