1) The Lower Ship, Duke Street
Any list of misused buildings in Reading has to start with The Lower Ship on Duke Street – a pub/hotel that’s been boarded up since the late eighties when it was sold to Yorkshire Brewery Samuel Smith’s. I phoned Samuel Smith’s to ask them if they had any plans to re-open the pub. They confirmed they still own the property and would like to re-open it, but said it was all a “question of priorities”. Now, I know we all have to-do lists, and sometimes there are those annoying tasks you just keep putting off, but THIRTY YEARS! I find it incredible that a commercial organisation would retain a building in such a great location unused for that length of time, and almost equally incredible that the council seems powerless to wrestle it off them. I really hope Sam Smith’s can be persuaded to re-open or sell up, because what should be a bustling riverside pub has been a blight on its area for far too long.
2) One Friar Street
When you think of long-running, historic Reading businesses, you would immediately think of Huntley & Palmer. But the global biscuit empire came and crumbled in a flash compared with Reading’s old surviving business. 285-year-old law firm Blandy & Blandy has out-lasted them all, even if it hasn’t quite conquered the world (although, in fairness they have opened an office in Henley). Their home since 1798 has been number one Friar Street.
Unlike the Lower Ship, this attractive building (and its predecessors on the same site) have been in constant use. My issue here is that Town Hall Square is such a missed opportunity. It’s flanked by the Town Hall and St Laurence’s Church, and it’s traffic-free with mature trees. Yet somehow, to a pedestrian, it makes you want to scurry through as quickly as possible. There’s the back entrance to M&S, which for some reason they insist on making look as much like the back entrance as possible – why can’t they allow us to see aisles of fresh food through the windows rather than covering them with a giant picture of fresh food? And there’s the defunct Bristol & West arcade, now thankfully poised for redevelopment, as I’ve covered previously.
But for Town Hall Square to achieve its potential, it needs to tell us it’s a place to slow down, to sit and to enjoy. One Friar St could make an ideal cafe or tea room – tables spilling out into the square. With Market Place currently enjoying a new lease of life, and the proposed courtyard behind its listed buildings, this could be a really nice network of public spaces. If Blandy’s cares about Reading then I hope they’ll do the right thing and vacate the ground floor of their offices. If they were building it now they’d be compelled to provide an “active frontage” at ground floor level – to dabble in the jargon. Yet I guess possession is nine-tenths and all that.
3. The Oracle, Bridge Street
The Oracle might be grumpy with me right now, after my little bit of fun making a Downfall parody to speculate on their reaction to Bracknell’s new shopping centre. After two years of making positive, if slightly boring constructive suggestions on this blog, I poke a bit of fun just one time and it goes viral. Anyway, if you didn’t see it then you can take a look below, assuming wordpress lets you view my Facebook page (which you could ‘like’… if you’d like…)
Let me try to redeem myself. If you accept that you need a chain shopping mall, which I think you have to, then you probably also need to accept that the Oracle has been pretty well run. Over the years it has allowed the successful stores to expand into adjacent units to create larger ‘regional’ flagships that enable it to comfortably see off these recent pretenders from pesky neighbours. They’ve really matured the riverside well too, phasing out the bar-centric venues in favour of a wider variety of restaurants providing all-age appeal. And I’m reliably informed they even have a secret masterplan for the seemingly struggling eastern end of the mall.
Yet I do have one small suggestion. Looking behind the purple water jets, which were a fabulous temporary spectacle to launch the riverside revamp, you see the only part of the Oracle to show its age. The bizarre giant windows with their swirly patterns and concentric circles. It looks like the packaging from a kid’s geometry set from the 80’s. What does it mean? “We sell protractors and spirographs here”??? Well, I can tell you that you can’t buy a protractor in the Oracle – you’d need to head out to Ryman or WH Smith. And to pick up a spirograph you’d need to venture a little further… like 1986. At least you could call in for a drink at the Lower Ship when you’re there.
This is allowed to be the unashamedly modern part of town. Why not go big? Stick some huge video screens up, and either trail what’s going on at The Oracle or just go all Piccadilly Circus or Times Square on us. If that’s too brash for you then it could show gentler moving images – scenes from the Thames or Kennet, work by local artists, upcoming events in town, or dare I say it – tourist information! Either way, assuming they’ve not lost the keys, after 20 years they really need to change the windows.
4. The Telephone Exchange, Minster Street
This anonymous, yet grade II listed building is the Reading central telephone exchange. It’s adjoined to the left and behind by modern extensions making up a vast site. The majority of visiting shoppers to Reading heading around the main circuit of the Oracle, Broad St, Chain St or John Lewis, and back into the Oracle are completely unaware that they’ve basically just completed a lap around the telephone exchange. I’m told these things are expensive and risky to move, but I’ve also heard the building is now largely unused and plays second fiddle to the exchange on Basingstoke Road. The land would be worth a fortune, as housing, or maybe even a leisure-based extension to the Oracle. I’m sure a relocation of the exchange has been considered at length before, but with rapidly evolving technology I still think it’s worth getting hung up over so that we might at some point make more appropriate use of this highly accessible central site.
5. Reading Gaol
The Gaol is Reading’s biggest opportunity in recent years. With the Abbey Ruins reopened and the prison boundary wall removed, this could become Reading’s must-visit cultural centre – our “old town”. A theatre, galleries, cafes, shops (small independents), a hotel… all possible. Yet the initial proposal was for purely housing as part of a government soundbite to replace Dickensian jails with much needed homes. It’s an understandable aim, but for Reading the Gaol must be so much more. We’re building the homes at Homebase instead (or even at the Telephone Exchange). Here is the chance to define a thriving historic core to what really is one of Britain’s forgotten ancient towns. Sadly, it emerged this week that the issue of selling the prison “didn’t cross the desk” of the previous justice secretary. Not those ‘priorities’ again. The building is clearly going to be very complex and expensive to re-invent – it should just be given to the council, for whom it would be a top priority. As long as it sits empty, the Gaol is undoubtedly Reading’s most misused building.
What do you think? Anywhere you’d add to the list? Your thoughts, as always, are very welcome and can be left without registering… Thanks for reading.Follow @readingonthames