In a departure from suggesting huge infrastructure projects and expensive leisure facilities, in this post I call out a few more modest ideas to improve the image of Reading.
1 More than a “Town Centre”
Local opinion is divided on the long-standing issue of town vs city. For some, we’re a fully fledged city, regardless of the technicality that we’re still a town. For others, the thought of becoming a city is quite repulsive – either because wanting ‘promotion’ to a city incorrectly implies some sort of dissatisfaction with our current status; or because everything should be preserved just as it was in 1960; or because having embarrassingly failed in city bids to the likes of Sunderland and Chelmsford, “we didn’t want it anyway”. I have some sympathy with the latter – perhaps city status isn’t as much of an accolade anymore, especially now they award it to somewhere in Wales every cycle despite nearly running out of villages to upgrade – St Asaph?!.
Nevertheless, the label “Reading Town Centre” just doesn’t sound that inspiring. It’s a bit too much like “Hungerford Town Centre”. So if we’re not to have a “City Centre”, is there another terminology trick we could pull? I’d argue that there is.
The RG postcode stretches from Basingstoke in the South, to Bracknell in the East, and Newbury in the West. In this view of the world, Reading Town Centre has unique status: RG1 – number 1 – as in the best. Hungerford only has RG17 – the seventeenth best place in the area. (Tilehurst, I’m considering you guys as RG3 rather than RG30 – we all know you’re one better than Caversham, rest assured).
I think we could give a little more prominence to our RG1 label – any association with the nineties namesake nightclub is fast fading now that some 15 years have passed since its demolition. Take a look at how the Light Up Reading event (which was excellent by the way) was publicised,
“Light Up Reading will be the culmination of 12 months of Reading Year of Culture as we create a unique trail of illuminations around Reading town centre.”
That could easily become, “Light Up Reading will be the culmination of 12 months of Reading’s Year of Culture as we create a unique trail of illuminations across RG1.”
I believe this shorthand, as an additional alternative term for Reading Town Centre, would catch on, particularly among local radio, print and online journalists who can always use a synonym. I’d upgrade the street name signs too, funded by RG1’s businesses. I would also suggest replacing the council logo on these signs with the existing Business Improvement District’s logo. After all, the maroon Hexagon symbolises the council, not the town, and even then the theatre we can’t afford to replace hardly provides the most inspiring of icons. Here’s my before and after:
Perhaps slightly too London evocative, but you get the idea: a little more self-confidence. As Reading’s noisy neighbours invest heavily in their rival shopping centres, we need to broaden our appeal to bring in visitors and custom from the RG hinterlands, and remind everyone what the Rome of their empire has to offer.
We are just crying out for some fountains in Reading. In fact, any more crying and we could solve the problem right away. Yes, there’s the little pond and ornamental fountain in Forbury Gardens, but we need something kids can splash about in during the summer months. I don’t mean a full-on chlorinated splash park, just knee-high synchronised dancing jets, like Granary Square at Kings Cross, or this one in Manchester.
Forbury Square could fit the bill – take out those raised grass areas that nobody uses and you’d have the space. Somewhere within the Station Hill development might also work, although that scheme continues to struggle to get off the ground (even knee-high). The instragram generation are constantly sharing images, normally selfies, and unwittingly defining perceptions of our towns and cities in the process. I think some public fountains would be Reading’s photogenic opportunity to make our young people briefly pause their scrolling down to say “ooh, that’s cool – where’s that?”.
We’re blessed with two rivers meandering their way through the town, but it would be great to see more activity on the water. We do have a steady flow of boats passing by, particularly through the summer, and there are specific regattas, Dragon Boat races and now plans for a “Reading-on-Thames” festival. Needless to say, I approve of the name (although it was nothing to do with me). There were some negative comments on getreading arguing the label implied “gentrification”. The reason I chose the name for my blog was emphatically not about trying to sound “posh like Henley-on-Thames”. It was about drawing attention to our position on a world-famous river, and what an underused asset it is. I presume this festival’s organisers would concur.
The thing about the river is that everyone using it is doing so purely for recreation. It’s not work, it’s play. Reading is undoubtedly great at work – functional, practical, clearly successful at attracting business. But towns and cities often earn their positive image through being a great place to play.
Messing about on the river certainly shouldn’t be the preserve of the gentry. I don’t understand why our stretch of the Thames isn’t full of families in hired rowing boats on a hot summer’s day, paying just a few pounds for the privilege. There is boat hire available, but for some reason it just isn’t really happening.
Whilst Henley might have the boat thing sewn up at present, I believe there’s room for Reading to offer a distinctive more casual alternative. Could we redefine the Thames Skiff and make it our answer to the Oxford Punt? Or would the pedalo be more our medium?
The Kennet could up its game too. Waterfest has become a successful fixture on Reading’s calendar. They run half-hourly narrow boat trips on the canal on a circular route using the two branches of the Kennet . The boat apparently then bases itself at Newbury for regular scheduled trips through the summer. Surely a short extension to the Waterfest route to begin and end at the Oracle Riverside would be very attractive as a more permanent feature, particularly in school holidays. It could retain the stop by the Abbey Ruins as hop-on-hop-off, and when the renovation work is complete that could be a great way to make an afternoon of a trip to the Abbey. Some cafes and leisure/cultural activities at the prison redevelopment would only further help viability and really knit together the historic and shopping areas of the town.
Reading has a number of statues, most famously the Forbury (or Maiwand) lion. But the most prominent people are the statues of Victoria and Edward VII dutifully positioned outside the Town Hall and station respectively. I think we should be celebrating more local contributions. I was wondering whether there might be a case for relocating the George Palmer statue from Palmer Park to a more central location. So you can imagine my surprise when searching for a good image to use in this article that the first to come up showed it standing proudly right in the middle of Broad Street.
It turns out that having occupied this pitch from 1891, George was beginning to cause inconvenience to the growing volumes of traffic building through the 1920’s. So in 1930 he was moved to his present location in Palmer Park to free up more road space. Broad Street was fully pedestrianised in 1995. In my opinion, Reading has simply forgotten to put George back on his prominent plot overlooking our main shopping street.
There are a number of reasons why George Palmer is important. Firstly, he lived (almost) all his life in Reading. Secondly, he was a phenomenally successfully industrialist giving Reading its identity and building one of the first global brands, showing us that you can make it big from Reading. And thirdly, rather than buying yachts and fancy houses all over the world, Palmer shared his fortune with the town that helped him make it, by donating Palmer Park and King’s Meadow for recreation, and funding schools and the university. Surely this is a story that should be inspiring the next generation of children in Reading?
Clearly Palmer Park is not an inappropriate place for this statue, but I feel that he clearly loved Reading and should be brought home to his original prominent location to maximise his legacy to the town. So I’ve started a petition to bring the George Palmer statue back to Broad Street, in the heart of RG1. Perhaps you’d like to sign… click here
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