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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.Follow @readingonthames
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