This week I attended a consultation event for a new development proposal beside the Thames in Reading. With the Environment Agency also currently seeking feedback on their own significant scheme for flood defences in the town, which incredibly include a whole new section of river, it seems like a good time to review both projects, as well as revisit why I write Reading-on-Thames in the first place.
Dara O’Brien, Griff Rhys-Jones and Rory McGrath are messing about on the river, recreating Jerome K Jerome’s 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat. I’ve managed to dig up the TV show on YouTube, even though it’s from back in 2010. Of course, as they paddle their skiff into Reading’s stretch of the Thames the jokes start coming [4:10 in clip], echoing a typical media depiction of the town. In fairness, they largely quote from Jerome: “The river is dirty and dismal here. One does not linger in the neighbourhood of Reading.” Why is it that we’ve somehow failed to capture either the charm of the smaller towns on the river, nor the waterside architecture or cultural credentials of the capital? The second city [sic] of the Thames: we underplay our hand, and I’d like to encourage us to push the boat out.
Another aim of the blog is to encourage greater provision of leisure facilities for the town. The river provides an interesting setting to research a little history in this area. The site of the apartment scheme unveiled this week was intriguingly marked on old maps as a skating rink (we presume roller skating), although even the various retro Reading Facebook communities fail to reveal any memories of it. They do, however, recall a riverside bowling centre, The Excel, with an upstairs “River Room” club and restaurant. Thamesside Promenade boasted a model railway and a paddling pool, Christchurch meadow a putting green, and View Island, in the distant past, a hotel and tennis courts. Whilst these venues never all co-existed, and individually may have had their day, I think it’s fair to say that the role of the river is at a relatively low point in terms of leisure provision, despite the recent success of the Lido restoration.
A few year’s ago, there were proposals for a cafe, mini golf and boat hire facility on Christchurch Meadow. The ideas spawned a “Save Christchurch Meadow” alliance of near-neighbours and environmentalists. In truth, the concept had also included an unsightly metal high-ropes climbing attraction that would indeed have scarred the setting, yet the baby joined the bath water, chucked in the river and sunk ever since. We need to be a bit braver here. Henley have managed at least an ice cream kiosk without alerting UNESCO. We can show more pragmatism and provide some low-key facilities for a summer Sunday afternoon stroll by the meadow or along Thamesside Promenade. Is it even a promenade, he muses philosophically, if nobody’s walking along it?
The Henley reference is perhaps unfortunate. Whilst so many of you have kindly commented, complimented and constructively critiqued my blogs, a few seem to have interpreted Reading-on-Thames as a gentrified campaign to purge us of poor people and non-rowers. This is of course not my intention. Rugby types can stay too. Seriously, I think you can share ideas and campaign for improvements to benefit the whole community. What I would dearly like to see is a slightly more positive approach to changes in the town. I’d love to replace “No. Never” with “Yes, if…”
This week’s proposal from Berkeley for 200+ apartments on the old SSE site on Vastern Road is worthy of a big “Yes, if…”. The exhibition was very well attended and their representatives explained the consultations and revisions that have already taken place. The scheme provides a dedicated pedestrian and cycle link from the station through to the river and Christchurch bridge. The architecture has been revised from a modern glass-fronted design to a more “wharf-style” industrial yet contemporary look. Heights have been reduced, and some mews houses are included to blend into the adjacent terraced streets. However, there’s a huge disappointment: absolutely nothing to address the points I raise in this article regarding making the most of the Thames. Their own consultation website includes reference images of their project in Fulham, with a riverside dotted with tables and parasols, with cafes or restaurants behind. In Reading we have only homes. Berkeley, it’s a “yes, if…” you make some space in your scheme for places for us to stop and enjoy the setting. I know sunlight and access pose problems, but I firmly believe you can craft out a sunny riverside corner for a restaurant, and maybe a cafe and a kiosk as well. Give the place some personality. Make it somewhere we might take visitors to the town. I’m not saying bright lights and late night bars of the Oracle, or anything to compete with Caversham centre, just a couple of venues to support a steady flow of Caversham commuters, passers by and residents of the rapidly growing town centre community.
At the same time, we find some new detail emerging on plans to address flooding around the Thames. The Environment Agency has finally worked down its list of priorities following 1947 and come up with a major scheme to alleviate flood risk in Lower Caversham. I can say personally that I decided against buying my first home in the affected area due to flood risk, so to me, in a world of fluctuating climate, it’s surely great news that the government is wading in with a proper solution.
Apparently, though, I’m missing something. A campaign website has sprung up already. They’ve done that really annoying thing where they draft the angry letter of complaint on your behalf so that you can direct your ire at the authorities in the fewest number of clicks possible. They challenge the need for the scheme altogether, and criticise major elements of the design. But really it’s a “No. Never” campaign.
The scheme will have a big impact. We all know about the constraint that Reading’s bridges place on the road network, yet they actually have a similar limiting effect on the flow of water. Central to the design is a new “channel” to increase river capacity flowing through Reading bridge during floods, as an alternative to it backing up through built up areas. I would term this channel a new branch of the river, with footbridges either end to maintain access to Christchurch and Hills Meadows. New grassy embankments will alter the scenery, with a new path running along the top.
My reaction to the new river would be “yes, if” you relocate any play equipment. Yes, if you ensure the new footbridges have an attractive design. Yes, if you make sure the new “channel” becomes an asset in its own right – with nice planting, not concrete sides, maybe use it for little children’s boats for hire? Yes, if you make sure the new island created by it remains a pleasant place, maybe re-instate the putting green?! On the embankment, yes, if there’s still space for the major events like the beer festival over the summer. Yes, if you get rid of the crazy kink around the tired old pavilion and instead build a new one on the meadow side of a straight embankment. And maybe that could even house the public toilets that now seem under threat all along the river… and maybe even a cafe too?!
Of course, it’s a difficult balance. We want a riverside that’s a haven for wildlife – maybe View Island is the main place for that. We want a pleasant and quiet community facility to walk the dog and get a moment’s peace. We want sports provision. But we also want our riverside to be a well used leisure destination for Reading people and even the odd visitor, including any future Jerome K Jerome disciples. Do I think such commentators might one day be more complimentary? Resoundingly Yes… If you want them to.Follow @readingonthames
Your comments, as always very welcome – registration not required…