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A Tour of the Ruins of  Reading Abbey 

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Tour of the Ruins (the numbers in the brackets refer to the plan at the bottom of this screen)

from 'A Guide to Reading Abbey' by Brian Kemp and Cecil Slade

Most of the surviving ruins consist of walls of flint in mortar. These are not now as the monks saw them, for, except in the domestic buildings, the flint in mortar is the core of the walls, both sides of which would have been faced with finely-cut white stone, which has since been robbed away. A glance at the plan will show the visitor how little of the abbey is still visible, but earlier surveys and modern excavation have, at least in part, allowed the plan to be established. Even in their present state, however, the ruins of this major abbey are very impressive. The visitor looking north over the Forbury Gardens will have the former outer court of the abbey in front and the Inner Gateway (1) behind. This gateway divided the public from the private areas of the monastery, and was much rebuilt in the nineteenth century after long decay and finally a violent storm. The southernmost path in the Forbury Gardens, to the east of the gateway, crossing the site of the former west front of the abbey church, and passing the cross erected this century in memory of Henry 1, leads to the first visible remains of the church. They lie just beyond the footbridge, which was made in the nineteenth century of re-used abbey material including some carved stones, and consist of the base of one of the great pillars of the central tower and a rubble mass (2), which may originally have formed the back of the choir stalls on this side. A little to the east is the base of one of the pillars of the choir arcade (3). Both pillar bases retain some of their original stone. No more of the central part of the church survives above ground, but excavation has taken place at its eastern end, which now lies within Reading Gaol. Opposite the central pillar base is the entrance (4) from the east wall of the cloisters into the south nave aisle of the church. A few paces forward brings the visitor into the South Transept (5) with its two east chapels. That nearer the choir is larger than the other (and also larger than those in the North Transept) and it has been suggested that this chapel was devoted to the commemoration of the founder, Henry 1, who was buried before the High Altar, a little to the north, where the school now stands. Next to the other chapel were stairs running up to the Strong- Room or Treasury (6), and traces of the stairs are still just discernible in the southernmost piece of masonry. Immediately to the south of the Transept and beneath the Treasury was a narrow vaulted room (7), very little of which survives but which may have served as a Vestry. The walls in this area of the ruins show clearly how the original facing stone was cut away after the abbey's dissolution, although a little stone remains low down on the west wall of the transept, which also preserves the outlines of large shallow recesses on this side. The south wall of the vaulted room and Treasury forms the north wall of the Chapter House(8), where the rnonks' daily assembly was held. This is one of the largest and most imposing chapter houses of its date in England, and survives almost to the full height of its walls. 

Originally it could only be entered at its west end, from the east walk of the cloisters, the entrance through the apse in its eastern end having been made since the abbey's dissolution. Here again there is evidence of the robbing away of the facing stone, although small portions still remain in places. Only the rough base of the seats which formerly ran along the walls survives, but substantial traces of the springing-line for the vaulted roof are visible about 20 feet above the existing ground level, which is probably about 3 feet above the original floor. The tablets on the walls are of the twentieth century. The two in the apse commemorate the first and last abbots, while that on the north wall is a large facsimile of the manuscript of'Sumer is icumen in', which is now in the British Library. A Passage or Slype (9), with remains of blind arcading on one side, separates the Chapter House from the ground floor of the range of domestic buildings to the south. The upper floor here was occupied by the monks' Dormitory (10), access to which was by stairs which partially remain in the west wall. On the ground floor were probably the Parlour and Warming Room (11), although almost no trace of these can now be seen. Only the foundations of the east wall of this range remain, below the turf, except for stumps of walling at each end, and the ground level has been much built up, giving a false impression of the original height of the building. Immediately beyond the impressive south wall of the Dormitory was the Necessarium (12), which contained the latrines and which partially survives in a much altered state. Water was taken to it from Holy Brook (13) and discharged into the Kennet. Passing round to the outer south-west corner of the Necessariurn, the visitor looking north will see part of the ruined south wall of the Refectory (14). 

The other visible features of the abbey are all on the periphery of the site. Across Abbey Street and on Holy Brook are the surviving arches of the Abbey Mill (15). To the north lies St Laurence's Church (16), one of Reading's medieval parish churches, which began life as a chapel by the main gate of the abbey and was used by the occupants of the Hospitium of St John the Baptist (17). The surviving part of this, a rebuilding of the late fifteenth century, can be seen from the churchyard. The probable line of the Outer Wall (18) of the abbey precinct on the north is marked by the central feature of the Inner Distribution Road, and there are remains of the North Transept in the grounds of St James's Church, including a couple of massive blocks of masonry (19) sticking out of the ground at an angle, probably the result of a mine exploded under the abbey church in the Civil Wars. 

Sponsored by TP Bennett Partnership, Architect for the Abbey Gardens MEPC development which is adjacent to the Abbey Ruins. 

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