Published on May 29th, 2014 | by Niall Norbury1
6 more of Reading’s best hidden secrets
A few months ago we published an article highlighting six objects or places in Reading you may not know about. The response was overwhelming and we received many suggestions of other hidden gems found all over the town. We listened to your suggestions and went out to discover more fascinating places – so here are 6 more of Reading’s best hidden secrets…
Cold War Nuclear Bunker, University of Reading
Hidden in a corner of the University of Reading’s Whiteknights Campus is a relic from another time – a former Cold War nuclear bunker. Or, using its official designation, Region 6 War Room.
The bunker dates back to the early days of the Cold War, designed to co-ordinate civil defense in the event of an attack on the country using conventional bombs or atom bombs. In the event of war, it would have housed the Regional Commissioner and his staff who would directed the strategic response for Region 6. What is Region 6? Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and the Isle of Wight.
Following the development of the hydrogen bomb, the war room was no longer sufficient as a base following a nuclear attack and a better bunker was built elsewhere. Reading University moved in and used the bunker as a storage facility for the university’s library. There were plans to demolish it in 2007, but the building was later given Grade II listing status and is now protected.
Bernard Laurence Hieatt Memorial, Reading Old Cemetery
Deep inside Reading Old Cemetery is a very unique memorial: a tall sculpture of a man dressed in racing gear. On one side of the memorial is the engraving of a plane, on the other is a motorcycle. The memorial, which is Grade II listed, is to Bernard Laurence Hieatt.
Hieatt was a famous air pilot from Reading who became famous for his exploits in motorcycle racing. A true daredevil, he would fly his plane to racing venues and managed to hold several world records. Sadly, he encapsulated the phrase ‘live fast, die young’ after being killed during a race at Brooklands aged 21.
Reading’s Zombie Response Unit, Friars Walk
There is something slightly post-apocalyptic about Friars Walk. Whether it is the brutalist, crumbling architecture, abject lack of light or the shadow of a former bustling shopping centre now derelict, if there was anywhere in Reading that resembled the setting of a zombie movie it would be here. Fortunately, then Reading Council seem to be aware of this with their ‘zombie response’ unit monitoring the area.
Of course, the van does not refer to a real-life outbreak of the undead, but instead to Friar Walk Shopping Centre’s modern re-purposing as the site of a zombie survival game. On the weekends the empty corridors of the mall are filled with the groans and moans of the living dead. While not the most historical or long-standing hidden secret, the white, purple and yellow zombie response unit does liven up a dreary and run-down part of Reading.
Vachel Almshouses, Castle Street
Gated off on Castle Street are some of the most unique houses in Reading. This row of small, squat, yellow-doored yet incredibly charming homes are more commonly known as the Vachel Almshouses.
Almshouses are a form of charitable housing, built to enable people to live in a particular community, usually people who are unable to work to pay rent. The terrace of homes found on Castle Street are actually the second iteration of these almshouses, the originals built on St. Mary’s Butts in 1634. The name Vachel Almshouses, comes from the architect of the original homes, Thomas Vachel.
The Vachel Almshouses still serve as charitable housing today, providing accommodation for those over the age of 55. Normally shut off to the public, these almshouses are a true secret of Reading – with the opportunity to enter the terrace open only a few times a year.
Oscar Wilde Walk, Chestnut Walk
There are so many things in this walkway that could be considered hidden gems that we decided to include the whole walk. Commissioned in 1997 to acknowledge the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s release from Reading Gaol, everything in this walkway pays homage to the life, style and work of Wilde.
Between the Kennet and the Gaol, much of the walk symbolizes the conflict between imprisonment and freedom that characterised Wilde’s life. At the foot of the walk are towering gates in the figure of Wilde himself – they are designed to give the appearance of being shut, but in fact are permanently open. Similarly, the strange chairs in the walk, painted red to symbolise love, bring people together while keeping them apart.
The walk contains further allusions to Wilde’s internment at Reading Gaol. A bench halfway down the walk, mimics the kind of bench Wilde slept on in prison; while the words carved into the riverside fencing ‘Oh beautiful world!’, are the first words Wilde uttered upon leaving Reading Gaol.
St. Anne’s Well, Priest Hill
Tucked away in the suburbs of Caversham, near the top of Priest Hill, lies one of the most important mythological places in Reading, St. Anne’s Well.
The Holy Well of St Anne dates back to Medieval times: its mineral spring waters had a reputation for having healing properties which made it a popular destination for pilgrims. Over the centuries its popularity declined and for a long time the site of the well was thought to be lost.
But in 1906 it was rediscovered when some workman found it by chance. A memorial drinking foundation was built on its site which still remains to this day.
Photos courtesy of Simon Hyslop. Know another hidden secret? Email us with your suggestions.