Monthly Archives: January 2015

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”


The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”

Jerome K. Jerome was not very fond of the beautiful town of Reading. Maybe it was a little bit like that one hundred years ago, because, in those days the town was famous for its brothels and it’s prison, where Oscar Wilde the writer served time after being convicted of homosexuality. However, Jerome did write a bit about the history of Reading in his novel “Three men in a boat”, although I think that had he written about it today he would have described Reading as a modern and attractive town.


The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”Best to begin acquainting ourselves with the history of Reading starting with Forbury Park. There you will find the Maiwand Lion, a The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”huge cast iron statue on a plinth, sometimes used as the unofficial symbol of the town, it commemorates British officers who died in the Battle of Maiwand in 1880 during the Afghan wars. This huge lion cast over a hundred years ago, still remains the largest cast iron lion in the world. Referring to the literary history of Reading, it should be noted that the character of Dr. Watson in the novels by Arthur Conan Doyle was based on the regiment’s Medical officer who was injured during this war, so Reading’s Lion is indirectly linked to the stories of Sherlock Holmes.

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”Forbury Park was laid out in 1855 on land adjacent to an Abbey, founded by King Henry I in 1121. The Abbey was built during the civil The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”war between Henry the first’s daughter Matilda and her cousin King Stephen. The mote and bailey castle was also built during this period but was later destroyed during the civil wars for the throne of England. The Reading Abbey as it was known, was the richest and most powerful in England for 400 years and in the middle Ages it was a pilgrimage center, as it held over 200 relics of saints.

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”

Henry the first was buried in a silver coffin in the church of St. Lawrence situated in the town center next to the town hall but The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, was hanged in front of the Church and the Abbey was destroyed, Henry the first’s tomb was broken up and now only a plaque recalls the alleged burial place.


The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”After 1539 three successive monarchs used the Abbot’s House when it became the Royal palace. Later the Abbey School was founded in The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”the building, which was attended by none other than Jane Austin, adding to the literary connections of Reading. To this day some ruins have survived of the ancient Abbey walls and of other buildings, like the Abbey’s Inner Gateway and the dormitory of the pilgrim’s guesthouse of St. John the Baptist.

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”

The Museum of Reading located in the Town Hall opened in 1883 and is next to Forbury Park. It contains many historical artifacts. There The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”you will find the only UK replica of the XI century Bayeux Tapestry, made in 1885, this is embroidered on linen and is 68 meters long, showing the history of the Norman conquest. There are also some galleries relating to the history of Reading and the ancient Roman town of Calleva which is 12 miles out of Reading.

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”From Forbury Park we can see a skyscraper, the town’s tallest building in 2014, named “The Blade” it stands some 128 meters high The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”and is a modern business center. Reading is the first big town after London when heading west on the M4, the so-called “Silicon corridor” linking the capital with the port of Bristol. Many world famous international companies have their offices in Reading. But in the 19th century, the town was famous for Three Bs (beer, light bulbs and biscuits).

Biscuits were produced in Reading under the brand name of  “Huntley and Palmer” after the founders of the factory, it also became a commercial symbol for the British Empire, same as Coca-Cola was for the United States. In 1822 Joseph Huntley started selling his biscuits to travelers on the main coaching routes from London to the West Country. The biscuits were sold in beautifully decorated and collectable biscuit tins, which proved a powerful marketing tool. “Huntley and Palmer” one of the world’s first global brands is easily recognizable today after almost 200 years.

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”

From Forbury Park if you proceed to Broad Street, you will find a lotThe town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull” of old buildings, some of them dating back over 400 years. There are some 800 historic houses in the town. The most modern building on this street is the “The Oracle” shopping center, opened in the year 2000 on the site of the 17th century Oracle workhouse, which was established for the poor by John Kendrick a benefactor in 1624.

Turning off Broad Street unto St. Mary Butts, we find the market square, where the Church of St. Mary is situated built in the 7th century AD. The history of Reading has been known since the Norman Conquests but the church was built much earlier and is one of the oldest buildings in Reading. At one time the church was a Saxon abbey, which matches the name of Minster Street situated next door. In 979, Queen Elfthryth founded a royal nunnery on this site in repentance for the murder of her stepson King Edward the Martyr and in 1016 the Danes destroyed the church which has since been rebuilt and restored many times.

The town Jerome K. Jerome called “dirty and dull”The name of the town has in fact two possible origins; one of them is from Readingas, an Anglo-Saxon tribe whose name means Reada’s People in old English.  But according to another version, the name comes from the Celtic “Rhydd-Inge”, meaning Ford over the River. Both versions have merit and can be justified by various historical events. It is not known exactly when the first settlements were founded in Reading but in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles there is evidence of an army of Danes setting up camp at Reading, at the confluence of the rivers Thames and Kennet. After their cold winters, these wild pagan tribes who inhabited what is now Denmark and Norway, sent their ships down the channel looking for lands to conquer.

The Danes conquered Northern and Eastern England except Reading, which was one of the northernest towns of the West Saxon Kingdom of Wessex whose capital was Winchester. In 871 the first battle between the Danes and the army of Alfred the Great, took place in a place called Englefield, which is a few miles west of Reading. In Winchester where King Alfred was buried, a statue was erected with him holding a sword and a cross, symbolizing defender of his people and his faith.

In the 18th century a grand Elizabethan house was built at Englefield, representing the aristocratic background of Reading, other mansions around this area are, Basildon house, which I wrote about earlier, and Mapledurham on the banks of the River Thames. Some of the most beautiful nature reserves are located in this part of the Thames valley. I shall continue with stories about these places, described in the novel by Jerome K. Jerome.

Russian version

Main page

Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”


Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”Two ancient villages in South Oxfordshire known as Brightwell and Sotwell were combined as one in 1948 and are now called Brightwell cum Sotwell. This is now one village lays just off the A4130 a couple of miles west of the historic town of Wallingford. It has lots of orchards, four churches, (the one in Sotwell is St James) and many white washed thatched cottages as well as some ancient brick buildings dating back to the 1600’s and earlier. It is also the home of the much-celebrated Bach flower remedies situated on Mount Vernon.

The land around this place has a special greensand soil and has been a farming area for many Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”centuries, these villages also grew a gigantic variety of apples in their many orchards, unfortunately, a lot of these varieties are no longer available to the general public but a few people in the village have recently bought a large plot of land and will be growing these wonderful rare apples once again.

Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”On the 4rth of January 2015, I happen to pass the Red Lion a CAMRA award-winning pub in the village of Sotwell. Stopping for some refreshment, I spotted a notice announcing some form of celebration later that day. I understood from some of the locals that it was an ancient pagan ritual where people go around villages waking up the trees for the start of the New Year. Apparently, this was only performed in this village once before in 2014 and was a great success.

Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”At 3.30 pm a band of musicians accompanied by several members of a dance troupe known as the Armaleggan Border Morris dancers, gathered at the war memorial in the centre of Sotwell, as lots of people from the village and other areas arrived, I noticed that most of the children were carrying three foot long sticks to beat the trees, they now all formed a procession and a long column walked to the forecourt of Brightwell Manor where they started to play old English music originating from several parts of the UK and dancing very much like Morris dancers, except these dancers were carrying long sticks, had blackened faces, fancy multi coloured costumes and lots of feathers in their headdress.

After almost an hour of celebration and lots of dancing they Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”proceeded to parade through the village to a house with a very big garden where a bonfire was lit and a shotgun was fired twice at the trees by a man dressed as the village squire to wake them up. Then from a big steaming pot nearby, a brew called Wassail made from (apple cider, honey, sugar, cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon) was individually served in plastic cupsWaking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell” to all the people who had gathered there. This particular brew offered that day was described as Lambs wool mulled cider; it was very aromatic, sweet with bits of apple and very warming on a cold foggy evening. During this period a lot of songs were sang and lots of music was played on guitars, drums, concertinas and accordions.

Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”Once again everybody as if in a grand parade followed one another to a forecourt nearby, this Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”time they gathered all the children and spent sometime teaching them a special dance for the occasion, the children and a lot of grown ups made a very large circle and started to dance, clapping hands and singing, one just could not help but dance as an atmosphere of joy and laughter pervaded all around the village. It was at this time that the band and dancers all gathered together for a group and individual photographs taken by the visitors.

Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”As darkness descended and a full moon appeared in the sky surrounded by a huge ring of freezing fog particles, lots of hand held torches were lit, illuminating the darkened village. The now very large group of people followed the band carrying the lighted torches to an orchard where they sang a special Wassail song about the trees urging them to produce a good harvest, (Here’s to thee, old apple tree, that blooms well, bears well, hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full an’ all under one tree) then they all shouted Wassail. Wassail! Followed by beating the trees with their sticks and once again the man dressed as the village squire fired both barrels of his Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”shotgun at the trees, all this was done to wake them up, banish all evil spirits and feed all the good ones. Shortly after there followed a wonderful firework display from a nearby orchard just across the way.

What now seemed like the inhabitants of the village as well as many visitors, they all formed a procession down the centre of the main road all the way to the Red Lion Public house, which has existed there for many centuries. Waking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell”Stopping outside and completely blocking the road, the band playedWaking the trees in “Brightwell cum Sotwell” as the troupe started to dance various dances with lighted torches, some of which originated from as far as Gloucestershire. The ceremony ended to great acclaim from everybody.

Finally, most people ended up in the Red Lion Pub for a celebratory drink having woken up all the trees in Brightwell cum Sotwell helping them to start the production of some unusual and rare English apples. I recommend a visit to this Village on the twelfth night.


Main page

Russian version

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the Thames


Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesSonning looks more like a pretty decoration along the Thames than a real village. Jerome K. Jerome’s described the fairy-like village on the Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesThames in his novel “Three Men in a Boat.” And it still looks the same after more than a hundred years. Almost all the houses in the village are timber framed cottages mostly painted white and old houses made of red brick are smothered in greenery. It grew in this valley of the river, where the weeping willows sink in water and paths along the precious meadows lead away from the bustle of the cities.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesSonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesThe name of Sonning is derived from “Sunna,” who was the chief of East Berkshire in Anglo-Saxon times. The village was an important stopping post for travelers and merchants on travels west via south Oxford in the middle Ages. The Wooden bridge over the River Thames was first built in 1125 and the latest modern brick bridge spanning 27 arches was built in 1775 this was another unique monument in bygone days.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesSonning has a long history that can be viewed in the local church of Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesSt Andrew, which has existed since Saxon times. There is a fine collection of brass monuments and sculptures of famous people who created history in the settlement and a lot of the Anglo-Saxon carvings. In 909 Sonning was the center of Episcopal Berkshire and had a Cathedral, some fragments of which can be found in the present tower of this 13th century church, which was restored during the Victorian age.

In the 13th century the Bishop’s Palace was built in an area known as Holme Park, which has Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the Thamesnot survived to the present day. The Bishop of Salisbury made Sonning a pilgrimage center by adding the relics of St Saric in the chapel of St Andrew. The timber-framed building known today as the “The Bull” an inn and public house next to the old church was in the 16th century the guest house, where pilgrims stayed.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesA very unusual monument has been put away under the tower of the church and if you do not know about its existence, it cannot easily be located. It has four cherubs holding a Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the Thamesmarble slab, topped by two very large urns. In 1667 this sculpture was named as “the vilest paganism imaginable”. It was dedicated to Thomas Rich, a member of parliament, who owned the estate of Holme Park in Sonning in 1654 and was a merchant and benefactor to the school for the poor in Gloucester and the “Blue Coat School” from Reading, which still exists today when it was moved in 1947 to the original lands of Holme Park.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesOn the banks of the river near the bridge is a small hotel called the Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the Thames«Great House», known as the “White Hart” before 1989, in memory of King Richard II, whose personal emblem was a white hart. After Richard was deposed from the throne and imprisoned in the Tower in 1399, his wife Isabella of Valois was kept prisoner at the Bishop’s Palace in the village.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesAnother historical place in Sonning is the Mill on the island near the Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the Thamesold bridge established in about 1086. The Mill prospered for centuries ever since 1086. Daniel May owned the mill from 1797 to 1851, when the biscuit factory of “Huntley and Palmer” was opened in Reading; the May family supplied all the flour. The Mill was subsequently modernized by new owners in 1898, when a steam engine was installed. In 1962 it was brought up to date with Electric power although the mill still used it’s water wheel until its closure in 1969. This was the last existing water mill on the River Thames. In 1984 the Mill was converted into a theatre with dinning next to the original watermill visible though a glass partition.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesNext to the mill on this island is a Georgian mansion (Aberlash Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesHouse) of the 17th century made of yellow stone and listed for important historical monuments, where the May family dynasty who owned the mill lived for centuries. Unfortunately, you can no longer admire this beautiful architectural mansion, as it is not visible from the road. In 2014 the American film actor George Clooney who joins a big list of famous residents in the village purchased Aberlash House.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesSome of Sonning’s historical cottages list the “The Grove” of Lord Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesSidmos in the High Street, where French Admiral Villeneuve, a commander at Trafalgar was detained during the Napoleonic wars. Also here is the cottage of Robert Palmer a member of parliament and a benefactor of the village from 1793 to 1872. Other famous personalities who lived or are living in Sonning are Uri Geller the illusionist, Paul Daniels the magician, Jimmy Page from “Led Zepellin” and John Lord of “Deep Purple” as well as many other celebrities. This is also the place where the famous highwayman Dick Turpin also lived.

Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the ThamesThe most pleasant place in the village is undoubtedly the “Bull” inn. It’s name derived from the coat of arms of Henry Neville, steward at Sonning, the chocolate box picture on the Thamesthe Bishop’s palace after Queen Elizabeth I acquired it in 1574. Jerome commented on it as “A veritable picture of an old country inn, with green, square courtyard in front, where, on seats beneath the trees, the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, with awkward stairs and winding passages”.

How wonderful that such beautiful nooks like Sonning village with it’s pub still exist today in their original form to be enjoyed by all of us who care to visit!


Main page

Russian version