Reading* is one of those places that hides a rich history rather well. Casual visitors to this big, bustling Thames-side town, just west of London, may struggle to see beyond its shopping centres, retail parks and trading estates. Those merely passing through this corner of Royal Berkshire, meanwhile, may not experience more than the M4 motorway or the main railway line – first built in the 1830s by master-engineer I.K. Brunel – which heads off west towards Wales. (* Pronounced ‘Redding’, for those of you outside the UK.)
But as so often, appearances can be very deceptive. Reading most definitely has a past as well as a present. In 1121, for instance, Henry I founded an impressive abbey there and, fifteen years later, he was buried in the abbey church; iconic playwright, poet and wit Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in the town in the 1890s – an experience which helped inspire his much-celebrated Ballad of Reading Gaol; and a strategically important Roman town thrived for several centuries just a few miles away at Silchester.
Fortunately for visitors eager to explore the varied hinterland behind its modern veneer, Reading is blessed with a fascinating, friendly municipal museum just a few minutes’ walk from its busy railway station. Indeed, I simply can’t enthuse about Reading Museum enough. Its excellent, beautifully presented collection of exhibits unpacks almost every facet of the town’s evolution, even reaching back way beyond the Ice Ages to the emergence of the first flora and fauna in this area the best part of half a billion years ago.
And as if that wasn’t enough, for thirty years the museum has been home to a remarkable artefact: a full-scale replica of the world-renowned Bayeux Tapestry (pictured at top) – the vast embroidery (so not, in fact, a tapestry at all…) telling the tale of Duke William of Normandy’s invasion of England in 1066 and his defeat of Harold II at Hastings on the south coast – a defeat which heralded the final, irreversible destruction of Anglo-Saxon England.
The origins of the replica lie in the 1880s. Elizabeth Wardle, leader of a group of embroiderers from Staffordshire in the English Midlands, saw the original tapestry over in Bayeux and was consumed by a completely crazy idea: to produce a full-scale copy. But crazy idea turned to tangible reality in little more than a year, thanks to the skill and commitment of a thirty-five-strong team of embroiderers working from photos of the real thing. In a charming and quirky touch, their individual names are immortalised in stitching just underneath the specific part of the replica each of them worked on. Having toured around England, the US and Germany, the replica was eventually bought as a gift for the town of Reading in 1895 for the princely sum of £300 (equivalent to around £50,000 today).
And what a fabulous job the museum does in presenting this extraordinary, glorious, mind-boggling seventy-metre-long creation. Housed in its own gallery on the first floor, suitable sound effects of clashing weapons and whooshing arrows assail your ears as you trace the story of the Norman Conquest from its innocuous origins through to its brutal conclusion. It’s all here: the last days of the reign of Edward the Confessor; Harold’s (purported) pledge to support William’s claim to the English crown; Harold’s hasty coronation at the hands of excommunicated archbishop Stigant; the ominous appearance of Halley’s Comet in the night skies; the construction of William’s invasion fleet in Normandy and its portentous arrival in England; the day-long denouement at Hastings that October – all adding up to one of the most remarkable pieces of court propaganda ever conceived anywhere in the world. Because, as ever (more or less), this is history told by the victor.
And inevitably it’s the climactic event which took place just as dusk was gathering on that desperate autumn afternoon that draws you to it like a moth to a flame. In the fifty-seventh of the fifty-eight scenes portrayed, ‘hAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST’. ‘King Harold is killed’. It’s also the tapestry’s most enduringly controversial scene. Quite simply, which one is Harold? Is he the warrior clutching the arrow apparently lodged in his right eye, or (as close examination of the tapestry creators’ technique has led some to believe) is he the warrior cut down by a Norman horseman? Or is he both? Or is this just a fictitious portrayal of Harold’s demise? Detailed study of the stitching in the original has led some to deduce that the arrow was a much later addition. Nor do the near-contemporary written sources lend much of a clue as to exactly what happened, so inconsistent are they about the precise manner of Harold’s death. Whatever the case – and the controversy will probably never go away – it’s the sheer scale of the whole tapestry that really hits you. Incredible in conception and phenomenal in execution, it really was one of the shining creative wonders of the medieval world. And this replica fully does it justice.
So it's with all kinds of reflections and questions running through your mind that you wander through the rest of this outstanding museum. Don’t skimp on absorbing the ultimately tragic story of Henry I’s wonderful abbey, which fell into ruins after Henry VIII’s uncompromising Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and 1540s. There’s also quite a touching gallery recalling the pioneering biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers, a firm that played a pivotal part in the life of Reading from 1822 until 1976 and led to it becoming known as ‘Biscuit Town’.
Nor should you hurry through the excellent spaces dedicated to (and packed with phenomenal finds from) Silchester – known as Calleva Atrebatum in Roman times – including an impressive pair of enormous mosaics excavated from a high-status Roman townhouse. A further fascinating collection of finds map this area’s fortunes in prehistoric times right back to the appearance of the earliest plants, bivalves and coral, while a gallery dedicated to abstract modern art is right in my personal wheelhouse – even if I generally find myself in a tiny minority on that one!
Reading Museum really is everything a museum of its type should be: warm, welcoming, informative, thoughtful, curiosity-piquing and easy to navigate. And with the Bayeux replica adding that extra, indefinable ‘wow’ factor, this is a destination certain to reward anyone’s investment of a couple of hours of their precious time to come and share its many surprising delights.
Reading Museum: see the website for more details, including opening times. Entry is free, although a voluntary donation is suggested. Reading is less than half an hour by fast train from London Paddington, and the museum is less than five minutes’ walk from the station.
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Prof. Jasper Heathcoat-Beech is a historian and archaeologist. His latest unorthodox history book, ‘The Fairly Small Book of Really Massive Mysteries’, includes a chapter on the death of King Harold. Twitter: @JasperBeech