We are coming down on our final moments in Reading. This has been a terrific central location in the UK with a great deal to offer, but I'm disappointed we didn't fully capitalize on it. I always say travel is a life of disappointment, and this is one of the reasons why. I never can squeeze everything in!
I admit to liking its name, Reading, because it reminds me of one of my favorite activities (but can also be confusing at times for the same reason). The name “Reading” may derive from two sources: it might be a Saxon word meaning “(the place of) Readda’s People” (whoever Readda was), OR it might be a Celtic word, Rhydd-Inge, meaning “ford by the water meadows,” which accurately reflects the town’s topography, given its proximity to the River Kennet.
We saw churches here and there, but then took one day and skipped around to several churches. Unfortunately, being the ding-dong introverted intuitives we are, two of them were churches we had already visited a couple of years ago during our dog sit in Oxfordshire. So we laughed it off, and decided to indulge in what Roger Pearman terms “the joy of RE-discovery,” something every intuitive type has no doubt experienced.
I shan't go into detail about every single one, but merely offer some highlights. Frankly, they’re already a bit of a blur.
Delightfully, we were able to take Gucci with us, and she enthusiastically approved…
…although she not-so-secretly wanted to sit up in front not the back.
Our first destination was St. Mary's Church in Aldworth, a mainly 14th-century church famous for a group of effigies of members of the de la Beche family. You can see two of them under the arch on the right side, and two elaborately carved niches for other effigies on the left. Those niches run down both sides of the church, and they’re eye-catchingly magnificent.
The church contains nine of these enormous effigies, dating from the years 1300–1350. Seven of them are knights in armor, while two of them are ladies in 14th-century gowns. Another was reportedly in a niche outside because he refused to ever set foot in a church, but he’s disappointingly gone now.
As a whole, the effigies are dubbed “the Aldworth Giants,” and they are large. The effigy of Sir Philip de la Beche is shown in a reclining position, and it is reportedly rare to see an effigy from the medieval period in such a pose. Robin shot a quick 3:35 video that shows more: https://youtu.be/xgYXRJ-tFjQ
On our way back to the car, we popped into this little parish church, and were quite taken with its intricately carved rood screen.
The seats on either side of me are apparently intended for the choir since they face the congregation. It was an unusual layout we’ve not seen before.
Our next stop was St. Michael and All Angels Church in Lambourn, Berkshire. The current church structure dates to 1180, and was constructed on a cruciform plan, with major rebuilding and additions made during the 13th, 15th, 16th, and 19th centuries.
This church demonstrated the kind of quirkiness I love in UK parish churches, featuring an archway carved with fascinating figures that includes hounds chasing a hare, musicians playing instruments, and an eccentric mitred bishop.
Effigies of a couple are found in one of the side chapels, where the man’s feet rest upon a weird-looking dolphin, an unusual symbol in an English church. One of its windows contains sections of 16th century stained glass made in Germany.
I followed my nose when we left the church and encountered this beautifully carved medieval preaching cross on a slender shaft dating to 1446. It reminded me of the lantern cross we encountered on St. Michael’s Mount. (The rear view of the cross is in the insert, upper right.)
Our next church was accessed down this beautiful lane of trees. This was another re-visit because we recognized that avenue immediately.
The church can be seen peeking through a gateway beyond the row of trees. The effect is marvelous since the trees reveal more of the church as you draw closer.
St. Mary's Church, in Great Shefford, was constructed in the 11th century, with modifications made in the 12th, 13th, and 15th centuries.
I like the painted angels on either side of the stained glass window, and the interior was decorated with many painted inscriptions, such as those above the arch over the organ as well as bordering the wooden wagon roof on both sides, which date from 1870.
The south porch features a tiny stained glass window that won my heart. It’s an image of a saint shown with a goblet that contains a dragon rising out of it, which is meant to represent poison.
A Google search reports:
Saint John the Evangelist is depicted holding a chalice, an allusion to his being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him: "If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and if it does not harm you, it means your god is the true God." Thus the picture shows Saint John making the gesture of blessing in order to neutralize the poison escaping from the chalice in the form of a small dragon. He was then able to drink the potion, according to the legend.
On the way to our next church, we drove through a village that seemed to be highly protective of its ducks.
This next stop was St. Andrew's Church, Chaddleworth, dated to the late 12th century, with an interesting blend of unusual elements.
The south porch features an imposing doorway with traditional Norman zig-zag carvings in two orders, and an outer molding with an unusual curvilinear contrast.
The rough-hewn wooden beams over the chancel are an interesting treatment. Gucci went nuts in this church for some reason, charging up and down the center aisle, and barrelling up into the side chapels.
Our final stop for the day was another accidental church do-over. So we used it as an excuse to take Gucci for a nice walk, which she greatly enjoyed.
This tiny church at the end of our stroll was St Thomas' Church in East Shefford. It is under the care of the Church’s Conservation Trust so it’s a bit plain inside…
Its crowning glory is pre-Reformation paintings decorating its walls, although it seems as though the lower sections of these scenes were later whitewashed. The composition over the chancel arch is thought to represent the Nativity, with figures of kings attending the infant Christ still visible.
Medieval pictorial scenes such as these were once common in churches across the land, then were covered over during the Reformation, and then overlaid with Puritan Biblical texts. It’s fascinating, in this sequence, how word eventually supplants image.
A few days later we had yet another church re-visit, but this one was planned well in advance.
During the pandemic, but following full lockdown, we surreptitiously visited a few churches around Oxfordshire where we were pet-sitting. We were advised to visit St. Mary’s in Fairford. Robin wasn’t keen on the idea (we often attract well-intentioned, unsuitable advice), but I thought it sounded interesting and coaxed him to go check it out.
We loved it! The stained glass program was remarkable. Unfortunately, about half of the church was blocked off (including the part with misericords), and no amount of pouting and PhD-brandishing could get us beyond the rope barrier.
Robin promised to bring me back someday, and he kept that promise in spades! He arranged a personal guided tour of the church for just the two of us (okay, three).
St. Mary’s boasts 28 stained glass windows that have been used to teach the Christian faith by pictures for over 500 years—no other church in the UK has retained a complete set of medieval glass like this.
The window below, the great West Window, is nicknamed the “Justice Window,” and might be seen to mirror the tympanum at Conques (you probably know how much I love that carving).
In the same way as with Conques, the best part is in the lower right corner (at Christ’s lower left), where devils are cavorting. Click this link in order to view a closeup of these wonderfully colorful, monstrous devils: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IH8fEERumLNa8EqN859nKWHrI1tXElIQ/view?usp=sharing
More devils are shown way up high in the clerestory windows, but I couldn’t get a decent photo of them. Suffice it to say, the devils and the misericords are what drew us back to St. Mary’s in Fairford, and the tour did not disappoint. Robin gives a 5:08 video of the church here: https://youtu.be/qx1gYYP2uAo
In the churchyard, just beyond the door, one finds a grave marker for "Tiddles the cat" in the shape of a cat.
As you can see, Gucci had strong opinions about that marker. (Those eyes say, “Dude, srsly?”)
We made a point of picking up a few more sights in Reading proper during our final week in residence. For instance, we visited the…
This tiny museum on the University of Reading campus is crammed full of artifacts. The statue of Aphrodite and Eros shown to my left were what attracted me, as did this Medusa:
No, not me! She's behind me. Here, Medusa is intended to be a horrifying "intolerable image," but her visage is a bit of a cartoon in this iteration.
We grabbed a guerrilla shot of this blue British plaque honoring John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Given we’re smack in the middle of the annual Reading Music Festival (the oldest music festival in the world), it seemed appropriate to memorialize the moment in this way.
Our last big outing took us to Windsor—have you heard of it?
Gee, I wonder why all the Platinum Jubilee decorations are still up—could it be because the Queen herself lives nearby?!
Robin arranged for us to have a tour of Eton College, a famous boys’ school with many celebrity graduates (including the Princes William and Harry, if you know who they are). Founded in 1440, and now one of the oldest and most venerable of British establishments, Eton has been described as the “chief nurse of England’s statesmen,” having educated 19 British prime ministers, countless ministers, royalty from England and further afield, as well as many well known authors, actors, explorers, and financiers. It is a boys-only boarding school that takes boys from the ages of 13–18 and offers them debating societies, acting clubs, 11 different languages, 30 different sports, and so much more. Boys are said to leave here with the highest of academic accolades, a huge sense of self confidence, and a network to last them for life (Boris Johnson is one of their graduates, btw).
Probably this is the most famous image of Eton: the medieval gatehouse of the schoolyard with a statue of King Henry VI (its founder) directly in the center. Members of the public are not usually allowed here.
It was a fun and fascinating tour and we learned lots—but to our dismay they did not allow photos inside the magnificent chapel. It was spectacular! I found an image online at etoncollege.com:
I’m chasing down a guidebook that shows the marvelous artwork inside—including priceless 65-feet-long 14th century gray monochrome (grisaille) paintings that were discovered hidden underneath whitewash. They look as though they were painted with black and white chalks.
I can provide a glimpse of one panel from the murals (also from etoncollege.com):
Google tells me they are:
arguably the most important surviving late-medieval murals in all of Northern Europe. Painted between 1477 and 1487, they originally comprised some 32 scenes ranged in two registers on the chapel’s north and south walls, recounting the miracles of the Virgin. Concealed for years with whitewash and paneling, it was not until the 1920s that the paintings were finally uncovered and their significance fully appreciated.
Three glimmering William Morris tapestries adorn the chancel (echoes of the Holy Grail series we love so much). This is merely the center panel:
The College commissioned a copy of Edward Burne-Jones’s “Adoration of the Magi” design in 1895; ten years later they added two flanking tapestries of Burne-Jones angels to commemorate Etonians who were killed in the Boer War. It was breath-taking.
Misericords are lurking in the back rows of the chapel, but I didn’t even get to view them, much less photograph them. Sigh!
We are departing Reading today and heading for Oxford. Our deepest sorrow is that it was our last night sleeping with the gorgeous Gucci.
While she’s been a bit of a handful at times, she’s an adorable companion and we’re going to miss her dreadfully.
Wish me luck on my Polish conference presentations—I’ll be giving that talk later this week!
warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo