The Reading Abbey Ruins and Other Stately Destinations
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Y’all make me laugh!
I’ve been here and there and everywhere—but the question on everyone’s lips seems to be: what’s Gucci like? Her coat is such an interesting color.
Yes, you’re right: Gucci is what they call a “Blue Staffy” (Staffordshire Bull Terrier), which means her fur has a bluish tinge to it when sunlight strikes it. It’s quite beautiful.
Gucci loves her walks, and she particularly enjoyed the outing we took to the center of town to visit the sprawling ruins of Reading Abbey.
The ruins are contained inside Forbury park, originally named for the area of open land in front of the abbey. “Forbury” means “borough in front,” and this served as a secular meeting and market place for centuries.
The park features the magnificent Maiwand Lion war memorial (also known as the Forbury Lion) commemorating the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan in 1878.
In its heyday the abbey was one of Europe's largest and most magnificent royal monasteries. It was founded by Henry I in 1121 "for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors." That’s a lotta souls, so it had to be a big abbey!
When Henry I died in Normandy in 1135 his body was returned to Reading, where he was buried in front of the abbey’s altar. (The precise location of the tomb has not been identified. It might even be under a car park, as happened with Richard III in Leicester.)
Because of his royal patronage, the abbey was a main pilgrimage center in medieval England, and one of its richest and most important religious houses, with possessions as far away as Herefordshire and Scotland. The abbey also held over 230 relics (that's not a typo—230 relics) which were catalogued according to a strict system based on their perceived holiness beginning with the most important: the relics of Christ.
One important relic, the hand of St James, was considered to possess powerful healing properties, performing miracle cures throughout the 12th century. (This is the same St. James whose remains are in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain—still the most popular destination of spiritual pilgrimages.)
When workers excavated the abbey ruins in 1786 they came across a withered hand in the rubble, which they surmised might have been this important relic, carelessly tossed out during the Dissolution of the Monasteries with its mindless destruction.
Reading Abbey was visited frequently by kings and others, especially Henry III who often visited three or four times a year, staying several weeks during each visit. The abbey also hosted important state events, including the wedding of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster in 1359 and a meeting of Parliament in 1453.
The earliest known six-part harmony in Britain, the song Sumer is icumen in, was first written down in the abbey about 1240.
It’s the oldest known “round” (like Row Your Boat) in English, and may be the earliest song known to include the word “fart.”
You may listen to the song here: https://youtu.be/Q5jlD9oESR4
The abbey was demolished in 1538 during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. The buildings were robbed extensively, and its lead, glass, and stones were removed for reuse elsewhere.
Hugh Faringdon, the last abbot of Reading was hanged, drawn, and quartered just outside the Abbey Gateway in 1539. Fortunately for us, the Inner Gateway has survived intact.
This picturesque passageway was heavily restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott. In the late 18th century, it became part of the Reading Ladies' Boarding School, which was attended by the novelist Jane Austen, amongst others.
While the weather has been hot and muggy, we have been making the most of our time here. And now—it’s time to return to the story of my birthday trip and pick up where we left off last time!
Remember how, over the course of two days, we left Haslemere, went to London, saw two special exhibitions at the British Museum, toured the Mithraeum, and sneaked in a visit to John Dee's memorial in Mortlake before heading southwest? What was our next destination? We were heading back to Cornwall.
Robin checked us into a lovely quaint hotel in the village of Penzance.
We were assigned the Honeymoon Suite by happenstance, and it featured lovely decor, including a massive four-poster bed with fuchsia curtains, and we slept well after the long drive, enjoying the cool breeze coming off the ocean a few blocks away.
The next morning (my BIRTHDAY!) we were up early and set out for our destination, which happened to be a return visit to (drumroll please) St. Michael’s Mount!
Long-time readers may recall how we visited the Mount previously on Valentine’s Day this year. But due to a conspiracy of circumstances, we were unable to do little more than walk around the lower level of the island before the tide began to rise, shooing us back onto the mainland. It was disappointingly brief. Now we were here to make up for it with a vengeance. (Prepare for an insane deluge of photos!)
The adventure started, as before, at the walkway that goes out to the island, where we joined a group of others who were waiting for the tide to go out so we could inch our way across.
It took ages for us to get across the causeway! We inched along, waited for the water to drain out, and inched along again.
When we arrived at the island, a ticket-taker encouraged us to go see the gardens and then make for the top of the mount.
I wasn’t having it! I made a beeline for the mount. I could relax in the gardens later. So up we went!
The Pilgrim Steps were steep, and we were out of breath by the end of them. At the top we encountered a glorious view of the bay, including Penzance.
We enjoyed the scenery for a while, then turned our attention to the stone structure positioned slightly above us.
I’ll be honest: we expected to stroll up this gentle slope and make our way into what we assumed was an ancient little stone church, make our way around some desolate ruins, and then bounce out again.
We was wrong!
We passed through the portal, mounted a small flight of stairs, and promptly came face-to-face with an officious tour guide who asked us not to touch things, invited questions, and then spurred us on our way.
Unknowingly, we had just entered an enormous complex of rooms in a castle that was half tourist attraction/half ancestral family home. Who knew?!
It went on and on and on and on! (I loved it!)
Apparently the family who owns the island gifted most of it to the National Trust in 1954, alongside a healthy endowment fund to support its running costs.
I can only share a few highlights of course…
The first room that really took my fancy is known as the Chevy Chase room, where “Chevy Chase” refers to a medieval ballad (not the comedian nor the region in Maryland). Check out that elaborate carved frieze that runs all the way around the sides.
So many charming bits are in this room that it would take myriad pages to describe them. Suffice it to say that my heart was won by the tiny samples of Dutch, English, Flemish, and French stained glass dating to around 1500 that had been inserted into the windows, probably acquired from private chapels and oratories.
From my perspective, this delight alone was worth the trip.
The smoking room featured beautiful views overlooking the water, as well as some unusual mementoes of Napoleon.
Departing these quarters, we unexpectedly burst outside onto the roof of the Victorian wing above where the family lives. Once again, views of the landscape 200 feet below were spectacular whilst interesting turrets and stony ramparts beckoned us onward.
Enjoying the views and the balmy weather, we made our way around this highest section of the mount.
Eventually we headed into its sacred center, the Church of St. Michael & All Angels. This building was largely rebuilt in the late 14th century out of stones from the previous church built in 1135, which itself was probably not the first church on the site (though no remains of the earliest church are identifiable).
Once again, I could wax at length about the chapel’s lovely historic decor, but I’ll restrict myself to a couple of highlights.
This intricate four-sided carving is called a “lantern cross” dated from the 15th century, and originally stood outside, but was brought inside to spare it from further wear and tear.
I was taken with this delicate, modern bronze sculpture of St. Michael defeating Lucifer. His outreached hand offers mercy.
After visiting the church, we re-entered the living quarters, this time waltzing through the “Blue Room,” the “map room,” a long passage containing numerous prints and drawings, the garrison/weapons room, and through a labyrinthine passage that dumped us out near the entrance door where our adventure first started. Whew!
We took one last lingering look at the glorious scenery at the top of the mount, and began our descent. Tired and hungry, we paused on a stone bench halfway down and scarfed our brown bag lunches.
Now fortified, we perambulated downhill and made our way along the coastline to the rear of the castle where the garden is located.
We enjoyed gamboling in the multi-leveled garden, with its tiny stone staircases embedded in the hillsides. This added some charm to the experience, especially since I am not normally a big fan of the great British tradition of reveling in garden landscapes.
On our way, we happened to notice what was probably the most thrilling sight of the castle, and aimed to take a picture that would do it justice.
Robin started worrying that we needed to get going because the causeway would be covered in water soon since the tide was coming in. He approached one of the guides about it, and they said we were probably already too late (oh no!), but not to worry, because we could take a boat ride for a paltry sum that would deposit us back onto the mainland. He promptly bought two tickets, and with that we relaxed and enjoyed the island a bit more.
Okay, we went shopping.
Throughout the day, Robin had surreptitiously asked the guides for recommendations about dining out, and now he had his heart set on getting to Mousehole (moww-zul) quickly so we could score a table before the rush. We boarded the shuttle boat and enjoyed about a three-minute trip to shore, where we disembarked.
What a glorious day we had!
We promptly headed off to Mousehole where we enjoyed a fresh tapas-style fish dinner, including lobster—yum! Those tour guides did right by us.
Afterwards we drove slowly back to our honeymoon suite (taking the scenic route) where Robin surprised me with a birthday cheesecake featuring a glowing candle in it.
I could barely keep my eyes open by this point! (I definitely felt old.)
Now this may seem like the end of the matter… but it’s not! Robin booked us for several days in Cornwall, and we had plenty more sightseeing to do! But I’ll pick up that part of the story next time.
warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo
PS: Oooh, I just received the news that I’ll be speaking on the “Iconoclasm of the Psyche” at a virtual conference out of Poland where I presented in person a few years ago. That talk metamorphosed into a book chapter, and they recently sent me a draft for the final proofread. My upcoming talk is slated for September 2, so I'd better hurry up and get my presentation ready. Wish me luck!