The Town Hall in central Reading includes a conference center, tourist information center, concert hall, and a very nice museum. With temperatures pushing 80-degrees, rare high humidity, and the British penchant to eschew air conditioning, including in my flat, a tour of the museum today seemed perfect.
And it was. The free museum is a little jewel, nicely laid out on several floors with some excellent exhibits. A large one covers the finds at the ruins of the ancient Roman walled city of Calleva, in nearby Silchester. Another features a 70-meter long copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Battle of Hastings, which brought William the Conqueror to power in 1066. One exhibit is devoted to the famous Huntley & Palmers Biscuit company.
I spent a very pleasant two hours there and was able to see just about everything. That’s quite a satisfying accomplishment compared to visiting a place such as the British Museum, where one feels a lifetime might not be long enough to see it all.
The Museum of Reading is very well arranged for use by children and has a surprising number of "join-in" opportunities. For example, at the start of the Bayeux Tapestry, there was a royal robe, crown, and throne, with a sign inviting you to put on the garments, take a seat on the throne, and view yourself in the nearby full-length mirror. In the "Box Room", visitors are encouraged to touch collection items, from preserved animals to Roman pots to a hippo skull.
The history of Reading was detailed in a short video, which I found very interesting. It included tales of Vikings, Romans, Kings, and battles. I learned a lot I did not know: for example, Reading had, from 1121-1539 the largest abbey in England, larger even than Westminster Abbey in London. The King visited often and Parliament convened there several times, pilgrims came from everywhere, and King Henry I was buried there. But when Henry VIII decided abbeys were hotbeds of political/religious dissent, he ejected the monks and had the abbey dismantled, around 1540! Just a few ruins still exist today and the Town Hall itself stands inside the old abbey grounds.
Reading went on in the 18-20th centuries to become a major trading center and was renowned for its brewery, brickmaking, seeds, and biscuits. Yes, the British "biscuit", which kind of covers the spectrum of products Americans call crackers and cookies. And Huntley & Palmers, for 150 years, made biscuits in Reading, becoming a cornerstone of British culture and shipping their wares worldwide. Their exhibit told the story that, when the first European adventurers finally made it to Tibet, they were welcomed with tea and a tin of Huntley & Palmers biscuits.
So, the museum was a very fine destination for today: not at all crowded, air-conditioned, and full of interesting exhibits. In future posts, I’ll have to see what other nuggets like it are in hidden locally.