London Street, Reading, 1963
I was born in Reading in 1951 and lived there continuously until the age of 18. Since 1985 I have been working overseas - in Africa, South America and Vietnam. I don't miss Reading one bit, but every so often I return there to reconnect with old friends. When I do, my base is the terraced house in Hatherley Road where I grew up.
When I think of Reading, what comes into my head is not present-day Reading but a picture, or videotape, of old Reading circa 1963. I remember the Simmonds pubs, with their red hop leaf signs; Barnes & Avis in Friar Street, where our lodger used to sell TV's; the Granby Cinema, where I and many other boys (I can't remember any girls) attended Saturday morning pictures; the Cadena Café in Broad Street, where my mother drank coffee after Saturday morning shopping, and I drank ginger beer. But the most vivid memories are of a street that I walked along many times and which impressed itself deeply on my boyish imagination: London Street.
As a student at Stoneham School, I used to catch the 31 bus each morning
from Erleigh Road (outside Arkell's butcher's shop and A.J.P. Johnson, the confectioner’s) to the Meadway. In those days, long before the one-way system, the 31 bus travelled along London Road, turned right down London Street, then left into Broad Street. And on Saturday mornings I invariably walked to town via London Street. There was, and is, an alternative route to the town centre - down Watlington Street, turn left along King's Road - but I preferred to follow the buses. Why? Because the walk down London Street was so interesting.
I can still vividly recall certain landmarks on that route - not surprising, since I must have bussed/walked it several thousand times. Here, then, are my recollections (purely from memory, highly subjective, without any research and, therefore, distorted and inaccurate) of London Street circa 1963.
Walking to town along London Road, past the Royal Berkshire Hospital and Kendrick School, my younger self was fascinated by a public house: The Turk's Head. From the hanging sign, the turbaned head of a ferocious Saracen glared out at passers-by. Alas, The Turk is no more; but his headgear lives on - well, sort of - in the new pub, The Fez
and Firkin, whose trendy interior and youthful clientele bear little resemblance to the workingmen's pub of the 60's.
Crossing East Street, I would pause awhile outside the windows of the antique shops that dominated this stretch. Years later I learnt that the great Arthur Negus served his apprenticeship in one of these shops. Set amid all the fine old furniture was the very basic Café Olé, a favourite haunt of lorry-drivers. I never once ventured inside the antique shops; they were out of my class. Nor did I ever dare order a cup of tea in the café; it was too adult and male for a ten-year-old schoolboy.
Now, as I rounded the corner of London Road and London Street, there came into view the most intriguing shop in all of Reading: Eyles. In 1963 I had only the vaguest idea of what the three hanging balls signified. Yes, I knew this was a pawnbroker's shop; but what precisely did that mean? The windows were chock-full of jewellery and pocket-watches, and at closing-time the glass panes were boarded up. A place of magic and mystery, for adults only.
London Street, then as now, has always impressed me
by its sheer width. As one strolls downhill towards town, there is a spacious feeling not to be found in any other Reading street. There is also a feeling of history, especially if one looks at the upper stories and roofs of the many old buildings on either side. One of these buildings – now an office of some sort – was the original Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory. In 1963 it was an art shop. Further down I remember the cobblestones and tram-lines only partially hidden by the tarmac. Nowadays there is only tarmac.
I always walked down London Street on the right-hand side, because that was where the most interesting buildings were. Only one building on the other side held any interest for me – the Royal Ancient Order of Foresters, a name which conjured up Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood. After Eyles came the art shop, with its old-fashioned convex and many-paned windows; more antiques; the drab-looking Barley Mow public house; and then, on the corner of South Street, Lawford's. This was a specialist stamp shop of particular interest to a schoolboy philatelist like myself. I remember going in to purchase Penny Reds, which were very
On the other corner of South Street was Tutty's, the family outfitters and retailers. The name Tutty struck me as funny. In its heyday, Tutty's was something of a Reading institution - a smaller version of the grander Jackson's . Both Tutty’s and the original building have long since gone; in their place now is a ghastly office.
Going more steeply downhill, I would pass by a pet shop (smaller than the one on Broad Street close to Marks and Spencer) before arriving at William Smith's bookshop. William Smith (no relation to W.H. Smith) sold new books and, more importantly for a bibliophile but hard-up schoolboy, had a magnificent second-hand section. I would spend hours combing through the several stories for bargain-price fiction, poetry and Wisdens. The pricing system was classically simple: you paid half the new price. If the book had originally cost 3/6, you paid 1/9. Smith's second-hand section was a happy hunting-ground for me throughout the 60's and early 70's until the premises were destroyed by fire.
After Smiths, I remember a steam laundry that my mother sometimes used and a shop called Persin’s that sold crockery. There would be cups and saucers
and plates stacked outside all over the pavement. The three Persin sisters lived together in Addington Road near our house.
Where it joins Queen’s Road, London Street becomes Duke Street; but in my mind the stretch from London Road down to Broad Street is all London Street. I would cross Queen’s Road, heading for the hump-backed bridge over the Kennet. In Queen’s Road, to the right, was Smith's Coaches, which had services running down to the south coast. I remember our family going to Bournemouth and Hayling Island on Smith's coaches. On the left, in Mill Lane, was the central depot for the town buses. This was where the trolley-buses were housed. London Street was not a trolley-bus route; the buses that plied up and down it, including my own 31, were ordinary petrol-driven buses. The trolley-buses, which fed on electricity supplied by overhead wires, ran between the Oxford and Wokingham Roads. An unforgettable sight in the 60's was of a trolley-bus conductor wielding the long pole that all trolley-buses carried to reconnect a bus that had been separated from its wires. This process could be tricky and time-consuming, especially in snowy weather.
The hump-backed bridge after Queen’s
Road was, at the best of times, a bottleneck. It was barely able to cope with two streams of traffic, so it came as no surprise when, in the 70's, it became one-way. In icy weather there would be traffic chaos. I remember being very late for school in winter because the 31 bus had such difficulty making it down London Street and over that bridge.
But my strongest memory of the bridge has nothing to do with traffic. Crossing Queen’s Road, my young nostrils would be tickled by a pungent aroma. It took me a while to work out what this smell was. At first I thought it was coffee (the smell of which I knew from the Cadena Café in Broad Street), but then my father put me right: it was the smell of malted barley wafting across from the Courage Brewery a short distance away in Bridge Street. When the wind was blowing in the right direction, I would always catch the whiff of malt as I neared the hump-backed bridge.
On the right, before the bridge, was Brennan’s, a workingmen’s clothes shop where I bought my first combat jacket. Next door was a public
house called The Star, which later became notorious for drug-pushing. It closed down a long time ago, as did the other old London Street pub, The Barley Mow.
On the opposite side of the bridge, perched precariously on the hump, was a newsagent's that always seemed to be busy. On my way home from school, while en route to William Smith’s, I used to sneak inside and glance at the forbidden magazines: Titbits and Parade.
And that is where my memories of London Street stop. I have no strong memories of anything between the bridge and Broad Street.
I could fill a book with my recollections of old Reading, but there is no single place (outside of my childhood home and schools) which holds for me such picturesque memories as London Street. To this day, when I come back from foreign parts and walk into town from my house in Hatherley Road, I always choose the London Street route.
Thanks for that. I too was born in Reading in 1951 and although I joined the Army in 1967 and missed a lot of the re-development of London Street I well remember it as you describe. My grandmother shopped at Tutties and a chap cam to her house to take her orders as she was housebound. I used to collect stamps and first day covers often buying them from the little shop behind Tutties From Paul Chaston, on Mar 13, 2014 at 10:17AM
Am glad my little essay brought back happy memories. From Kevin Mulqueen, on Mar 13, 2014 at 01:12PM
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