The Grade I listed Gateway overlooking the Forbury Gardens is a substantial part of what remains of Reading Abbey. This Gateway divided the public area of the Abbey grounds (what is now Forbury Gardens) and the private area where the rest of the ruins are. The Gateway has been fully restored and work finished in April 2018. It is now home to our Victorian Schoolroom experience.
The Abbey Gateway was once part of the Reading Ladies Boarding School. This was famously attended by Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra.
In 1861 the Gateway collapsed in a storm, shortly after funds had been raised for vital conservation. Instead the Gate had to be substantially rebuilt. This work was completed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a Victorian architect known for his Gothic Revival work. He also designed Reading Gaol within the Abbey Quarter.
A carved headstop of a pilgrim with a scallop shell badge of St James. This is on the exterior of the Reading Abbey gateway
Celebrating 900 years of Reading Abbey
A stroll around the Abbey Gateway reveals around 24 sculptures across its exterior – some weathered unrecognisably, but others including a dragon and a fox – remarkably surviving from medieval times. Others such as a Knight Templar, a nun, King Henry I and Queen Matilda, date from the restoration of the gate by George Gilbert Scott in 1861 and in 1900 funded by local philanthropist Dr Jamieson Hurry.
There were two un-carved Bath stone head-stops on the east side of the building, that date back to 19th century restoration – which were left due to budget constraints. In 2021 to mark the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Reading Abbey by King Henry I, Reading Council commissioned a carving on one of these uncarved blocks.
The public were asked to vote from a shortlist of six figures from the Abbey’s illustrious post-dissolution past. The six contenders were:
- Hugh Faringdon – the last Abbot of Reading, accused of treason by Henry VIII, and publicly hung, drawn, and quartered outside the gateway in 1539.
- Queen Elizabeth I – who used the abbot’s house and gateway as a royal palace in the 1560s.
- Jane Austen – who studied in the gateway from 1785 to 1786 when it was used as a classroom for Reading Ladies’ Boarding School.
- Sir George Gilbert Scott – the leading architect who restored the gateway back in 1861 after a thunderstorm caused the archway to collapse.
- Dr Jamieson Hurry – a local historian and philanthropist who gifted 12 carved heads on the gateway in 1900
- A modern stonemason – based on a female member of the team that worked on the 2018 restoration of the Abbey.
Hugh Faringdon was the clear winner with just over 40% of the votes - 361 votes out of a total 867. Comments from voters choosing Abbot Hugh stated their choice would contribute to ‘righting the wrongs of the past’ and that the last Abbot of Reading needs ‘recognition’.
The winning figure was designed and carved by stonemason Alex Wenham for Cliveden Conservation and was unveiled by Cllr David Stevens, Mayor of Reading, on 19 June 2021 to mark the Abbey’s 900th anniversary.
The final design was developed with advice from local academics, historians and clergy, and was based on contemporary images of Hugh Faringdon and other 16th century abbots. As a result, the initial design was adapted to show Hugh as clean shaven and with a more ornate mitre and crozier. The pupils of his eyes were carved in as dark shadows, distinguishing them from the other 19th century headstops on the Gateway which have blank, classical-statue-type eyes. The design was approved by Historic England and received Scheduled Monument Consent from the Secretary of State for Culture.
The carving was Commended in the Carving, Lettering and Sculpture category at The Stone Federation of Great Britain’s Natural Stone Awards 2022.
Design for the 900th anniversary headstop of Hugh Faringdon, the last Abbot of Reading
I loved the Victorian school. Thank you Sir and strict Miss!- Schoolroom visitor, aged 8