Reading Abbey Revealed Project

In 2009 the remains of Reading Abbey were closed to the public. This was due to their deteriorating condition making them unsafe for visitors. The ‘Reading Abbey Revealed’ project was conceived by Reading Borough Council in 2010 to develop the Abbey Quarter. In December 2015 the project secured Heritage Lottery funding of £1.77m, with Reading Council match-funding of £1.37m from ring-fenced development contributions, making a total of £3.15m. Historic England funded the conservation of the refectory wall.

The Ruins re-opened to the public on 16 June 2018 and we celebrated the 900th anniversary of the Abbey in June 2021. The project was completed in December 2021.

What have we done?

Between 2010 and 2021 the Reading Abbey Revealed project:

  • Conserved the Abbey Ruins in five phases. Work started on the south transept in February 2017 finishing with the dormitory in May 2018. The Ruins re-opened to the public on 16 June 2018. Further conservation was undertaken in Autumn 2018 on the necessarium (monk's toilets) and dormitory, and on the south wall of the dormitory and the tunnel entrance from the Forbury Gardens in Summer 2020.
  • Undertaken vital internal and roof repairs to the Abbey Gateway that were completed in April 2018. Reading Museum’s Victorian Schoolroom moved into the Gateway in September 2018.
  • Created a new Story of Reading Gallery at Reading Museum where visitors can start their visit to the Abbey Quarter. This opened in February 2018.
  • Installed new information boards to explain the history of the Quarter and pedestrian directional signage from the railway station and The Oracle shopping centre in May and June 2018.
  • Created more opportunities for people to get involved through volunteering including guided walks, museum tours, costumed interpretation, events, talks and research into the Abbey’s history and its effect on the town. 
  • Delivered a programme of events, activities and outreach for the public to learn new things about the Abbey and increase their enjoyment and appreciation of the site. We created our activity programme after public consultations in 2014 and 2015 that received 2209 detailed responses. In 2021 we celebrated the 900th anniversary of Reading Abbey.
  • Opened the Ruins for venue hire including weddings, cinema or theatre performances to provide revenue for future maintenance costs.

Conservation work on the south transept chapels with Reading Gaol behind

Find out more about the project

Conservation of the Abbey

A key part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project was conserving the remains of the Abbey so that they could be re-opened to the public. In February 2017 CRL Restoration were appointed as our principal contractors. They in turn appointed Cliveden Conservation as specialist sub-contractors to work specifically on the Abbey Ruins. By May 2018 they had conserved the south transept including the founder's chapel, the chapter house, the refectory wall and the dormitory. The site reopened to the public on 16 June 2018.

There were three main elements to the conservation of the Abbey Ruins:

  1. Re-pointing of existing masonry - Using the ancient, but revived technique of hot-mixed lime mortar, our conservation team re-pointed the existing masonry to secure the flint and to prevent pieces falling out in the future.
  2. Restore fallen flint where possible and necessary - Since Reading Abbey closed in 2009 a vast amount of flint had fallen from its walls. Through detailed stone-loss monitoring we kept track of areas that have suffered worst. We were able to restore some of this fallen flint, and in some areas it was a necessary part of maintaining stability.
  3. Soft capping the tops of the walls - The deteriorating condition of Reading Abbey has mostly been due to water entering the core of the walls. Today's standing remains are the flint and lime mortar rubble centre of the original walls that were never intended to be exposed to the weather. Trial repairs highlighted that a sedum capping would be most effective. The sedum seeded in turf will absorb the majority of rainwater, preventing it entering the core of the wall.

Within the Abbey Gateway there had also been considerable water damage. A new roof covering has solved this issue. High level stonework has been repaired especially on the turrets and parapets. Asbestos has been removed and the inside of the gate has been updated and reconfigured to allow for a better use of the space by Reading Museum.

The conservation of the Ruins and Gateway was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Reading Council. Historic England funded the conservation of the refectory wall.

Ongoing conservation

Even after the completion of the major conservation work in spring 2018 there will always be a need to regularly monitor and maintain the Abbey Ruins and Gateway. As part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project our architects produced a 20 year management and maintenance plan identifying what surveys and routine maintenance will be required every year. These routine works will then be scheduled to take place annually after the worse of the winter weather and before invasive plants such as buddleia take root in spring.

Interpretation of the Abbey

A key part of the ‘Reading Abbey Revealed’ project was creating new signage and interpretation across the Abbey Quarter including:

  • Temporary interpretation during the conservation and building work, including scaffold banners, leaflets, 'Abbey on Wheels' pop-up displays, audio units and an exhibition at Reading Museum.
  • A new Story of Reading Gallery at Reading Museum that opened on 12 February 2018, it explores the abbey's history and its impact on the town. It is the best place to start your visit to the Abbey Quarter.
  • 27 information panels to explain the history of the Abbey Quarter and interpret the Abbey Ruins, installed in June 2018.
  • Directional signage linking the Reading Abbey Quarter from the railway station and The Oracle, and the wider town centre, installed in summer 2018.
  • An interactive online map of the Abbey Quarter on this website.

New museum gallery

The new Story of Reading Gallery on the ground floor of Reading Museum explores the history of Reading Abbey and its links to the town's development. The new gallery opened on 12 February 2018 and acts as a starting point for visiting the Abbey Quarter. Our blog describes how we went about creating this new exciting gallery. Further displays covering Reading's post-abbey history opened in early 2019.

New Interpretation panels

A key part of this project is putting 27 new interpretation panels across the Abbey Quarter and town centre highlighting the Abbey’s history. A prototype display panel about St. Mary’s Church was displayed in the Reading Abbey Quarter: Then & Now exhibition, in the Sir John Madjeski Gallery at Reading Museum over summer 2017. Museum staff and volunteers asked visitors for their views on the panel’s style, colour and how clearly the historical information was explained.

In September 2017 this panel was redesigned based on our visitor feedback and moved to outside St. Mary’s Church, near the Minster Street entrance of John Lewis, where our volunteers and staff asked passers-by for their views. The results from these surveys have helped us assess the appeal and interest in these boards and then tailor the other panels created for the Abbey Quarter.

We have already shared some of your feedback on the Reading Museum blog.