Self Guided Tour
These public gardens were once the site of the dwelling of the rector of St Peter's Church, but from Tudor times they were the home of private families. These families each stayed more than 100 years. First were William and Katherine Alexander and their children who came in 1586. He was a money-lender, the records of whose legal battles are at the National Archives. Then Thomas Loveday, a goldsmith, left London in 1666 to escape the plague and settled in the Old Rectory. His family stayed until about 1800, his son John leaving letters and diaries about life in the house and gardens. Next were four generations of the Simonds family, Reading bankers and brewers, who stayed until 1911 and left good records behind them. In 1933 the house was demolished and the gardens were opened by Reading Borough Council for all to enjoy. They were restored in 2009 using Heritage Lottery funding. This leaflet will take you on a tour of the gardens and the footprints of the house as it developed over time but you will find interpretation boards at three locations that will tell you more about them as well as about the people and events connected with them.
Start at the main entrance gates on Church Road. The impressive stone entrance was reconstructed during the restoration of the gardens, and is a replica of the original gateway. In front of you is the first of the interpretation boards with a map of the gardens. The mound near the board is an air raid shelter from World War II. It now houses Thames Water pumping equipment. With your back to the main entrance gates look to your left to see the very old mulberry tree that has fallen but which is still alive. There are four young trees in the courtyard to replace it when the time comes. Ahead of you is the turning circle, directly outside the big house, where carriages or cars could pull up or turn into the stables or garages.
Look to your right and you will see another smaller entrance with oak gates, through which the vehicles would have passed. These gates are original and have been carefully restored. We think they date from the early 1800s. The gateways made of earlier material; there is a date stone inset above the gate MDLI (1551). Now turn around to look at the walls on either side of the two pairs of gates. These were probably also built in the early 1800s but you will notice that they are built with different materials, and the style varies slightly too. The brick and stone walls were almost certainly built using materials from an earlier wall that was moved in order to enlarge the entrance courtyard. The position of the earlier wall is marked in brick on the ground just beyond the flower font in front of you.
Go through the wooden gates, then turn left and you will see the old stable yard. It originally extended right up to the edge of Church Road but it was reduced in size in 1933 to allow easier access to St Peter's Hill. A coachman's cottage stood where you now see the grass area and flower bed. The brick building straight ahead of you, which was built around 500 years ago in William Alexander's time, was originally a laundry and brew house. In more recent times it has been used for stabling. Looking into the stable yard you will see some garages on your right. Through the years these buildings, or their predecessors, have had several uses. They were originally stables and kennels. In 1909, for example, they were referred to as a coach house or motor house.
Go back through the gates the way you came. Turn right and follow the path to a small archway. Go through it and turn left. You are now on the other side of the stable block. This was the tradesman's entrance to the house. Servants would have been out of sight of the main entrance here, able to enter the service end of the house across a brick paved courtyard.
Turn right and climb the steps to the top of the bank and the Gallery Garden. From here there is a good view of the site of the house above the banks of the River Thames. Look at the interpretation boards which show you how we think the house developed over time, from a small dwelling for the priest of St Peter's Church in medieval times, first to an impressive black and white building of some importance, home to the Alexanders and the Lovedays and finally to the stone house with turrets and battlements where the Simonds lived during the nineteenth century. Below you is the lavender bank that has in mid-summer the colours and patterning of an Impressionist painting. It is planted with nectar-rich species to attract bees and other insects. From here you can see beyond the bank to the footprints of the house, the earlier one in brick, the later one in brick and stone, and appreciate their size and location.
A long gallery situated on the first floor of the house in the Lovedays time led straight out in this area, at the top of the bank, the Gallery Garden. The family used this as a private route, through the gate in the wall, to the church. The priest who served the church would have also followed a similar route from his rectory up the bank to the church. Today the many people who cut through the gardens each day enjoy and appreciate the winter-flowering scented plants along the steps and around the gallery.
Take some time to look through the other gate in the Gallery Garden. You are looking into the Kitchen Garden of the house. The area has been used for allotments since World War II but in the past it had a very important role producing fruit and vegetables all the year round for the large household. On the right, looking through the gate, a brick wall divides the Kitchen Garden from the higher churchyard. It consists of a series of bays whose curves retain the sun's heat in the bricks and encourage the early ripening of fruit planted against it, and buttresses which give it strength. It is thought to date from the sixteenth century, but there is evidence that it has been increased in height over the years, probably to support the growing depth of the churchyard as more burials took place! It is now planted with figs, apples, pears, cherries and plums using varieties as far as is possible that were bred in Berkshire.
If you would like to follow the extended route around the garden and see the western boundary wall, go through the churchyard gate and turn left, passing the church on your right. You may also want to visit the church while passing. If you go in, do look at the bowl of the font, which dates from Norman times. It was found buried in the gardens and restored to the church. We don't know the story about its removal. Near the altar, on the right high up on the wall, you will see a memorial to the Loveday family. On the left against the wall is an old black weather vane dated 1663 which is reputed to have come from the Gazebo.
When you reach the road, turn left and walk down the hill. After 50 metres you will see a sloping path to a gate leading into the back of the Victorian productive gardens, known as the Western Gardens. Walk a few metres passed the gate to get a clear view of the western boundary wall and its buttresses. There was a peach house along the inside of its length and a palm house further down in the Simonds' time. One might expect a wall in this position to be a heated wall but, if it is, then the source of heat is a mystery still to be solved. The brick work is Victorian and the wall is the depth of one brick thick. Thee are no flues in it to send warm air from a heat source. There is no sign of pipe work on the other side. We think the buttresses were added when the wall was made higher between about 1875 and 1885 because the brickwork is not keyed into the wall at the lower levels but it is at the top. The terracotta pipes inside the buttresses are not chimneys as had been thought but open at the top to a flowerpot shape. Glazed pipes below link them to the side exit on each buttress. All suggestions as to what the system was for gratefully considered!
A little further down the hill the wall has had a further increase in height for a short distance. This marks the location of the former Palm House on the other side of the wall. Its back wall and the curved shape of its roof is still marked out on the wall and fragments of lightweight 'stone' still adhering suggest that rock work and flowing water provided a decorative back-drop and theme to the interior of the Palm House. The Western Gardens originally extended down to the banks of the Thames but the lower part of this end of the garden now houses the Reading Canoe Club.
Now retrace your steps passed the church to the garden. From the Gallery Garden go down the steps and through the arch in the wall on your right. Follow the path to the footprint indicating the main entrance to the house. You can now walk around 'the house' and imagine what it would have been like living there between about 1860 and 1930 when the Simonds family owned it. In 1881 they had nine living-in domestic servants. In each room you will find a plaque on the ground that indicates the use of the room, and in the central courtyard a floor plaque shows a plan of the house. From the entrance hall walk around the house in a clockwise direction to experience first the grander family reception rooms followed later by the servants' quarters. Underneath the house are Tudor beer and Regency wine cellars. Notice the fernery on the higher level that led from the house out to the decorative and kitchen gardens now behind the yew hedge. This would have been a glasshouse similar in style to the Palm House but on a domestic scale.
Leave the house via the main entrance and take the path to your right next to the box hedge. Continue to the end of the box hedge, turn right and walk along the Long Walk. On your left you will see the lawns that were formerly used for croquet and tennis by the occupants of the house. On your right you will pass the old yew hedge that is over 250 years old and trimmed in cloud style. It forms the southern boundary of the Kitchen Garden and is underplanted with catmint. If you look over the low wall on your left you will see the first of two long flower borders in the garden. this first one, the Eastern Border, contains lots of colourful plants and foliage in a style that a Victorian family like the Simonds would have enjoyed. This border is not an historic re-creation; but has modern varieties of plants that grow well and provide lots of interest.
At the end of this border you will come to two stone griffins on their plinths. The left hand griffin has been carved recently, as the original was missing, but the right hand griffin is original, although worn through age and weathering. On both stone plinths, lower down, there are cat like corbels which are thought to be over 900 years old. The tree immediately below, with a seat round it, is a black walnut, valued for furniture making and for the brown dye in its nutshells and their husks. Look through the gates opposite the griffins to enjoy a good view of the curved wall in the Kitchen Garden. It is thought that rainwater from the church roof was used to irrigate the Kitchen Garden in the past. Today we recycle water from the stable block, which is stored in a huge tank buried in the Kitchen Garden.
Coninue along the Long Walk and look over the low wall again to see the Western Border which has been planted with clipped hedges and topiary that was common in gardens about 300-400 years ago and which would have been familiar to the Lovedays. In 2017 its box hedges, suffering from blight, were replaced with small leaved Japanese holly and flowering plants added in shades of mauve and pink to contrast with the Eastern Border.
At the end of the Long Walk turn left onto the raised Causeway which leads to the first floor of the Gazebo. On the ground you will find the timeline which records the names of known residents of the house from medieval times until 1933, when the house was demolished. One metre distance represents 100 years. The timeline also records important British historical dates over the last 2,000 years and one can see what was happening in our country when the different families lived here. Robert Newport, a Catholic staying with William Alexander in 1605, was on a list of men published on 6 November that year who might have been implicated in the 'Gunpowder Plot'
The Gazebo is thought o date from the early 1600s. The wind vane is a copy of the one now in St Peter's Church. 'Gazebo' means a place from which to gaze at the view. The first floor of the Gazebo was intended to give far-reaching views up and down the river. Over the years it has been referred to as a summerhouse and a tearoom, both names suggesting the way it was used. John Loveday's daughter wrote how the family loved to be in the summerhouse on a warm evening to watch the moonlight on the water, listen to the sounds of oars up the river and to smell the honeysuckle which grew in the garden. During the Civil War there was fighting between the Royalsts and Parliamentarians along the riverside as Reading was besieged by both sides and in 1643 a battle was fought on Caversham Bridge but the building survived and is the only one of its kind on the Thames offering public access. In the Gazebo, interpretation boards tell the story of the key people who lived in the house, show their portraits and describe events connected with the house and gardens.
Retrace your steps along the Causeway. If you look to your left, the Causeway gives a good view into the Western Gardens, the site of a magnificent range of glasshouses, including the Palm House in which Mr Simonds' gardeners grew prize-winning foliage plants, tree ferns, palms and orchids. New pleached (trained) lime trees along the side of the Causeway mark the location of a much longer line of limes thought to have been planted by John Loveday.
At the end of the Causeway, turn right and go down the steps. Follow the path downhill, but stop to admire the very old yew tree on the left. this tree is known as the "Family Yew' as low branches have rooted around the mother trunk and have produced new smaller trees - the children. They are under-planted with snowdrops.
As the path turns to the left, stop and look through the Gazebo gates to the small room beneath. This is the route the family will have taken to admire the contents of their glasshouses in Victorian times, or simply to sit and talk. We have created a small 'Secret Garden' beyond the Gazebo to provide a pleasant view. Below the Gazebo there was a boathouse. A short length of wall marks its location.
Continue along the path which leads downhill towards the river. When the gardens were opened to the public in 1933 a row of Lombardy Poplars were planted along the river bank. They were felled in the 1980s. Since that time most of the trees you see today are self-seeded ash and sycamores and some yews, apart from the new pin oaks and red maple that will eventually form magnificent trees to grace this area of the gardens. Most of the fine trees on the main lawn, Atlas cedar, copper beach, cedar of Lebanon and sequoia, were planted in the nineteenth century.
Ahead of you as you follow the path is the White Garden planted in 2017. It has white-stemmed birches, under-planted with tall hydrangeas and with snowdrops. The Riverside Walk then leads you to the only twentieth-century building in the gardens.
The Arts and Crafts-style Tea Kiosk was built in 1934, using materials from the demolished house. Look at the walls and you should be able to find tiles, stone, and also bricks of at least two sizes - the smaller are probably over 400 years old, while the larger are over 100-200 years old. Local charities now sell refreshments from spring to late summer from the Kiosk overlooking the river. You will also find information leaflets and an excellent heritage guide book about the gardens at the kiosk.
Toilets are located at the other end of the building.
The lawn in front of you, on the middle terrace, was overlooked by the main reception rooms of the house. It was where the Simonds family entertained each year during the Reading and Caversham Regatta, having a good view of the winning post. In Edwardian times the lawn was framed with decorative ivy swags on the southern side - ivy was grown up posts, and along ropes joining the line of posts. Beyond the central open lawn the fine specimen trees, including a pine and tulip tree provide interest and shade.
Walk towards the Vinery that is backed by a high wall beyond the Kiosk. A metal frame now re-creates a major part of the former glasshouse and has vines growing on it. Enter the Vinery near what was once a pond. The Victorian period was one of 'fern fever' when every house and garden had its own display. The pond will hold a 'stumpery', a variation of a rockery, an ecologically-friendly collection of stumps and logs in soil in which to display ferns.
Follow the steps and path down to the underground Vaults which housed a potting shed and the heating system. You will find interesting information about the gardens over the last 300 years inside the Vaults. When you leave the Vinery either turn left and proceed up the ramp at the far end of the Vinery, or turn right and climb the steps. Either route will take you up to the Long Walk, which leads you back to the House Footprint and Mulberry Court next to the Entrance Gate.
We hope that you have enjoyed the tour and that you will make a return visit.