The Holy Brook is a relatively small side stream of the River Kennet in Berkshire. It’s path takes it across the South West of Reading, through to the town centre where it merges back onto the Kennet and Avon Canal beside the picturesque ruins of Reading Abbey. The watercourse runs for around six miles and most of this course is a familiar scene to those who live in the area, but there are some parts of the brook which most people are guaranteed to have never seen before.
The Arrowhead in Theale marks the brook’s departure from the main stream of the Kennet. An area well known for it’s Barbel fishing. It is believed that monks originally dug, or at least extensively managed the course of the stream to feed two mills; Calcot Mill on the edge of town, and Abbey Mill, right in the Centre. The brook runs at a higher level than the Kennet which suggests an artificial head had been created for milling. The sole remaining wall of the medieval Abbey Mill was rediscovered in the 1960’s when a more recent Saw mill building of the same name was demolished. The flint arch of the old mill can now be seen straddling the open brook down by ‘The Blade’; Reading’s latest attempt at a sky scraper. It’s contrast against the modern architecture makes for a pleasant scene in the midst of Reading’s central business district.
For most of it’s length the brook is open as it runs through it’s rural surroundings but as it reaches the town a series of culverts hide it from view for around six hundred metres, with only a handful of open sections along the way. This area runs right underneath some of the busiest parts of the town, including the Oracle shopping centre, the Purple Turtle bar, Reading Library and even runs right underneath the junction at Jackson’s corner.
This is a world few ever get to see but I was lucky enough to have drifted down the brook when I was 11, back in a time when Scout groups could casually take kids down potentially dangerous places like this on a normal Monday evening. Times have changed and it’s a great shame kids don’t get to participate in these activities any more. It makes sense to let young people explore the stranger parts of their world in a supervised situation, it was a brilliant experience, one which eventually helped me when I returned with a camera nearly 20 years later.
John Speed’s map of Reading (C.1610) shows the brook as an open stream with four bridges, and Abbey Mill crossing it in the town centre. Also note the brook was then named the Hallowed Brooke. The monks at Reading Abbey were notorious for their unusual attention to water management but this consisted of revetting the stream and creating drainage gullies, not culverts. Local legends claim that stone removed from Reading abbey after it’s dissolution and destruction was used to culvert the brook at some point in the 17th century. This relates to the attractive ribbed section behind Castle St, under what was once the Castle St Brewery and later, the Simond’s Brewery. Evidence collected during a 2005 archaeological watching brief during repair work disproves the rumours due to the dates but the abbey’s reclaimed stone could well have been used here, as it was for General Conway’s bridge at Park Place in Henley in 1763.
A later map from 1835 shows that most of the brook’s course through the town has now been culverted and buried out of view. Other cartographic evidence shows that the various culvert sections were most probably built in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s. As the years have passed various sections have been demolished, rebuilt, and in some cases left open to the world with the stumps of old arches visible in the brick work.
Entering the culverted brook at the upstream end, next to Reading’s Internal Distribution Road (IDR) the channel is deep and silty with very low bridges. There are lots of underwater obstacles to trip over, mostly decaying branches from the trees above. Some low bridges give less than six inches headroom above the water level, making for a back breaking stoop. Across town at the downstream end access is much easier. The bed is chalky and the water is shallow, so I will attempt to describe the route from the downstream end up.
After running through a modern concrete pipe section under an office block there is an open section beside the Blade and the old wall of Abbey Mill. The Library is the next building over the brook before the first main culvert section begins. Avoiding attention from passers by is difficult with the loud sloshing noises made by wading through the shin deep water reverberating onto the busy streets above. A brief opening at the entrance to the library is another familiar sight for those on the surface.
Into this section, the first part underneath Abbey Square has a pleasant vaulted brick ceiling before joining a lower section supported by iron girders, perpendicular to the flow. This runs straight under what is currently a Chennai Dosa restaurant, then across King’s Road and under the junction at Jackson’s corner where it clips the edge of a building now being used by Weight Watchers. The construction here is a very old arched brick style which is most probably Victorian, some parts possibly much earlier. There are also areas which have clearly been demolished and rebuilt over the years as the town centre has regenerated.
On the surface just south of the pelican crossing on Duke St a manhole cover marks the course of the brook. The rumble of traffic overhead is clearly audible for the whole of this stretch. Depending what time you were to visit, daylight may just visible in the distance as the brook makes a slight turn towards the south as it passes under the Royal Tandoori restaurant. The strong smell of curry definitely teases a hungry stomach, wading against the current uses a lot of energy and already makes for hard work.
A breath of fresh air is welcome after the first culvert, especially if it is laced with spice. High above the brook the glass dome of the King’s Walk shopping centre dominates the skyline and part of a 20th century building spans the brook before it heads under the mall. Apart from a potential trip hazard from a submerged pipe crossing the water, the brook here is bedded with concrete and easy to walk on, offering brief respite from the relentless flow before the longest section of culvert ahead. This section would have undoubtedly changed a great deal since my last visit which was several years before the construction of the Oracle shopping centre so I was not sure what to expect.
One of the most appealing features of the brook is the opportunity to look up through a round glass window in the floor of King’s walk. This wasn’t as glorious as I remembered it and the narrow culvert concentrates the flow to the point where the camera isn’t safe on the tripod so I’m yet to get a shot. The shopping centre is one of the less frequented parts of the town, but would make for an entertaining moment if anyone were to be looking down from above.
The brook has a modern, box like construction underneath the mall and also narrows here, becoming deeper and faster, with a height of four feet which leads to more back aching stoops. Rags hang down from the ceiling above, coated in the webs of spiders that I’d rather not have had the pleasure of meeting at first, but have now got to know them fairly well over the numerous visits I have made. The culvert then makes a tight turn to the north, back into an old arched construction which is low and difficult to move over. With a modern pipe section visible ahead I presume this marks the boundary of the Oracle. This section was a long section of old brick arches before the Oracle, and has changed dramatically. I quite like the aesthetic qualities of the corrugated steel but it is slippery and difficult to traverse. The small tunnel again adds to the current making the water deeper and faster.
The pipe section runs underneath the HMV store in the Oracle and gently opens out into a slightly wider oblong shape, which makes walking far easier as it curves back round to the west. This is followed by more old, differing brick sections with beautiful textures in the walls left behind by centuries of river deposits and encrusted spider’s webs.
Light from the world above is seen in the distance, this is one of the most familiar views of the brook as a walkway leads over it into one of the main entrances of the Oracle. A low stoop under a very rocky patch makes for a difficult exit and the inevitable, face hugging by the unfortunate resident spiders. Once past the two heavy chains the brook is full of lush green streamer weed. The passers by, and even the security guards pay no attention, oblivious to the presence of anyone in the channel below.
After the Ghurka Square restaurant the brook runs under the garden of the Purple Turtle, then right underneath what was the Fez Club, now Sakura and past Zero Degrees with a couple of open areas on the way. Under here the DJ’s provided a good soundtrack which echoed deep into the culvert. I wonder if anyone questioned the lights and sounds coming from the stream below.
The exact location of Bridge St is clearly given away by the sounds of traffic passing over head. A couple of wider chambers of Victorian era have attractive brick drains which would have once flowed into them, presumably associated with the breweries. Today they are clear and bone dry. As the brook flows behind several solicitor’s offices on Castle Street, the culvert becomes Grade II listed. This section takes on an attractive, ribbed stone lining constructed from blocks of limestone. The build is quite a mish-mash of different stone sections. Some parts are clean blocks roughly 25cm square, but others are clearly arches of decorative stone coping. Unfortunately this section has to be the hardest of all to photograph, with a very low roof and little room to manoeuvre. The stone clearly shows some recent repair work, and also signs of bowing. Strangely, shows an inspection hatch driven right through the listed ceiling. The logic of which is confusing, but the hatch allows enough room for one to stand straight to enjoy a short break while the people leaving the bars walk over the grille, inches above.
Leaving this section of culvert you pass through a modern box section and more low victorian arches. There isn’t anywhere near as much headroom up here and I neglected it from my photographic tour out of pure exhaustion. The one interesting feature is on the infall of the culvert, one more rib of stone coping which again oozes medieval religious flavours. After that it’s plain sailing and a luxury to be able to stand straight.