About a decade ago I was told a tale about Reading town centre, where the whole area outside the station was hollow, and used in the dispersed manufacture of spitfire parts; namely fuselages at Vincent’s coach works, where my friend’s father used to work.
Tunnels ran beneath the station, where parts would apparently be ferried on a narrow gauge railway into the freight marshalling yards to the north of the station and sent on their way along with parts made in other dispersed factories, such as the one on Star Road, in Caversham, to, I presume, RAF Crazies hill in Henley on Thames, where they were assembled and flight tested, often by pilots of the WRAF.
This all seemed a bit strange, I knew the area well and had no idea the town’s floors were false so it took a while to comprehend how it could be possible for such a feature to exist. After years of research, with no other source of information supporting this theory it was difficult to determine whether this lead was even worth investing any more time in, but being so close to home, and walked over almost every day, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the story and fell in love with the fantasy that it could all be true. Old maps did show the ground dropping away into a depression, and occasionally I’d get the odd reference suggesting there might be something there but I never once got a lead that confirmed there was truth in any of this. Most people I’d asked simply referred to the pedestrian subway which I was well aware of. Contacts at Reading station had put forward my requests to access the tunnels, but these were fruitless.
With extensive redevelopment around the station from 2010, things started changing. Widening of the track meant the bridges had to be replaced and opposite the fire station on Caversham Road, an opportunity was presented to access a mysterious pair of doors leading into the railway embankment. I’d long thought this would be a potential access point into the factory but upon entering the doors, there was nothing but a large rectangular room. The far wall of which was built from red brick, not the surrounding blue engineering bricks of the railway embankment. A concrete lintel suggested this may have been a sealed portal into the tunnels but there was no way of finding out.
Builders had also excavated a small tunnel which ran parallel with the road, most probably a drain connected to the Portman Brook, which adjoins the Vastern Ditch on the roundabout near TGI Fridays. By the time I got there, foundations had been dug for the extension of the bridge and the tunnel had been capped and sealed with concrete which had been laid just hours before. In the photograph, the brick arch of the small tunnel is partially visible in the trench on the left.
At the other end of the station, an old brick engine shed down by the Reading bridge roundabout was up for demolition. I managed to get into the building on one occasion. Through the junk and vast amounts of pigeon shit was an unexpected sight. I could see a large portal into the embankment, large enough to carry a train. It was sealed up with sheets of iron. A small door led into the portal, I entered only to find it led to an arched cavity several metres deep, with a shaft leading up to the railway above. I have no idea what this was for, and unfortunately the photographs were lost when a hard drive crashed several years ago.
Things went quiet and I moved on, thinking there would be no chance I’d get anywhere closer to finding out the truth. Work started taking me everywhere apart from Reading and for the next couple of years, I barely ever ventured into town. When I did, I was faced with a sad sight. Not only had my source been correct but there was far more to the site than I’d ever imagined. Upon arrival at Reading Station, a vast hole had been ripped out of the town. The whole of Station Hill had been torn up, revealing the site I’d spent so long trying to access. I wanted to get in, and shoot what remained, but the site had an understandable level of high security and there appeared to be little chance of it happening. I just got to stand there and watch it all get demolished, and knowing Reading Borough Council, it would have just been bulldozed without any real consideration of it’s historical significance.
Come July 2013, I was back in town much more frequently and I got to walk past Station Hill and see the changes as they happened. With more research, a couple of photographs from the era revealed some interesting information. It turned out that during the widening of Station Hill in the 1930’s, a large air raid shelter was built under the road, complete with a decontamination centre. A subway was dug under the railway at the same time and apart from several years of recent disuse and neglect, that same subway remains in use up until this day. The shelter had a capacity of 770 people and would have to have been reasonably large to accommodate it’s that many people, including staff and facilities. Images depict the construction of Station Hill, as it became known, but I have found nothing so far that shows the shelter itself, apart from a small glimpse of a possible entrance. Many of these images never reached the paper, likely due to wartime censorship.
When it came to it, gaining access to the site was very easy and although the majority of the structure had been destroyed, a small section has been retained, a void which will remain hidden away from the public’s view. This runs alongside the outer concrete wall of the former Bar Oz nightclub and underneath the pavement, up to the new station steps. The structure certainly has a wartime feel to it, and was clearly hastily built but now only the old peeling paintwork hints at its wartime use.