The Abbey Quarter in Central Reading is home to numerous historic features which are recognised as having national as well as local importance. Two of these features, the Abbey Ruins and the Abbey Gateway have, over the years, fallen into disrepair, and were the subject of extensive works to restore them.
As part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project, Reading Borough Council (RBC) has a vision to develop and transform Reading’s Abbey Quarter, which encompasses the Abbey Ruins and Abbey Gateway, into a unique historical and cultural destination. After 9 years and thanks to funding support from the Heritage Lottery Fund in April of 2018, the Gatehouse was again opened to the general public.
The Abbey was founded in 1121 by King Henry I, where he was buried in 1136, and it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.
In 2013, a condition survey was carried out which enabled repair and conservation proposals to be drawn up, and in December 2015, Reading Borough Council announced its successful £1.77 million bid for Heritage Lottery Fund support for the ‘Reading Abbey Revealed’ project. The award meant the Council could finally fulfil its long-standing ambition to re-open the Abbey Ruins to the public and restore and renovate the Gatehouse. Through the council’s match funding of £1.38million into the project, the projects could now go ahead.
In December 2016, a tender was issued to carry out the consolidation, repairs and extensive conservation of the ruins, as well as the restoration, conservation and new works to the Gatehouse. In February 2017 following a conventional open single stage tender process, CRL Restoration was awarded the contract with a value of £1.4million.
The works to the standing remains were carried out in three phases. First, the south transept and its chapels, then the chapter house area and finally the dormitory and reredorter. Once the scaffolding has been erected, a detailed survey was carried out to determine the actual condition of the wall, remove any loose stones, or flint, and decide what repairs, and or consolidation need to be carried out. This was then agreed with the conservation architects and Historic England.
Scope of works:
- repairs to twentieth-century hard cappings
- application of soft cappings
- consolidation of loose mortar rubble surfaces
- spot-patching of damaged areas of historically significant mortar surfaces
- lime shelter coating of significant stone work
- re-pointing of flint and rubble walls
- re-bedding loose stones
- construction of sacrificial facings
- partial arch reinstatements
External work features to enhance the interpretation of the Ruins included:
- cut flint ground strips
- steel edgings and slabs to mark the location of lost walls
- the installation of new interpretation panels and ground plaques
- the construction of a viewing mound at the original floor level within the former dormitory
Stones which had fallen out of the wall over the years had been collected and stored and were used to build up areas of the wall which have eroded over time. This not only added to the stability of the wall but helps with water run-off. Where necessary, sacrificial facings were also constructed and partial arches reinstated.
Of interest on this project is that in conjunction with Historic England and the conservation architects, although the original specification and tender were based on using a NHL mortar, it was decided to use traditional hot-mixed lime mortars to carry out all the different types of repairs to the ruins. This is a method of mixing lime mortars which goes back hundreds of years and is the method that would probably have been used to build the ruin walls 900 years ago! The decision to use hot-mixed lime mortar to carry out the repairs has been shown to be the correct one. The conservators carrying out the consolidation works insist that the various types of consolidation repairs carried out could not have been done using a NHL mortar!
Of equal importance to the consolidation works was the installation of ‘soft’ capping to the tops of the walls. The deteriorating condition of Reading Abbey had been 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. Historic England recommends that, where possible, turf sourced from the immediate area is used for soft capping, and this ensured that the species were well suited for the conditions. Sedum plugs were used around the edges of the turf. The turf will absorb the majority of rain water, preventing it entering the core of the wall. The soft capping also acts as an insulant, preventing the freeze-thaw cycle, and the worst effects of the weather.