Transcript: Pies, Pints and Protest

  1. Main Door of Minster

Speaker1: Okay are we ready? Log two, trouble’s going, trouble’s gone.


Fiona Talkington: Hello, I’m Fiona Talkington, and it’s my pleasure to be your guide on this audio trail. My own work as a broadcaster has taken me to many different parts of the world – from the last town before you reach the North Pole to the sultry heat of America’s Mid-west. But actually, I’m a Reading girl, born and bred. It’s where I call home. It’s where I grew up. And I’d love it if you explored this corner of the town with me.

Let’s leave this beautiful church of St Mary’s now and keep walking down the path to join the pavement, turning left and following the wall by the churchyard. It’s a busy route, we’ll be making stops along the way so do take care and use the crossings which I’ll be pointing out.

Keep walking now until there’s a space to sit on the wall by the traffic lights opposite The Horn.

2. Churchyard wall opposite The Horn


Fiona Talkington: Well, shall we just get our bearings before we walk? We’re at a crossroads, which dates back to Saxon times. It was probably a bit quieter then! Looking to our left is Bridge Street, which crosses the River Kennet carrying through to where we are at St Mary’s Butts, the north/south route through the town. Behind, to our left, is Gun Street, which heads straight up after the traffic lights to Castle Street, forming the east/west route.

And it’s to Castle Street we’re heading in just a moment, but we will be coming back here to find a 16th century inn which is further along St Mary’s Butts to our right, the Allied Arms, where we’re promised a warm welcome.


So if you’re ready to go, come with me and we’ll find the site of the old County Jail, one time stabling for horses and elephants. We’ll discover where Reading’s first paving stone was laid, smell the best pies in town, say hello to one of Reading’s best known dogs and find the blue plaque, which commemorates one of Reading’s most influential women.

We’re aiming first for the 17th century inn opposite, – the Horn. There’s a crossing just to our left which will take us across the road. There are buses and cars coming in all directions so  do take care .

Pause the recording while you cross the road and I’ll see you on the other side outside The Horn when you can press play again.

3  Outside “The Horn” going in to Castle Street


Fiona Talkington:Well, here we are. Sadly “The Horn’s” closed now, but it’s  survived since the 16 hundreds so maybe it’s got the strength to flourish again.

Now let’s walk around the corner into Castle Street. 

3. Sweeneys

Fiona Talkington: Now if you’re lucky there’s the smell of baking and our next stop is outside Sweeney and Todd’s, a true icon of Reading, who’ve been making award-winning pies for nearly 45 years.


While my nose is  pressed up against the window – Pork and Apple, Steak and Mushroom, Lamb and Mint, Chicken and Leek, Sweeney’s special.   There’s a very tempting list!

The Sweeney legend dates back to the 14th century when a certain barber in Paris is said to have cut throats and disposed of his victims in a highly unconventional manner.


Don’t say anything, there’s a barber’s next door!!

As we keep walking we soon find ourselves by the formidable pillars of St Mary’s Episcopal Church.

4.         St Mary’s Castle Street/ The Sun Inn

Fiona Talkington: The stone has been nibbled by time, the heavy-duty  doors look as if they’re  guarding a vast vault, but it’s really beautiful inside. This church dates back to 1798, formed by a break-away congregation from the Church of St Giles just to the south of the centre, who built a chapel on the site of the former County Jail.  This building  and the mighty columns date from 1840, and, if you’re from Reading you might notice a similarity with our Royal Berkshire Hospital – the two buildings share the architects Henry and Nathaniel Briant.


I remember singing here some years ago with the rather wonderful Reading Haydn Choir – Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah which he actually wrote for the Birmingham Festival, so not too far away from here.


Fiona Talkington: Next to the Church is the Sun another of Reading’s historic inns dating back to the 17th century.

It’s a place with many stories to tell. Its cellars are said to have belonged to the old County Jail  and that’s why it had room to stable 40 horses.  When the circus came to town in 1947 they offered stabling to the elephants and rumour has it that an elephant stampede caused the cellars to collapse.


This is a good place to  look across to the other side of the road  and notice some of the archways which would have once welcomed horses and carriages.  Some still have the old mounting blocks at the back.

Walk past the Sun and we’re  at a road that comes off Castle Street by a mini roundabout. We’re going to cross this until we’re outside the modern buildings of the Magistrates Court.

There are no traffic lights or crossings here  so you might want to pause your recording again while we cross the road, and just restart on the other side.

5. Outside Magistrates

Fiona Talkington: The area here was once very, very different as historian Margaret Simons describes as we walk along as far as the next pedestrian crossing just before the roundabout.

Margaret Simons: Pre 1970s when all these newer buildings arrived, there was a similar set of buildings to what we see on the south side of Castle Street, all built during the early part of the 19th century, maybe a few before and maybe a few later. So you would have seen a very busy thoroughfare with lots of commercial properties, lots of domestic properties.

There were other breweries down, down Castle Street, so a very mixed community. And these buildings fronted courts and alleys that had been developed during the 19th century that lay behind that were built on gardens and what would have been land where there were orchards, perhaps some allotment type of ground. And so as Reading grew during the 19th century, so the building expanded to fill the gaps.


It would have been, as you say, we’ve got the traffic motorcar today, but it would have been very different. First of all, we wouldn’t have had any proper surface on the road. So it would have been a sort of a compacted earth. Before it was tarmacked it would have been a compacted earth which was very, very dusty in the summer and very muddy in the winter-time. But as this was the main A4 route through to Bath, so from London to the West Country, there would have been a lot of commercial traffic, the coach traffic, which started when the, with the development of the turnpikes and we had a turnpike just up the end of Castle Street till 1864. So lots of carts as well as coaches because as I mentioned, Reading was this important market town.

So it drew a lot of carriers in from the surrounding countryside. They would be bringing goods into market goods into the shops to sell and they would be taking goods out. They would take orders from people on their way in and they would drop them off on their way out. Once Castle Street got macadamised and they started putting tarmac down, which would have been towards the end last about, last 25 years, then obviously it would have been the noise of the cart wheels and the horses hooves. So there would have been that clip clop and it would have, it could have been quite a noisy sort of set up coming up and down along, along here. And particularly if you can imagine coming in, if you were a farmer, bringing your goods in on market day, if you lived along here, you would have had an early morning wake up call.


Fiona Talkington: Margaret mentioned all the breweries and those would have had a pungent smell too. Reading’s famous Simonds brewery was once behind the houses on the other side of Castle Street and I definitely remember turning my nose up at that smell of hops when I was a child.

We’re going to cross now to the other side of Castle Street. There’s a double crossing here. Perhaps this is a good moment to pause again, and once across just take a few steps to your right.

6          Holybrook House


Fiona Talkington: We’re outside number 63 Castle Street now,  the rather fine Holybrook  House. As you can see lots of companies  have their offices here now, but this was once home to dignitaries and mayors of Reading. 


Somewhere beneath the tarmac here is Reading’s first paving stone laid on 8th August 1785 Well, maybe it is still there. But it’s certainly in this street that the Corporation, the Council, began Reading’s pavements.

Let’s walk down the street a few steps and stop outside a white house, No 55. You can’t miss it, there’s a stone dog above the doorway.

7          Talbot House/Phoebe Cusden

Fiona Talkington: This is Talbot House, named after a breed of dog, now extinct but it was an ancestor of the present day beagle. But most importantly this building was once home to a truly inspirational woman Phoebe Cusden. The blue plaque tells us that she lived here from 1927 until 1980,  that was the year before she died aged 93.


“Educationalist, peace campaigner, socialist, feminist, borough councillor”. In 1946 she became Mayor of Reading. And in 1947 she was co-founder of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, and I’m sure she would have been delighted to know that the relationship between the twin towns continues to thrive with educational, business and cultural exchanges. 


If you look down now you’ll see a circular iron grid in the pavement. That was  where the coal was delivered to the house brought probably by horse-drawn carts so no sooty sacks and deliveries to the house itself!

Now we only have to take a few steps before  a breathtaking view comes into sight.

8.         Almshouses


Fiona Talkington: Here at No 53 are the splendid Vachel Almshouses, founded in 1634 in St Mary’s Butts,  by Sir Thomas Vachel. The original buildings were demolished in 1867 and replaced with these buildings in Castle Street. Two rows of two-storey  red-brick cottages sloping down to the waters of  the Holybrook. Beautiful doorways and porches, splendid chimneys, and a real oasis.

Let’s keep walking down the road and I’m just enjoying these large front doors with fanlights above. It’s thought that the businesses that ran from these buildings on the street front had their domestic quarters at the back, enjoying a beautiful view over Reading’s fields. As the businesses became more affluent some of the owners began to move out to the country and come in to Reading each day. So Reading’s first commuters.

One of the things I love most about Castle Street is the view as we walk back towards St Mary’s Butts. There’s something rather special, and elegant about the way the road curves and  as we look across the road we can see the top of St Mary’s Castle street now. It’s sad that the pepper-box tower is no longer there, taken down because it became unsafe, but you can see a picture of it on Reading Museum’s online blogs of the area.

Carry on walking  now, perhaps thinking back to the sights and sounds of years gone by, until you come to No 17 Castle Street.


Nos 15 and 17 are three-storey gabled buildings, dating back to the 16th century and their owners would have  had a high status in the town and been very wealthy.

9          No 17 Rowberry Morris


Fiona Talkington: No 17 now houses the solicitor firm Rowberry Morris and I spoke to their Senior Partner Jas Dail and former employee there John Saunders who comes back every year to guide visitors around on Heritage Day.

John Saunders: Hello, I’m John Saunders. I was the legal cashier with Rowberry Morris for 38 years. The building’s a really lovely character building. It has a lot of feeling within the premises themselves. The two staircases enclosed in the building, one has a definite cold feeling and the other is warmer. We’d love to say that there’s a ghost enclosed here, but can’t be sure who it might be.


The building itself has got a lot of character. It’s a 16th century Elizabethan building and has been traced back through the history to about the 1800s ourselves. It’s been used for a multitude of purposes.

There have been a doctor’s surgery. [OLD FASHIONED TELEPHONE RING] There have been dressmakers who were occupying the front part of the building.  [SEWING MACHINE AND SCISSORS CUTTING] The rear part is, was a lot bigger than it is now and was at one time owned by Gascoigne Pees as being a machinery shop. [MACHINERY NOISES] There was a brewery at the back of the building, before that, again, has moved and there’s now a housing development. So a very varied history in the time.


Fiona Talkington: When you’re walking up the street. This is the building that really leaps out at you of being as character, almost like three different layers, the three different stories that we can see of, of the building. Do you know why it was built like that?

John Saunders: We’ve had various people come round on, again, the open days. One particular person was very knowledgeable on beams. One particular part of the building has roof structures that are weathered on the ends and black underneath. And his interpretation is that the weathering on the ends is due to the fact they were exposed to the weather, black underneath because there was a fire in the middle of the room and the smoke went out through a hole in the roof, blackened the beams underneath. Whereas we’re looking at the building and saying, Well, it’s 16th century. He thinks that perhaps there could have been a single room on the site and everything else was added on afterwards. Certainly if you look at the bricks’ size, you can tell where pieces have been added on which could make it even older than we think.

Fiona Talkington: We’ve just sneaked round to the, the back of this gorgeous building. And I’m looking up at those incredible chimneys. Now, when do they date from?

John Saunders: Well, they’re diamond chimneys. The only other ones that we know about are Hampton Court, where they’ve got diamond chimneys. We moved in as a solicitor’s firm in 1971. The builders who were instructed to refurb the building to the standards, decided that the chimneys, (because we’ve got central heating, we didn’t need the chimneys) that they were dangerous and should be brought down. The mere fact that we’ve got new bricks on the bottom and old bricks on the top was the fact that they had them three quarters demolished and the council came and said, No, you can’t take those down – historic value, put them back up again. I mean, the building is a grade two listed building, so we have to be very careful what we do.

Jas Dail: I’m Jas Dail and I work at Rowberry Morris and I’m now ashamed to admit, no, only because of my age, I’m the senior partner here. Yes, Reading has changed and Castle Street’s changed since I’ve been here. But the core buildings are still here. And the number of people who talk very fondly about Castle Street and how Reading used to be there’s so many of them. And it’s lovely.

Fiona Talkington: Thanks to John Saunders and Jas Dail from Rowberry Morris.


Let’s make our way back to St Mary’s Butts now. On the  way, enjoy some of the  decorative brickwork as  we walk. We’re very proud of our brickwork in Reading and there were a number of kilns in the town. Apart from Reading’s trademark red-brick, look out for the Waterloo silver from Reading’s Waterloo Kiln. Very classy!

And there  are more pillars too outside what’s now Brewdog. This was  originally another breakaway church, a Congregational Chapel that eventually closed in 1956.

Walk past the pedestrian crossing to the corner of Castle Street where it meets Bridge Street.

10.  Corner of Butts/Dolls

Fiona Talkington: We’re back on the corner of St Mary’s Butts again, looking diagonally to the Minster Church with its distinctive chequered flint exterior.  Once almost hidden from view by the 17th century alms-houses.

 But just before we cross the road, this building right at the end of Castle Street, that we’re standing next to, with its distinctive curved windows  was once a dolls’ hospital.


With its ‘patients’ in the window waiting for a limb to be sewn back on, maybe a careful ‘operation’ for a new eye, or a broken Plaster of Paris face reconstructed.  It’s a very distant childhood memory for me, but old photographs show the sign ‘Dolls’ Hospital’.

Well let’s cross over Bridge Street now, and then we’re going to turn left and cross Gun Street to be on St Mary’s Butts again.  Pause for a moment  while you navigate the two crossings.

11. End of the walk  Allied Arms

Fiona Talkington: So here we are back in St Mary’s Butts  and look immediately to your left  , can you see the brightly coloured archers on the base of the pole? – artwork created during Reading’s Year of Culture in 2016. They’re a clue as to why this is actually called St Mary’s Butts.   Well a butt is actually an archery term. In the 15th century it was compulsory for a certain class of male to learn archery and so on Sundays, outside the Minster you’d have been able to hear the sound of arrows whistling through the air.


And we’re back outside the Minster Church again, and just time to reflect  as we walk along  this vast thoroughfare. It’s a real hub for transport now, but once there was a middle row of shops and houses too making it quite cramped. We’re heading for one of Reading’s oldest surviving buildings now, the Allied Arms, and, depending on the time of day, some welcome refreshment. Just have a look  to the left as we walk along, at the Jubilee Fountain built in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. There are no waters gushing now, but plants and flowers keep the memory of this Reading landmark alive.

And you’re going to ask me now too about the name of Castle Street aren’t you?  Have we missed something?  Well, to this day no-one’s sure if there was ever a castle, but do feel free to keep looking.

And now we’ve come to journey’s end – The Allied Arms.

12 Allied Arms

Fiona Talkington: I met up with  Dom Humphries who’s worked here for around ten years and has soaked up so much of the pub’s history.

Dom, It’s great to be here at the Allied Arms. I think you’re going to show me around a little. Where should we start?

Dom Humphries: Yeah, we’ll start out the front and you can see how the pub lines up with the rest of the street.


Fiona Talkington: That’s the sound of a good old door there.


Dom Humphries: So an interesting thing about the pub you can see from the front of the pub is that it doesn’t actually line up with the rest of the street. So you can see on the left with the buildings, it’s that slightly different angle to the pavement and the rest of the street as it goes down. This is the traditional line of where the street ran before the St Mary’s Butts was widened when St Mary’s Butts, the Butts Centre was built. But if we go back inside.


So this pub has, well it’s been a pub since 1828, but the building has been around since the 16th century. Over the years it’s been various things from a bakery, a brewery, a pub, and many more and everything in between, really.

Fiona Talkington: We’re standing in the bar that you immediately come into off the street. It’s, it’s really compact. It does feel like another world.

Dom Humphries: Yeah. So this is our Yeoman’s Lounge, it’s called. We call it the Snug Bar, but it’s just our small  bar at the front of the pub.

Fiona Talkington: So where should we go to next? Because I can see, from where I’m standing, lots of doors and lots of possibilities.

Dom Humphries: So we’ll keep moving through the pub, into the main bar, and you’ll see on the walls as we go there’s lots of pictures about the history of the pub and how the pub’s looked over the years. So as you can see here, we’ve got two pictures of the pub from just after World War One. These are the Berkshire Regiment soldiers returning, one of which is the granddad of the current landlord here. So in the main bar here, again, you can see a traditional English pub. We’ve got the low wooden beams. We think these came, some of them originally came from Reading Abbey once it was sacked. So that’s quite interesting. I think a lot of the building materials round town, of the 400 years old or so buildings, use some of their materials so that’s really interesting.

Fiona Talkington: So from what you’ve learned about the history of St Mary’s Butts, was it lots of small businesses? Were there, would we have seen lots of people, rather than lots of carts and wagons?

Dom Humphries: Yeah. So historically this was the centre of town and the main market place and shopping area. So Broad Street would have been small in comparison and everyone would have congregated here. There were lots of small businesses. There was a chemist next door and a baker and yeah, I think this was, really used to be the heart of the town.

Fiona Talkington: Where should we go to next?

Dom Humphries: We’ll pop out into the garden. So one of the first things you can see is one of the biggest trees in Reading. I think it’s, I think it’s the oldest tree in Reading, but don’t quote me on that. But it is ginormous compared to everything else around, which is nice. So when this pub was first built, you used to be able to walk straight from the front of the pub through to the church, because in front of the church there were houses all the way round and the graveyard wasn’t open. So there used to be an alleyway running all the way along the pub, which would be through this garden where that building is now.

Fiona Talkington: Reading is very much an evolving town, constantly changing, always new buildings. It’s a bit of a battle sometimes to hang on to the history and the heart and soul of the Allied Arms.

Dom Humphries: Without a doubt. I mean, especially over the last couple of years, pubs have been closing down, even ones in St Mary’s Butts, The Horn on the corner, which is another pub, probably a similar age to ours, is gone. So it’s definitely important that we try and keep hold of these historical relics that are still relevant today because they do have so much culture and they do bring something that once gone you can never really replace.

Fiona Talkington: And if you were enticing people here who had never been, maybe even from outside Reading, could you sum it up in, in three words or a sentence?

Dom Humphries: We are definitely the traditional pub in the town centre with the pub garden to make you believe you’re definitely not in the town centre.

Fiona Talkington: And definitely a place to end a walk with a drink, would you say?

Dom Humphries: Definitely a nice drink in the sun.

Fiona Talkington: Thanks Dom.

And this is where I say goodbye, but not before I’ve raised a glass or two to some of the wonderful people who’ve shared their memories and their knowledge with me.

Thank you to them all and of course to you as well for coming with me.


Dom Humphries: Last orders at the bar ladies and gents


Pub goers: Cheers!

Last updated on 20/06/2022