Reading: Museum of Reading, Royal Berkshire Medical Museum, and the MERL; Biscuits, Eyeballs, and Ploughs

In my eternal quest to find things to do on weekends other than eating waffles and watching classic Simpsons episodes (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I’d tracked down some intriguing sounding destinations in Reading, so that’s where my boyfriend and I headed last Sunday.  After getting stuck in horrendous traffic due to the Reading Half-Marathon which the internet failed to warn us about, and my nearly having to hurl in a disposable glove as a result (motion sickness, one of the banes of my existence), we made it to the Museum of Reading about an hour later than I’d planned on, which meant we were more rushed than I would have liked.  The weather, naturally, was terrible, freezing, driving rain, so the walk from the off-site parking lot was notably unpleasant, but the museum promised warmth ahead.  (Side note, much of this section is cobbled together from my yelp review so I didn’t have to rewrite the entire thing, I just wanted to get that out of the way lest anyone find it and think I plagiarised something).  It’s housed in a gloriously imposing Victorian building, which was a welcome change from the sprawl of industrial estates and box stores that seemed to make up most of Reading. There were two main reasons I decided to come here: a Victorian reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry, and collection of biscuit tins from Huntley and Palmers, a former Reading-based manufacturer.  So everything else here was just an added bonus.  Admission was free, like all the other places we visited in Reading, and the interior had dim lighting and fairly cluttered cases, which gave the museum the old fashioned feel that I love.  The ground floor was devoted to the history of Reading, and had one of those buttons you press to hear a music sample (in this case, monks singing; and a heads up, the monk version of Salve Regina is nowhere near as uptempo as the one in Sister Act) which shattered the quiet, and embarrassingly went on for ages!  We could still hear it playing when we headed upstairs

Replica Bayeux Tapestry + severed limbs

Replica Bayeux Tapestry + severed limbs

The Bayeux Tapestry is wrapped around the walls of an entire floor, and except for some modesty shorts sewn onto a previously naked man by the propriety-conscious Victorian ladies, was a faithful copy of the original, which is housed in Normandy.  It tells the story of Harold and William the Conqueror, with lots of neat little details, like random body parts scattered across the bottom of the combat scenes.  It was probably better than actually going to France, since I am lazy and my French is not the best, except for the fact that I had to satiate the overwhelming croissant craving that came upon me with a sub-par English croissant from the M&S across the street, but we all must make sacrifices.  But the Museum of Reading had another redeeming, and very British feature: Biscuits!

The charming kitten tin

The charming kitten tin

The top floor of the museum was mostly devoted to taxidermy, Roman history, and some random Victorian oil paintings, and we circled around three times looking for the biscuit room.  We finally asked a man working there, and it was hidden down a back hallway that was accessed via the taxidermy room.  I’m glad we eventually found it, because I would have been unspeakably upset had I left the museum without seeing the biscuit framed picture of Lord Kitchener.  Other highlights included a John Ginger pin (to promote Ginger Nuts), random stale biscuits that had survived to the present day (one of them had even been in a fire!), and the classic sad-eyed kitten biscuit tin.  Though the original Huntley and Palmers is long defunct, a new company is making biscuits using the name, and you can purchase them in the gift shop.  We tried the “Seriously Knobbly” dark and milk chocolate ones, and they were indeed “moreish” as the packet promised, though not on the level of Fortnum’s chocolate digestives, which is my idea of biscuit perfection.

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So after spending far more time at the Museum of Reading than anticipated, because the biscuits tins were indeed that enthralling, we only had 90 minutes to see both the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum and the Museum of English Rural Life before they shut.  We headed to the Medical Museum first, which is in a section of the actual Royal Berkshire Hospital, and required us to walk down this really sketchy looking dank tunnel to get to it.  The entire museum fit into one room, and was a pretty standard medical museum, with the exception of a nice little collection of glass eyes.  The people running it were very friendly and helpful, and they had loads of information cards scattered around the place, which was nice, but it seemed like their target audience was people interested in the history of the hospital itself.  I enjoyed it, and the volunteers was obviously passionate about the place, which was wonderful to see, but I don’t think it’s worth a trip in itself, though by all means stop by if you’re in Reading anyway on the first or third Sunday of the month, as they could use the support.

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Finally, and only half an hour before closing (it was across the street from the hospital, but there was no way to cut through the hospital buildings, so we had to walk the long way around, which took FOREVER), we made it to the Museum of English Rural Life.  It was basically a ton of random farming implements and other crap scattered around a massive warehouse-type building, but I quite liked the setup, since it reminded me of my Grandpa’s barn.  The collection was mostly wagons and ploughs, and some amusing and excellently beardy photographs of various Victorian and Edwardian men with archaic occupations, like molecatcher.  I could dig it, since I kind of have a weird obsession with the Little House books, and being able to see all the different types of farm tools helped me visualise stuff in the books a bit better, but it admittedly wasn’t the most enthralling of museums, and half an hour was probably ample time to see it.  It might be better if you have kids, since it seemed like it had a few special activities for them to take part in.  Still, all in all, it was a solid day out, and certainly better than our London outing the day before.

Ploughs, MERL

Ploughs, MERL

4 out of 5 for the Museum of Reading, and 2 out of 5 for the Medical Museum and MERL

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4 comments

  1. I went to the Museum of Reading a few years ago, and the Bayeux tapestry was certainly my highlight. I live near Hastings, so 1066 and all that holds great appeal. Like you I haven’t made the trip across the channel to see the original tapestry. I love artworks that tell a story, like those willow pattern Chinese plates do, albeit in a condensed form (the story’s something about two lovers turning into birds).

    Incidentally, I wonder if anyone’s ever thought the Museum of Reading was just that – a museum about reading. It occurs to me because when I was in India in January I was taken to see the Cotton Museum in Rajahmundry, a town in Andhra Pradesh. I presumed it was a museum about cotton, even though there’s no cotton industry in the area, but then discovered it was a museum dedicated to a chap called Arthur Cotton who designed the irrigation systems in the region back in the 19th century and so turned a land of famine into a fertile locality of plenty. There was even a photo of his grave, in far off Dorking, Surrey.

    1. I would imagine some people would think it was actually a museum about reading, especially non-Brits. I was actually thinking about that as I was writing this, but I hope the description would clear it up for anyone who might be confused. I doubt I would have known the correct pronunciation was “redding” until I moved to the UK.
      I think I would have been so disappointed if I went to what I thought was a cotton museum, and it was about some guy named Cotton. It’d be like going up to the Pencil Museum in Cumbria only to discover it was about someone called Colin Pencil (though actually, I’m kind of amused by the thought of someone named Colin Pencil).

  2. The Pencil Museum… I’ve been to the Lake District several times and have passed near the Pencil Museum but never been in. I can probably guess what they sell in the gift shop.

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