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A Walk on the Wilde Side of Reading

Enjoy a heritage trail that explores the heart of Berkshire's county town, following stretches of the Thames and the Kennet and Avon Canal.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 15min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Pavements, river and canal tow path, no stiles

Landscape Urban

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 159 Reading, Wokingham & Pangbourne. A good street map of Reading

Start/finish SU 716735

Dog friendliness On lead in town, under control on riverbank

Parking Reading Station, Chatham Street, Garrard Street, Hexagon

Public toilets Reading Station

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1 Start by the statue of Queen Victoria and, with your back to the Town Hall, turn right, pass the tourist information centre and the museum. Cross Valpy Street and turn right into Forbury Road. Walk down to the roundabout, where the Rising Sun pub is seen on the corner, and turn left towards the railway bridge. Pass beneath the line and cross the road at the pedestrian lights. Avoid King's Meadow Road and make for Reading Bridge.

2 Take the steps on the right just before the bridge and join the Thames Path, heading downstream with the river on your left. Pass Caversham Lock as the sound of traffic begins to fade and the surroundings becomes leafier. Skirt King's Meadow, with smart apartment buildings and lines of houses on the opposite bank. Pass a boat yard, full of cabin cruisers and narrow boats, and continue under the branches of trees. Eventually reach Kennet Mouth and here a distinctive Sustrans waymark directs you over the bridge (in the direction of Bristol!).

3 Cross Horseshoe Bridge and turn left on the far side, heading for central Reading. Pass beneath Brunel's railway bridge, continue to the Fisherman's Cottage and Blakes Lock, and leave the canal tow path at the next bridge. Turn right along King's Road, passing the wonderful listed façade of the Huntley and Palmer's biscuit factory, then turn immediately right and cross the bridge built by the Reading Gas Company in 1880. Join the tow path and keep the vast hulk of the Prudential building over on the left bank.

4 Pass under King's Road, keep to the right and follow Chestnut Walk. Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, can be seen over to the right. Walk along to the ruins of Reading Abbey and turn right. Keep alongside the gaol and enter Forbury Gardens through a flint arch. Keep to the left edge, with the statue of the lion, erected to commemorate the 19th-century imperial campaigns in Afghanistan, on your right. Look for the abbey gateway on the left, with Reading Crown Court adjacent, and exit at Victoria Gate. Walk ahead to the outer gate of Reading Abbey, pass the Church of St Laurence-in-Reading on the right and return to the tourist information centre and the statue at the start of the walk.

Reading's skyline has changed dramatically over the years - riverside office developments have taken the place of many of the older buildings and the vast, new Oracle shopping complex is now the glittering jewel in the town centre's crown. However, some of old Reading's landmarks remain - and one of them is the town's gaol where Oscar Wilde languished for 18 months, between November 1895 and May 1897.

It was the 8th Marquess of Queensberry, frustrated by his thwarted attempts to break up the scandalous relationship between his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Wilde, who was responsible for the writer's downward spiral into prison. He had publicly insulted Wilde, at his home, at his clubs and throughout London's theatreland where many of Wilde's plays were being performed.

Caught in the crossfire between father and son, Wilde brought a prosecution for libel against Queensberry, though he lost the case. Queensberry and his cohorts now began plotting to destroy Wilde once and for all. They gave evidence against him, testifying to his dubious sexuality and improper practices. The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made sexual relations even between consenting males illegal and, not surprisingly, Wilde was found guilty as charged.

After two short spells in London prisons, Wilde was transferred to Reading Gaol. By now his physical condition had deteriorated and he was depressed and confused. A 'softer' prison with a less harsh regime was the obvious answer. Impressed by Wilde's reputation as a gifted writer, the governor made arrangements for him to work in the garden and the prison library. But life was still very tough in gaol.

If prison's dreary routine was hard for Wilde, things were not much better for him on the outside. His books were withdrawn from sale, his name was removed from theatre posters and he was declared bankrupt. Wilde had been ostracised. On his release, he was philosophical about his time in prison. It had given him time to study himself and there had certainly been long periods of soul-searching - 'that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain', he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas.

While in prison, Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol (published in 1898), about a man hanged there for the murder of his wife. The execution cast a long shadow over the inmates, and Wilde in particular, but this work, more than any other, gave him status as a writer of serious merit.

While you're there

Visit the Museum of Reading, next door to the tourist information centre. Here you can see a full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, discover artefacts from the Roman town of Silchester and learn about the history of Huntley and Palmers, Reading's famous biscuit factory.

What to look for

Horseshoe Bridge is where the Kennet and the Thames meet. Earley Wharf once stood on this site - and it may have been used by the Romans to serve their local town of Silchester, on the Berkshire/Hampshire border. Threatened by several road schemes over the years, Kennet Mouth and the bridge were saved by a campaign fought by those who value this historic corner of Reading. Reading Abbey was established by Henry I and its history is recorded on the wall outside. Henry VIII sealed its fate with the Dissolution of the monasteries. The last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, protested in the most vigorous terms, was charged with high treason, found guilty and hanged. The buildings were desecrated during the Civil War and today little remains of the original abbey.

Where to eat and drink

Reading offers numerous pubs, café bars, restaurants and hotels. However, on the walk itself you might like to stop off at the Fisherman's Cottage, which overlooks the Kennet and Avon Canal, and enjoy a meal or snack in the pub's conservatory, which has a striking riverside mural. Alternatively, sit outside on a sunny day and enjoy the canal scene. Fresh bread is available daily and there are baguettes to take away.

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