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Reading, Berkshire, UK

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Reading is quite possibly the dullest town of its size in Britain, although competition is pretty fierce for this honour. It is famous for only one thing: Reading Gaol, in which the writer Oscar Wilde was incarcerated. He wrote a poem, 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', of which many people have heard but which, it would seem, nobody in the town can recite. On a good day escapees from the jail are joined by fugitives from nearby Broadmoor Prison, leading to the amusing spectacle of midnight helicopter searchlight patrols over the area's parks.

Situated in the Royal County of Berkshire, about 25 miles West of London on the M4, Reading was formerly the home of Berkshire County Council until they were abolished and Reading was made Unitary. One justification for unitary status was the results of a public poll on the proposal 'one town, one council, and a fourth Thames Bridge.' In fact the proposal could have been 'secession from the United Kingdom, annexing the Sudetenland and a fourth Thames bridge' and it would still have been just as strongly supported - everybody in Reading agrees upon the need for another bridge.

Reading is the ancestral home of the Huntley and Palmer biscuit brand responsible for such classics as the Custard Cream, but no biscuits are made there any more. Instead Reading is now a centre for financial service and high-technology industries, a world centre of expertise in overpriced parking, the site of some impressively nasty buildings and, it seems, a national pilot scheme for the 'Total Traffic Paralysis By Pretending Cars Will Go Away' programme.

The town is transected by the Great Western Railway. London is 25 minutes away by Inter-City train or as little as three and a half hours by Thames Trains, the River Thames, the River Kennet, the Kennet and Avon Canal, the A4, A329M and the M4. These routes maximise the potential for traffic bottlenecks, which the council wisely ensures you cannot avoid by strategic use of one-way schemes and inexplicable road closures. Just to ensure that traffic flow is minimised, local counties Berkshire and Oxfordshire disagree on which route people should take to go almost anywhere. For example, Reading council thinks that the A4074 is a good route to Oxford, on the spurious grounds that it goes straight there. Oxfordshire council, on the other hand, favours the much more rational selection of the A34, based partly on the fact that you have to drive the wrong way for half an hour in order to join it, and partly on the fact that the A34 is one of the most congested trunk roads in the UK.

On one memorable occasion a lorry caught fire on the M4, within the Reading area boundaries, and casualties had to be taken to Swindon because it was not possible to move an ambulance through the gridlock caused in the town by the M4 closure.

Shops in Reading are not so good, so many people will drive to Oxford for a day's shopping. It is also cheaper to drive to Oxford and get the bus from the park-and-ride than to park in Reading for a day. Aside from Hickie's Music Shop and Drew's the Ironmongers, Reading's shopping mostly consists of chain stores.

There are plus points to Reading. Unemployment is low1 and there is a very good train service to London.

The town council also have an interesting policy on primary schools. The assignment of catchment areas of Reading primary schools is performed carefully so that no school is actually outside its own catchment area, although several come close. Caversham Primary is one of the 'best' primary schools in the UK, so the governors work tirelessly to ensure that the catchment area never strays from the upper middle-class Caversham Heights area, where parents can easily afford the extra maths tuition which proves to be so helpful to the school's position in the results tables. The council are willing participants in this, even to the extent of moving the catchment area to include their own homes.

Other areas of special interest include:

  • The Inner Distribution Road, where every on-ramp is situated on a bend so you can't see anything in your mirrors.

  • Traffic lights on the roundabouts phased so you actually have to stop at each exit if you are trying to go round them.

  • A road called Oxford Road which doesn't go even vaguely towards Oxford.

  • Some world-beating traffic jams.

The Yellow Pages offices are in Reading, as is the Hexagon (where international snooker matches used to be held), Honda UK and one or two other famous firms too numerous to mention. Come to Reading some day: if nothing else you'll appreciate your home town more afterwards.

1Leading to some of the most astronomical house prices in the UK.

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