Free Day!

20 December 2000, Wednesday

Anna came down with a stomach bug and, unbeknownst to the Americans sleeping in her guest room, was up all night. And Eoin, after seeing to his wife’s needs, really had to go to work—which left Jess and I on our own for the day.

After easing into the morning, then, Anna drove us the five or so minutes to the station in Wokingham, where we caught the train into Reading (pronounced REDDing) to do some shopping and wandering. The journey by train took less than ten minutes, even with stops in between. It felt like we were on a people mover at Disneyland. 🙂

Reading is in the Thames Valley about halfway between London and Oxford. The city grew near the meeting place of the Rivers Thames and Kennet, which were the main transport routes through the anciecnt woodland that covered most of southern England. The mainstay of employment in Reading is now the computer industry, with Microsoft, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle all having large offices in or near the town; currently (in late 2000) there are jobs available in Reading and not enough people to fill them. Once famous for “beer, biscuits, and bacon,” as well as seed production, Reading has seen these industries close down or move away. However, there is still a large brewery on the edge of town. The old brewery—in the center of town—has now been redeveloped into a major shopping center, called the Oracle.

It was to this mall—the first and only mall we visited in England—that we directed our footsteps … but first we wandered in and out of small shops in the central shopping district that lay between the train station and the Oracle. We preferred the streets, where there were happy Christmas shoppers, street musicians, tea shops, and just generally a lot going on.

I learned more about Reading after I returned home. This was before smartphones, and we didn’t have a map or any way to research. Reading might have been an interesting place to sightsee; there are some old churches and the ruins of an abbey, for example. A university too. The town dates from the eighth century, so there’s definitely some history. I wish I’d prepared a little more thoroughly for an unexpected day in a strange town, but I guess you just can’t. And I was new to this traveling business.

So … we shopped. 🙂 We found ourselves in a small shop, a men’s clothiers called Butler’s, where we were treated like royalty, although we spent less than ten pounds. (Later we learned that this small shop, into which we’d wandered by accident, was Eoin’s preferred vendor for suits, dress shirts, and the other accoutrements of the natty English businessman.) It was so nice to be made to feel welcome!

We ate a quick dinner in the train station and didn’t return to Wokingham until long after dark, when we’d just about walked our feet off. Anna had gone off to visit her parents that evening, and we had a nice chat with Eoin before bed.