Abbey Ruins, Forbury Road, Reading, Berkshire
An early work by A. W. N. Pugin, the hugely influential promoter of the Gothic Revival and a recent (1835) convert to the Catholic Church. Unusually St James’s finds him working in a neo-Norman idiom, perhaps as a reference back to the foundation of the abbey in the twelfth century. The building has been considerably altered since it opened and is clothed on all sides by later work. Nonetheless it is a notable building in the Reading streetscape and is a visible link to the once-great and rich Abbey. It revived Catholic worship on an historic site where it had been suppressed three centuries earlier.
The church, presbytery and former school were built on part of the site of Reading Abbey, founded about 1121 by Henry I. In 1834 the site was bought by James Wheble, a local historian. He began a series of excavations and reserved part of the site for a Catholic church. It is said he bore almost the entire cost of building himself. The church was erected in 1837-40 to the designs of A. W. N. Pugin. He also designed the presbytery (believed to date from about 1840).
The church remained basically unchanged until 1925, when Wilfrid C. Mangan of Preston added the Lady Chapel (and colonnade to the nave), two confessionals, a shrine at the back of the nave, an ambulatory beyond Pugin’s sanctuary, a western narthex (which involved moving the original arched doorway to the new main entrance), a baptistery and an octagonal turret providing staircase access to the choir gallery. The church was further extended in 1962 with a north aisle by H. Bingham Towner. At this time bright, patterned glass in the ambulatory replaced the paler work installed in 1926. The windows above the Lady Chapel altar were installed in 1925 and were made by Clarks of Dublin. The window at the west end of the Lady Chapel was installed in 1990 and was designed by Lyn Clayden.
The core of the church consists of A. W. N. Pugin’s rectangular nave and apsidal sanctuary which, like the later extensions, are faced with flint and have limestone dressings. There is a small, one-light bellcote over the west gable and the roofs are covered with tiles of zigzag section. All the windows are single lights and have round arches. The western doorway, reset in the narthex from Pugin’s nave, is of two orders with nook-shafts and chevron ornament in the head. There is an oculus in the west wall of the nave.
An ambulatory forms a semi-circular ring round the original apse and has a series of small one-light round-arched windows. The Lady Chapel, largely concealed from view by the presbytery, has a round-arched doorway in its west façade. The aisle added in 1962 forms a prominent feature on the north side and has five three-light square-headed windows in a sixteenth-century style. The narthex projects west beyond the original nave and lies beneath a flat roof. It includes on the north side a three-sided projection for a repository and a small square porch.
The interior of Pugin’s church consists of rectangular, five-bay nave and semi-circular sanctuary. The nave roof has tie-beams, queen-posts, a collar and three tiers of wind-braces. The nave floor is of woodblocks, laid herringbone-wise and probably dates from 1883. In the jambs of the chancel arch there are two orders of shafts with reeded capitals; the arched head has two roll mouldings. The chancel has a hemispherical ceiling with two ribs rising above wall-shafts. On the south side of the nave are six arches with paired columns to the Lady Chapel. The columns have reeded capitals and zigzag decoration with angular lobes. The style of the arcade and its decoration are repeated in the arcade to the ambulatory; however, this arcade is arranged in three separate bays (to marry with the ceiling ribs) with two arches per bay. The north aisle opens from a four-bay arcade of plain octagonal piers and capitals supporting a lintel.
The font reuses twelfth-century carved stone from the Abbey, and has interlaced decoration.
Entry amended by AHP 27.12.2020, correcting errors identified by John Mullaney
Roman Catholic 1837-40 by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Untypical Norman style. Much altered 1925 by W C Mangan (south aisle and apse ambulatory), and 1962 by Bingham Towner (north aisle). Flint with ashlar dressings. Roman tile roof. Coped gables with footstones. Belfry to west. Round headed clerestory with continuous impost string. 5 bays. Dividing and corner buttresses. West front has oculus at top, large round headed window with flanking blind arcade. Projecting porch with centre break and angled corners, round headed doorway with 2 orders, of chevron. 3 apses to east, centre with ambulatory. 3 bay south aisle with 6 bay double arcade inside. North-east pier has fragment of beaded C12 carving. INTERIOR: wooden roof, vaulted apse. C12 interlacing on re-used stone from Abbey is now the font. Pugin’s first church design. The Norman style probably dictated by proximity of Abbey remains.
Listing NGR: SU7199273629
Architect: A. W. N. Pugin
Original Date: 1840
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II