Smelly Alley isn’t so smelly anymore…

During this week I had to go to Reading on an emergency dash to find some of the fabric I had run out of. I know Reading well as my grandparents were born and raised there as was my father and I also went there to University when I trained as a teacher so I’ve seen an entirely different side to Reading than the one through a child’s eyes.

I walked up through an alley way on my way to the shop and I came out and crossed the road. The sights and sounds were familiar as any large town are to a visitor but as I crossed over I could remember walking down here as a little girl. C & A to the left and smelly alley way to the right. The famous ‘smelly alley’ of Reading that all ‘Redonians’ know of, and have walked down. I went to the shop and couldn’t get what I needed so maybe I had come out in a rather forlorn mood but when I walked back to the car I started to notice all of the old people around walking with sticks, the boarded ups shops that I once knew and then I stopped at the entrance to smelly alley. I couldn’t resist it I had to walk down it…

At first all looked the same, the greengrocer was there, the fish man (hence ‘smelly’) and the butchers with open fronted shops with their wares all on show but once I’d got past these few shops the alley way became wider as the shutters of the once busy shops were pulled down and there weren’t that many people. I closed my eyes for a split second and remember the sights, smells and sounds of this alley way from my memory and opened them to see them all gone. Shop keepers would cry out their prices, music filled the air as did the smell of more than 1 fish man and butcher. People bustled in and out of shops like something out of a Dickens novel and they laughed and joked as they walked up the street. I kept close to my nan as she was the one I was with but then I looked around now and she wasn’t there and neither was the life of this alley way.

I took a photo – the one of this blog – looked for a few seconds more and then walked on. I, by accident, followed an older lady with white hair and a walking stick and from the back, minus the walking stick, she could have been my Nan. This was her Reading; her town where she was born, married and raised her family. She knew the best shops for the best deals, the shops where she knew the ladies who would offer her a chair and a cup of tea. She knew the pubs my granddad would have drunk in (apparently he drunk in a few in his younger days!) and I suddenly missed her more than I had ever missed her before. I was here in her Reading without her. Walking down the streets with the boarded up shops – not the posh Oracle, Friar Street and she wasn’t there. The memories flooded my head, the butchers on the corner (of another street) with the amazing display of rabbits, hung meat and various animals around the shop. The old outfitters on the corner now a games place for the over 18’s and walking to town from her flat which she did every day for years. I loved the bus rides with her when she could no longer walk the distance, whichever bus we got on she would know someone on it and she would proudly introduce me, her granddaughter, and they would remark at my hair or say how much my father I looked like…

Her Reading has gone and I think that mine has too. I was a student there so new memories were made. Those of drinking in various pubs (am I my grandfather’s daughter?), shopping in the Oracle and parking in the police car park with my then partner who was a policeman. I knew the places not to go to and I didn’t go to them but I also knew of the awful side of Reading from him. A suicide who jumped from Garrad street car park right in front of him, the pubs and clubs to steer clear of and the arrests near the schools I supply taught at. None of this I knew as a child with my Nan…

Where you’re from, or where you’ve been can hold many different memories for you at different times. I remember watching part of Simmonds Brewery being demolished with my Father to make way for the new shopping centre. I cruised my canal boat through that shopping centre just after it had opened looking at the newness of it all coupled with the history gone with the bulldozers. My family were from the rougher side of Reading – Whitley and then Coley – but my parents chose to leave behind the changing Reading and after a few houses we ended up in a village. It may have been only 18 miles away from Reading but we were a million miles away in experiences.

Sometime when you go back to a place you’ve know you feel nostalgic. I know I felt this today but not for the old Reading, more for my grandparents and my life when I was with them. I felt so upset that they never got to meet my children, they would have loved them and my Nan would have giggled with them as she did with me and I suddenly felt a huge sense of regret that it would never be. The boarded up shops – so many of them! – reflected how I felt about this town that all the fun was being had by the other parallel road where all the main shops are and not this one. The other road housed the new shopping centre with the bright lights and covered walkways. It seemed to reflect out a false cheeriness of how life should be whereas the road I was on showed how it really is.

I drove out of Reading passed the Hexagon, I’ve played there, looked up at the police station –I’ve drunk in the bar there, looked to the left to a road called ‘abattoir road’ and know the history behind that name but also the jazz club that I went to as a student that’s also gone now. I drove over the flyover and saw the shopping centre and the different coloured brick houses that Reading is well known for. I went past the cemetery (cemetery junction from the Ricki Gervais film –he’s from Reading too) looking left to the area where my Mother was raised (Radstock Road) and carried on out of Reading and away home. As I drove on the motorway the memories subsided. I turned the radio on and slowly thought my way back to the afternoon ahead. Should you go back to a place with strong connections long after those connections aren’t there anymore? Sometimes yes but marvelling at how small your chair is at primary school and how close the steps are together now you’re an adult is so different from feeling your loved one is just around the corner. She was all around me in Reading but she’s gone and there was so much I should have asked…

It’s not Reading’s fault if we had stayed we would have changed with it and visiting today I wouldn’t have noticed the missing parts of my memories. Maybe If I’d parked in the bright lights of the shopping centre and not touched the roads I walked with my Nan I would have felt differently. Maybe if I had a drink in the bar that I used to drink in as a student I would have had a totally different set of memories flood into me. If I had had lunch in the restaurant on Bridge Street (now gone) where I can clearly remember being the most dressed I’d ever been for a night out with the man who wanted to ask me to marry him but bottled out of it right at the end, then I would have memories of not only the past but of the lovely husband I have now. Maybe that’s what I should have done. Remember the present because it’s still happening…


About littlewhitecottage

Emma is a qualified teacher with 14 years of teaching in many different settings. From teaching adults and children at a music school to choosing to work in a demanding primary school that was failing (which meant moving from an outstanding school – her colleagues were aghast!) to running her own sewing business for the last 5 ½ years teaching all ages how to sew: Emma loves to teach.
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6 Responses to Smelly Alley isn’t so smelly anymore…

  1. Leanne Keeble says:

    Beautiful writing as always, I feel the same about my Nan too, she would have loved my girls. It’s nice to reminisce I think, as long as it doesn’t affect your future 🙂

  2. Sally Bushby says:

    The past is very special as it hold our memories…..but the today’s and tomorrows are the memories that our children will hold when we are no longer here to guide them! To me these are far more precious.x

    • You’re so right x
      The experiences in Reading were only my memories. They weren’t my Husband’s (apart from right at the end) or my children’s or really anything about my present life. They were all about me, my parental family and also a lot of their memories. I felt like I was being bomarded with confusing images and I had no-one to share them with and the one person I wanted to share them with isn’t here anymore. I took my children and Hubbie to my other Grandmother’s house in Cornwall when we visted a couple of years ago and I was so excited to show them but they felt nothing as they looked at the house. Ollie even said ‘ can we go in and see her?’ and when I explained that she had died and someone else lives there now he looked at me as if to say ‘well what are we doing here then???’
      These memories are mine and they are connected, through me, to my present but not everyone in my present will feel about them in the same way I do and I think that’s what I find hard…

  3. Heidi says:

    Reading is my home town and I still live there (well a few miles outside). My grandparents lived in Reading all their lives and I remember all that you have described, apart from Simmonds brewery (I remember it being Courage brewery). My Nan worked at the Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory for a while and she, like yours, would walk into town (with me in tow) from the other side of the Oxford Road. My mother went to school in Reading as did I, and now my own children have been born and raised here, but yes, many, many changes have taken place and even though I have grown with the changes, I barely recognise it.

    • It’s a shame I think when town’s change so much from what they used to be. The courage brewery was Simmonds (My dad used to always call it Simmonds as my Grandmother’s maiden name was Simmonds and, aparently so says family legend, she is connected to the Simmonds brewery family. Personally I think that’s wishful thinking!) Huntley and Palmers was so famous for biscuits all around the world, my brother was in his local in London and they were having a refit and let all the locals take the pictures on the walls and there was a Huntely and Palmers advertising poster so he took that!
      I don’t think they’ve connected the old with the new in Reading very well, it’s disjointed and doesn’t flow. Friar Street has been left to rot basically whilst the bright lights of the Oracle keeps all the money. Was the Oracle needed when there were prime buildings already there that could have been re-used? I know the canal area wasn’t great though and redevloping there was also needed. I don’t know what the answer is, I’ve taught in a few of the schools (Katesgrove Lane, E.P.Collier, Geroge Palmer, New Town Primary amongst a few more) and a lot are challenging (though great fun!).

      Thanks for your comment x

  4. caroline says:

    I used to live in Reading, was an assistant manager of a pub there in 197/98, down by the Central Swimming Pool, and I used to love going to smelly alley on a saturday afternoon to buy chinese flavoured and spicy flavoured chicken breast from the butcher, then over to the fishmonger to buy some fresh prawns and salmon. I have many fond memories of the pubs in the area as my ex-boyfriend and I used to ‘visit’ them on a Saturday night to see how many we could get through before our tongues were too big for our mouth ha ha. I used to love meeting friends in the Butts Centre food court as your could get everything from baked potatoes to chow mein. The Oracle was being built while I was there but as we lived as near the town centre as was possible we walked there once it opened, I nearly passed out when I found out that my cousin paid £1.00 per hour to park there, and this was 12 – 13 years ago. I still have many friends from the area and am going to meet some for dinner next month when we are in the area. I cant wait to see what the place is like, but I think like you, I will not be very happy when I see the changes. I enjoy reading your blogs every week – keep up the good work, cheers and thanks. xx

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