There’s something heroic about how the church of St Giles-in-Reading withstands the rising tide of modernity and social deprivation by which it is surrounded. It faces off against a three-lane one way system, a brutally placed traffic gantry, a home for vulnerable people, a pub and the Oracle overpass, amongst other things. But this twelfth century church has seen worse; the tower was used as a cannon platform in the English civil war and much of the mediaeval interior was removed and rebuilt in 1872.
The church is fronted by Southampton Street which has always been a main route out of town, but now it’s just a link for traffic coming from south Reading and the A4 into the town centre or Oxford. Yet, despite the relentless anonymity of the area, it’s difficult not to notice the looming bulk of St Giles’ mediaeval tower and its soaring Victorian spire.
The latest repairs on the church started in July 2015 following a regular inspection by the Diocese of Oxford over four years ago.
“The repairs are just to make sure the building lasts as long as it should. There’s stonework on the outside that’s eroded over time and some major work is needed on the roof,” said Father Samuel McNally-Cross, curate at St Giles. “It’s always church rooves that seem to go first!”
“When the Victorians expanded the church they added pointed rooves with two huge gulleys in the middle to which there is absolutely no access. These fill with leaves, grime and moss that rots the tiles, allows water in and ruins the plaster beneath. There’s now access being put in the tower and there will be a hatch onto both of the gulleys so we can clean them without scaffolding being brought in.”
“You have to use a breathable paint on stone walls, but a long time ago somebody painted the wrong sort on the internal back wall and damp got trapped behind it. We’ve had to wait three years for the walls to dry out to be able to do the plastering,” he added.
The renovation work will cost about £400,000 and is expected to be finished by Christmas, although there may be some tidying up to do on the outside early next year.
“We were fortunate that the church is in good condition; it’s a sound building apart from these minor bits and pieces,” said Father McNally-Cross. “It’s been well looked after over the years. There’s not much left of the mediaeval part of the church, just the lower tower, and the Victorians did a huge rebuild on it. They generally built things quite solidly.”
This church follows an Anglo-Catholic tradition and holds numerous services over the week that are timetabled on their website. The congregation numbers 50 to 80 on most Sunday mornings, with up to 15 people coming together for weekday events.
“The church is open and people can come in and have a look round,” said Father McNally-Cross. “The services are small and informal, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the words because we have sheets to follow. Some people love singing and may know the traditional choral chant and join in happily, but the service is sung mainly by Father David Harris (the rector of St Giles) and me, so you can, if you want, just listen and let the words wash over you.”
“There’s a lot of choice in Reading in terms of churches. There are probably about ten churches within ten minutes of our doorstep and there’s a lot going on to connect the churches together. We get a few students popping in on Sundays or evenings this time of year as they’re trying to find a church in the area to go to. There are a lot of options around and people have to find somewhere that feeds them.”
“St Giles has often been involved in national events,” concluded Father McNally-Cross. “During the civil war it was used as a royalist stronghold and much of the tower was lost when it was used as a cannon platform. When we had the hanging sanctuary lamps replaced this year we found out that the weights in them were old cannonballs that had been hollowed out and re-purposed. Churches have always been at the forefront at protecting people and I hope we can continue to be so.”