While our University students are engaged in scholarship sublime or out volunteering, or maybe just kicking wheelie bins down Hatherley Road after flooding Reading pubs dressed as golfers (for reasons I don’t want to understand), you could be using one of their three great bars, where well-behaved townies are welcome. All three have reasonable prices and well-trained, polite staff, but refreshingly little else in common with each other. I have been wearing the hair-shirt by breaking dry January and drinking and eating in all of them. They have varied opening times, so best to check the links.
Formerly the Cotton Club and Eat, this canteen-style bar is nestled between the beautiful redbrick campus on London Street and the best museum in Wessex (MERL). You would be richer in mind and soul if you explored the campus beforehand and followed in the footsteps of Wilfred Owen, Gustav Holst, TE Lawrence and that greatest of Readingensians, William Palmer, who would look down at his vast biscuit factory from his house on the corner.
The Dairy has a really good range of ales, craft beers and regular draft at reasonable prices and a pint will often cost under £3.50. There is a two-tier price system for students, university and hospital workers over townies but it’s not a massive jump. They do a real ale deal on a Thursday where you can drink for just over £2.25 a pint and it is refreshing to see a prevalence of local beers. They have a medium sized lunch and a dinner menu which are focussed on really good pub classics at thrifty prices. I had a £3.25 big hot dog with some skin-on chips £2.25 and my homies Matt and Sue had a good £5 pasta dish and fish and chips with all the trimmings for £8.
The food is not overly complex or sophisticated, but is hearty, tasty, and served on a plate and not in a shoe or on a cricket bat, and the service is prompt. I absolutely love the small square device that you are given when ordering that vibrates and lights up when your meal is ready – you then collect your order from a serving hatch; big up the modern world! There is a self-service coffee area with snacks and all the variant coffee and tea styles.
A huge snazzy touch-screen coke machine does all sorts and there is a modern juke box and numerous big screens; you can watch Sky and BT sports here. It will be a good venue for the world cup, but if you do go please save a seat for me. There are two pool tables in the downstairs area with lamentable blue baize and the modern varied seating does give you a choice of relax or chat mode, although they have done away with booths. The toilets are like a breath of fresh air; very well maintained with lovely fittings and wooden bits with posh fragrant liquid soap dispensers and two jet engine hand driers!
The Ice House
The most unusual bar in Reading is on the corner of what looks like an office block at the Wessex gate end of the Whiteknights campus. The eponymous Ice House is a few hundred yards away and is worthy of exploration. The Ice House bar is a long way out, so maintains an almost mythical status often whispered about, but rarely visited by mere mortals.
Despite its drab outside appearance, inside it’s a box of delights; there is a small cinema with real, old cinema seats where you can watch a film in the evenings, a pool table and some rustic furniture, a quiz machine, some great posters on the walls and a quiet corner to languish in.
The bar is modern and cluttered with all sorts of deals and offers including some draft lagers. There is no ale in here, but there are a shedload of exotic cans and bottles. The main deal is two for the price of one on selected cocktails, usually between 4pm and 8pm and all day on Sundays; these are priced around the £7 mark. They aren’t just your standard pub-fare cocktail, they are made from scratch by trained, battle-hardened cocktail-mixing veterans who invented some of them.
We chose these rhyming cocktails three;
Daiquiri, trouble at sea and London ice tea.
If I remember rightly, it was Ernest Hemingway who once drank 28 strawberry daiquiris in a day, but I wouldn’t recommend any drink grandstanding here as they are proper full-on selected spirits. The London ice tea alone should bar you from operating heavy machinery for a full 48 hours. The rum-based cocktails seem the best and they are vividly reminiscent of sun-kissed holidays. They don’t do food, but English tapas is available (crisps, nuts and popcorn). The maple and bacon flavoured popcorn is adorable.
You are permitted to write in chalk on the walls leading to the shared unisex toilets.
Park House Bar
The Park House bar is a gem of a place in an unlikely but engaging baronial hunting lodge behind the luscious cedar trees and co-op of the Whiteknights campus. Its demeanour is very much of a country pub, or at least a bar in a country house. The wood-panelled walls make both rooms echoic and also incredibly atmospheric with a tangible whiff of academia.
Here, you could imagine a well-bearded man, wearing a corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows (which, some say, is the international sign of academic celibacy), holding the bowl of his pipe and pointing the thin end at you while explaining some incredible hypothesis. Or even a Woolfian bluestocking with her enthusiastic charges, their eyes burning with intensity as she relates some vital polemic by the roaring open fire. Some terrible diseases may have been cured here, some baffling ancient texts translated and great mathematical problems all solved by the learnèd women and men within these very walls of aged and honeyed oak.
There is some solid outdoor seating within a red-bricked wall that is a folly made to look really old, but is actually just old. Some good board games are available, including Buckaroo and Operation, although I chose the resurgent traditional game of dominoes on the day I visited. They have a really good, simple menu with daily specials and even a three-tapas-for-a-tenner deal. My chicken arrabbiata was big, tasty and only £6. My friend had a real winter warmer cottage pie for the same money. They often have five or six very well-kept real ales on, with a focus on local beers, and these are rotated every couple of days and are bargainous at around the £3 to £3.50 mark.
Once again the toilets are positively palatial, smart and clean. Disappointingly, it doesn’t open at weekends.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.