READING’S oldest ‘secular building’ is Watlington House, built in 1688, by Samuel Watlington and was surrounded by fields, not at all like today when it is penned in by the town’s urban sprawl.

John Speeds’ 1611 map of Reading shows how this area (then known as ‘The Ortes’), as a place for farming, this is depicted with horses ‘cavorting’ and a cow being milked in the fields.

The structure and garden walls made use of tons of flint and masonry ‘filtched’ from the nearby Abbey Ruins, this was a common practice in the 17th century and eye-witness accounts tell of ‘cart loads’ of stone travelling to the building site..

The property eventually was owned (in the mid 1880’s) by a very colourful character called Captain Edward Purvis who, as a soldier in the Berkshire Yeomanry, served in the Napoleonic wars.

Known locally as the ‘Gallant Captain’ he was, by all accounts, quite a striking figure with his shock of bright red hair (with the obligatory handlebar moustache) and red military jacket. His ghost is said to haunt an upstairs window, where he has been seen smoking a pipe, gazing into the street below-minus his army hat, which was apparently shot through and blown off his head in a close shave at the Battle of Corunna.

From 1877 to 1927, the building became part of Kendrick School for Girls (although a few boys were taught) and to increase the accommodation the trustees erected a ‘corrugated iron hall’ inside the grounds of the walled garden.

By 1929 the future of Watlington House looked bleak, it was empty and threatened by the general redevelopment of Reading town centre.

Later that year a nineteen-page pamphlet was written by Ernest Dormer, which gave an account of its history, ending with an earnest appeal to preserve: “this haven of quiet, in a busy spot”.

This summer, as part of the National Garden Schemes’ open days, the walled garden was due to welcome visitors in July, but this (for obvious reasons) has been cancelled.

Recently, it was announced by NGS President, Mary Berry, she of ‘Bake Off’ fame, that virtual tours of many UK’s gardens would be available on their social media platforms.

Watlington House is taking part in this as part of a fund-raising campaign to raise money for nursing charities, a special virtual tour is currently being filmed for release in July.

The three-year project to create the garden embraced the designs of Gaila Adair, with a wide variety of flowers and trees enclosed with 100 feet of box hedging.

A unique ‘Knot Garden’ has also been created, following the design of the Watlington family’s coat of arms.

Please follow the links on the NGS website and social media to donate and follow all the virtual tours, but keep an eye out for the walled garden at Watlington House, Reading’s ‘hidden gem’.