The Oracle Riverside in Reading is an enigma - so good in some respects, and so awful in others. I will describe both sides for the sake of balance and to allow you to make an objective choice.
What is it?
1) The Oracle Riverside shopping centre started off as a regeneration project : The whole area used to be a load of disused crumbling warehouses and bus depots with a neglected foul canal running through it. Whoever had the idea and concept of turning this into what it is now, and the political push and energy to make it a reality, deserves to be given a knighthood. Whoever actually designed it however needs a good slap with a kipper. The concept is brilliantly simple: Build a new shopping mall on the side of the old warehouses, and also redevelop the canal/river as a central focus and social point for bars and restaurants. In this respect, it has succeeded enormously. The crowds are testimony to the fact that people, judging by sheer numbers, do seem to like this place, so commercially and with respect to popularity, the project has been an enormous success. There is a huge choice of (albeit mainly chain) restuarants , the paths either side of the canal are lovely and wide, it's completely traffic free, and there are plenty of bike racks and places to sit down and chill out.
However sit down for a minute and look closer at the design. Aesthetically, it looks like it has been designed by a four-year-old with lots of different coloured lego bricks, meccano and plasticine, for the appearance is a true cacophony of styles and materials. The only thing that looks really nice is the wide paved area with its posh white stonework, everything else is a garish and incompatible mix of grey metal panels, brick effect walls topped with a ridiculous curved bridge in the middle. Drive past the main car park on the Inner Distribution Roadway on the other side of the complex, and for some bizarre reason the designers have made the outside entirely convex, using sections of curved grey steel with huge round holes inside, which gives it the disturbing effect of a living, organic monster, it's belly bulging and buckling under the pressure of the pollution and cars inside, ready to spew its contents onto all and sundry. The only good thing about the design is that it's not quite as horrible as the Bullring in Birmingham. The other shameful, shameful mistake in the design is that the towpath in its truest sense was destoryed to make way for the development. Cyclists now have to use the South side of the paved walkway, (cycling is prohibited on the North side) which is a disaster waiting to happen with the sheer numbers of shoppers milling about. I was trundling quite slowly through this area one evening when a blind drunk man staggered straight into me and knocked me clean off onto the concrete. The message is simple - if you are a cyclist, go slow, and during peak hours, you may as well walk the bike through for the safety of others and yourselves. On the North side of the canal there are also usually play things set up for kids (all hideously expensive mind) e.g. in the summer you get a ride-on train on a small oval track, trampolines and floaty-roll-around-inside balls.
Now onto other gripes. The car park is phenomenally badly designed: taking the South side section as an example, the whole sprawling carbuncle only has three exit lanes, and at peak times the car park gets so congested with people trying to leave that they have taken to just opening the barriers and waving cars straight through, and even when you do escape, you have the nightmare of Reading's traffic system to endure. Here's a tip: there are three exit lanes: they are not labelled properly as to where they are going to lead you to, so here is the answer: left takes you to East Reading. Go this way if you want the A4 East, or you want the Wokingham Road. The Middle lane takes you up the hill into South Reading; this way is good for Shinfield or the University. The right-hand exit belches you onto the IDR system; you join the IDR where you have the choice of an immediate left for the A33 Basinstoke road - take this one for the M2 Junction 12 / Madejski stadium , or carry straight on , whereafter the next left is the A4 West, e.g. going towards Calcot Theale or Newbury, and thereafter the next left is the Oxford Road (an experience in itself) or optionally carry straight on for Caversham . If you miss any of these, the road is a large loop and you will eventually get another shot at it after suffering endless traffic lights, so best to get it right first time.
Oh in addition, the car park can get very expensive if you stay for a long time. In general the car parks in Reading are all astronomical; one of the main reasons we hardly go here anymore and go to Basingstoke instead, which still has large, cheap car parks and a shopping mall that is the equal of the Oracle (although admittedly it has no nice riverside central attraction-type area.)
What else. Well as said, Oracle Riverside offers a huge choice of chain restaurants and cafés; all the usual culprits are there, Slug n Lettuce, Nandos, Starbucks, Caffe Nero etc. Now, depending on your taste, this setup is either the best eating experience possible, or a string of tacky blinged-up corporate chain restaurants capable of offering nothing out of the ordinary. (Saying that, it does have a 'Jamies Italian' but I haven't visited it.) Personally, I wouldn't touch the bars or restaurants at the Oracle Riverside with a barge pole (canal barges or 'narrow boats' regularly chug through the canal to provide a bit of interest) not least because there is no curry house, no Chinese and no Thai. All of those (and there are some great ones) are to be found elsewhere in the main shopping area of Reading. True, there is a tiny little arcade at the extreme East end of the Oracle development which DOES offer 2 curry houses and a Thai and Italian, but they are not located ON the riverside like all the others . The other reason is that everything always looks PACKED. Now is that a good or bad thing? For me, it's a bad thing, I don't want to eat out in packed noisy restaurants, but evidently a huge number of people do, I can testify that the Oracle Riverside restaurants and the riverside in general remains hugely popular. Oh, to clarify, I sometimes say 'canal' and sometimes 'river,' the fact is that the waterway running through the Oracle centre is a 'canalised river' - it is actually the Kennet river that has the Kennet and Avon canal running alongside and within its banks; by the Oracle there is no separate canal so it is both canal and river in one.
OK, let's go into the actual shopping mall. Again, hugely popular even though the shops it offers are all of a certain 'genre' - mainly clothes shops, shoe shops, mobile phone shops and jewellery shops, much like all other modern malls. It does however boast 2 department stores - House of Frazer and Debenhams - and a third - John Lewis, which is located just behind the Oracle Centre but the back door is a stones throw from the back entrance of the Oracle centre so all very convenient if that's your thing. It also has an HMV, a Waterstones (with a Costa inside) and a small number of other specific shops (a Tea merchant, Lush candles, Body Shop, Boots, Disney Shop, usual stuff) but by and large this is a bland commercial setup selling high-priced goods. There is also a newish and bizarre clothes shop done out to look like a nightclub, complete sometimes with bouncers on the doors, playing boom boom boom music inside; this bit of marketing genius has the well-heeled flocking inside to appear 'trendy' and 'with it' but again I wouldn't dream of going in it.
As a comparison, Reading has two shopping malls, the Oracle, and the older St Mary's walk. In my opinion, as a male who's not into buying clothes or shoes, the St Mary's walk is by far the best shopping mall. It's the cheaper end of the market by far, but for me there are far, far more interesting shops inside, like TK Maxx, The Works, Holland and Barret, GNC, Argos, a plethora of pound shops, a nice big café called Boswells which is very nice, Greggs, a newsagent, a model shop, and loads more.
In summary the best-selling Idler book of cr*p towns describes the Oracle centre as a 'cathedral of americanized shallowness,' a description which I agree with 100%.
However, as they say, everyone's tastes are different : If you love glossy department stores, expensive shoe, clothes and jewellery shops, packed with shoppers you will like the Oracle shopping centre. I don't, but I have to say it is evident a huge number of people do.
Perhaps the most offensive thing about the Oracle centre is the sign on the wall as you enter: No cycling, No skateboarding etc, usual stuff.. and then 'No photography.' No photography? I contacted the officials to ask why this was so, but guessed the answer in advance would be something to do with Health and Safety, terrorism and Child protection. Well, I guessed all those correctly, but do you know what - they also gave an additional reason for this kind of prohibition (something to my mind you would normally only expect in a fascist dictatorship) and that was, quote, to "protect the architectural copyright.' The mind boggles.
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