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Earley / Lower Earley
Now mainly considered bedroom communities to nearby Reading, Earley and Lower Earley began modestly but rose to national prominence over the centuries. Human habitation in the area began as early as the Stone Age as artefacts such as hand axes attest to their existence. Maiden Erlegh Lake, Instow Road, Silverdale Road, Fowler Close and the Thames Valley Business Park are where many finds have been located that date from the Stone Age, through to the Bronze and Iron Ages. By 1086, the Domesday book records the name as ‘Herlei.’ While there is still some debate as to the meaning of Earley and its numerous spellings through the centuries, the most likely meaning is ‘Eagle Wood.’ The first part, ‘Er’ or ’Ear’ is from the Anglo Saxon ‘eagle’ and ‘ley’ or ‘leigh’ meaning ‘wood.’
Birds of prey such as the Golden Eagle and White Tailed Eagles were common in the area in the Middle Ages. Today, Sparrow Hawks and Red Kites can be seen. There are still areas of ancient woodland in Earley that include Pearmans Copse near Lower Earley Way, Redhatch Copse that is off of Redhatch Drive and High Wood near Church Road. A small part of Buckhurst Copse still exists within the grounds of Maiden Erlegh School. High Wood also contains the last scrap of heath land in the area that had once extensively covered large sections of Earley and Woodley until the 1800s.
Near South Lake, to the east of High Wood, Bulmershe Heath once existed where George III inspected local troops. Although only a few of the ancient woodlands survive, the residents of Earley have made efforts to save as much natural wildlife and green areas as possible. The Earley Parish Council purchased Maiden Erlegh Lake and surrounding woodland from the residents of the Coopers Estates in 1965. More recently, Old Lane Wood, at the rear of Sellafield Way, was acquired from Wokingham District Council, giving the park a total area of 24 acres. The woodlands within the park are of great historical and ecological importance, with Oak Wood dating from at least the 16th century. The cottages of Radstock Farm can also still be seen in Radstock Lane near the school. In the section of Beech Lane that runs parallel with Rushey Way, the Home farm cottages (one is thatched) are still standing. The old farm pond nearby is managed by the Town Council and is a Wildlife Heritage site. Earley St. Peters School is the oldest in the town. It was founded one hundred years before its neighbours. Every part of the town has a primary school within walking distance.
Maiden Erlegh School was opened in 1962 and is the only secondary school within Earley. But Earley’s lasting mark on history has taken the form of the name ‘Whiteknights.’ Now the home of Reading University, Whiteknights Park, is all that remains of the pre-1276 Erlegh manor and 40 acre deer park. Legends state that the White Knight was a Norman soldier who gave up his manor and travelled barefoot to the Holy Land in penance for accidentally killing his Saxon lover’s brother. He was buried in St. Nicholas’ Chapel that originally stood near the Wokingham Road gate to the Park. The reality, however, was that John D’ Earley IV was called the ‘Whiteknight’ after having fought for Edward I in Scotland, possibly wearing white armour. But the most famous of the baronial family was John D’ Earley II, the ward of the Regent of England, William Marshall. D’Earley grew up to fight alongside King Richard I in France and for Marshal in Ireland. The Earley family held the two manors in the area from 1160-1362, according to the Domesday records. Then sadly, the family was forced to sell its holdings to pay ransom demands from the Spanish king.
Growth in Earley after the departure of the Earley family was hit hard by the Black Death and tax records show that by the 1600s the population was only 100. In 1841 the population was 471 and the Church of England made Earley a parish in its own right instead of a part of the old parish of Sonning. In 1863 the London and South Railway opened an Earley station, linking it to Reading and Guilford. In 1931 the population jumped to 847 and a housing boom before the Second World War caused the population to surge further to more than 5,000. Steadily growing through the decades, by 1974, the residents numbered approximately 12,000 and the Lower Earley Estate in 1977 helped the town to rapidly increase in size. Now the population is in excess of 32,000. Some mistakenly believe that the name ‘Lower Earley’ was the result of the housing development however tithe maps from the 1800s show that ‘Lower Earley Farm’ and ‘Earley Lower Wood Common’ were terms already in use. Earley and Lower Earley have more to offer than just housing next to Reading. They offer shops, woodlands, a lake and heaps of history, some of which can be seen just by walking around.