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During a recent stay with relatives in Hampshire, my partner and I were looking for interesting places to visit. We fancied the living history museum 'Milestones' in Basingstoke and afterwards decided to combine it with a trip across town to the historical ruins of Basing House. For some reason lately our holidays nearly always include a visit to some sort of ruin, abbey or historical palace - must be our age!
Sir William Paulet, the first Marquess of Winchester, built basing House in 1535 on the site of a former Norman castle. It was described as "the largest private house in the kingdom", and was so palatial that it was frequently used to entertain the monarchs of the day including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
During the English civil war the house was attacked three times by parliamentary troops, (Paulet was a Royalist loyal to King Charles I) until in 1645 Oliver Cromwell himself led an assault on Basing House and the walls were breached. Troops pillaged the house of its treasures and then it was burnt and demolished. For years local villagers were allowed to remove the debris of the house to use for their own building purposes (evidence of this can still be seen in some of the houses in Old Basing village today).
In the 1870's archaeological work started on the site and Hampshire County Council bought the ruins in 1972.
The Basing House Ruins are located in Old Basing village about 1 mile to the east of Basingstoke, not far from junction 6 of the M3. The full address is:
Hampshire RG24 7HB
However, be warned, if you put this postcode into your sat-nav you will end up very confused (speaking from experience here!). The car park for Basing House is some distance from the actual house, about a 10 -15 minute walk in fact, so the actual postcode you need to get you to the car park, which is off Bartons Lane, is RG24 8AE.
There is also a bus, number 8, which runs hourly from Basingstoke bus station.
As I mentioned the free car park is not near the house, it's located next to the very nice-looking Millstone pub which you have to pass to start the trek to the house. Apparently at the ruins they can accommodate disabled visitors cars actually on-site but you need to contact them in advance for this (tel. 0845 603 5635)
There are outside toilets near the entrance, not very salubrious, dark and cobweb ridden.
The landscape is all grass with some steep gradients, so may not be ideal for those who are disabled or infirm.
Entry to the site is via a very small shop that sells souvenirs and books about the Tudors and a few toys for children. No refreshments are available on site, but there is a pub in the village of Old Basing just a short walk away, or the pub by the car park.
What's To See
The Great Barn - this is outside of the main site of the ruins but is on-route from the car park. It's a magnificent Tudor barn, the last surviving intact building from the Basing House complex, built in 1535 and measuring 120 feet long with an oak framed roof. On the outside brickwork can be seen the scars of the civil war when it took a beating from canon balls. The barn was used to store corn and barley and the many slit windows on the walls provided ventilation for the corn.
Remains of the House - not a lot actually remains of the house, but you can see the site of the great gatehouse with it's approach by bridge, the underground kitchens of the old house, the buttery cellar of the great hall used to store butts of wine and beer barrels and recently discovered remains of Paulet's 'new house'
Garden - a reconstructed Jacobean Garden with original Tudor walls. It was built in 1989 based on designs from the Paulet coat of arms and from decorated tiles found on the site. Also within this area are 17th century dovecotes and picnic tables.
Exhibition - showing a small selection of artefacts from the house uncovered during excavations, a video and storyboard of the history of the site, and some cuttings about recent archaeological excavations (including Channel 4's Time Team) and what they uncovered.
Grounds - various bits and pieces to be seen within the grounds, including the entrance to a Tudor sewer, a Norman ditch from the castle on the site in the 11th century, a Tudor well and earthwork defences from the civil war.
First off I have to say that Basing House proved quite difficult to find. I was driving from the west side of Basingstoke using a borrowed satnav, but having not done my homework beforehand I entered the postcode of the address, not the one for the car park. So when the little voice from the dashboard announced "you have reached your destination" my destination was nowhere to be seen. A bit more driving around and eventually the entrance to the car park was found. Apparently it is sign posted from the nearest roundabout but I missed any signage and got a bit lost so I don't think it's signposted very well - but then again it could just be me... If you enter the correct postcode into the little talking box you shouldn't have any problems.
Again, not having researched it fully I was not expecting a ten minute walk from the car to the site. However, after resisting the urge to pop into the Millstone pub it was a very pleasant walk. My partner and I followed the signs to the ruins walking firstly alongside the river Lodden and then through a field, past the Great Barn, out onto the road, turn left, cross the road and up the drive to the site entrance - phew! Fortunately it was a lovely sunny day, I'm not sure how pleasant the walk would have been if it had been raining and the field and footpath was wet and muddy...
We came across the Great barn along the walk to the ruin site and were surprised that it can be entered free of charge. Although there's not a lot to see it's an amazing structure and considering it's almost 500 years old it's in remarkable condition. Inside it's cavernous expanse it's dark (and just a little bit creepy) with just natural light from the open door to illuminate the information panel that tells a bit about the buildings history. For some reason I found the barn really fascinating, probably because it remains unchanged since the time it was built and so you really get a sense of the past when you stand in there.
Entrance to the Basing House ruins is through an original surviving gateway, then up the drive and over the bridge of the old London to Basingstoke canal (built in the 1790's but no longer in use). Admission is just £2 for adults payable in the little kiosk/shop, and I was surprised to find that the site is owned by Hampshire County Council and not English Heritage or the National Trust who seem to own most ruin sites. Still for just £2 I wasn't expecting too much, which on reflection was probably the best attitude to go there with. We were offered a 'guide book' for 20p and of course couldn't refuse at that price. It was actually just a photocopied A4 piece of paper folded in four, but was incredible informative. There was a small diagrammatic map of the site with numbered features and information about each, which was great in theory but problems arose when we tried to match up the little map with the expanse of field we were stood in. None of the features on the map were numbered in real life so it proved quite difficult to actually find the things we were reading about.
And of the ruins themselves? Well there really isn't very much left of the once great house to see. The central area where the great hall would have been holds the most interest with remains of the old kitchens with brick bread ovens in the walls, and steps down into the buttery cellar, a large well and a bit of the bridge to the gatehouse. That's about it, just foundations really. As I stood on the raised land, which has been inhabited since the Iron Ages, and looked out across the site of such history and huge battles of the civil war, I couldn't really get any sense of the Tudor palace that once stood there. My imagination couldn't convert the flat land and few bricks into the mighty structure which once was. There were a few information panels around with illustrations of how the house may have looked but there wasn't enough of it left to bring the history to life for me.
We walked around the whole site, the garden was pretty but didn't really hold any interest for me, and the exhibition was pitifully small. I would have liked to have seen more in there, maybe a scale model of how the site would have looked back in it's hey day.
I was surprised when we left the site to find that we'd actually spent almost two hours wandering about. A quick visit to the rather dark and smelly outside loo and then a trek back to the car. Could have killed for a cup of tea by that point, something that is sadly lacking from the site.
I did enjoy my visit to Basing House, a lovely afternoon was spent wandering around the open grounds, but I did feel that much could be done to make the experience more enjoyable. I would have liked to have had more information about the things I was looking at within the site and clearer labelling of the features. As it stands you enter the site and are petty much left to hunt down the ruins yourself. I think 'basic' sort of sums it up, it lacks many of the facilities required to rate it as a viable tourist attraction.
However, and it's a big however, as of September 2009 the site is closing for redevelopment and it appears that many of the areas I found lacking are going to be improved upon. From 2010 the site will reopen as 'Basing House History Park' - information from the web site reads:
"The Grange Farm buildings will be restored and converted to provide new facilities like a shop, refreshments, toilets, parking for people with limited mobility, and an exhibition to introduce visitors to the fascinating history of the site. In the old stable block there will be a specially designed space for learning and community use. Over the road, the ruins of the huge Tudor palace called Basing House, the banks and ditches that once protected a medieval castle, and the 17th century Civil War defences will be conserved, explained and made more accessible to all visitors. Improvements will include new toilets and a tearoom".
It has the potential to be a really interesting attraction, especially for educating children who may be studying the Tudors. I do think it's great that important historical sites such as these are preserved and developed into attractions to be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to visit and in doing so Hampshire County Council should be applauded. Sadly these days when so much history is bulldozed over and re-developed into ugly office blocks or penthouse apartments, it's nice to see the Basing House ruins clinging on.
So my advice, if you're interested in history then Basing House is definitely worth a visit, but I'd hold off until summer 2010 when you'll probably get a lot more out of your visit. In the meantime take a look at their web site and check out the site on Google Earth.
Cost and Opening Hours
Admission is just £2 for adults and £1 for children and OAPs. (Sometimes you can find a two for one offer on the Hampshire tourist site by doing a quick web search)
The ruins are open from April 1st to September, but only Wednesday to Sundays (and Bank Holidays) and only from 2pm - 6pm
There are occasional guided tours, battle re-enactments and period demonstrations which take place on the site. Information about these and details for group/school bookings can be found at: http://www3.hants.gov.uk/basing-house
Historic Ruins. It was built in 1535 as a new palace for William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester. Later it was a major English Tudor palace and castle.