This weekend we made the most of the National Trust Free Weekends and visited Basildon Park, situated near Streatley and about halfway between Didcot and Reading.
Set in over 400 acres of grounds, Basildon Park is a Georgian country manor house which was restored in the 1950’s by Lord and Lady Iliffe; it fell into disrepair following a chain of unfortunate events in the early 20th century which culminated in property developer George Ferdinando selling off many of the fixtures and fittings. It was then used by troops in World War II, and following this lead was stolen from the roof and a fire blitzed the principal floor, all of which seemingly marked the house for demolition.
Fortunately that didn’t end up being the case. And now you can not only explore the mansion and its gardens, but there are also three signposted walks of varying lengths which allow you to explore the grounds.
Undertaking one of these walks was my favourite part of the visit. Even on the free weekend they were really quiet (albeit at 11.30am, not long after the grounds opened). Although obviously looked after, and featuring strategically placed benches for rests and taking in the scenery, the grounds still felt natural and, well, like the countryside. It was also just really relaxing. Sat on a bench overlooking the main manor house, we were completely in the open yet felt like we were alone; it was a really lovely, peaceful experience, if a little surreal – something that seems more common to ‘reflective’ scenes in films and television programmes than a Real Life Sunday Morning! (Perhaps this is why the house has starred in the films Marie-Antoinette, Pride & Prejudice and Dorian Grey, according to Wikipedia.)
I’d definitely like to go back armed with my walking boots and a flask to do one of the longer walks (we only completed the second shortest on this occasion, which took us just under an hour at what was a leisurely pace for us). You can find out more information about these walks here.
The manor itself was also pretty interesting. In their restoration, Lord and Lady Iliffe were faithful to the manor’s 18th century origin, the fixtures and fittings all reflecting what might have been the house’s original features. Each room comes with a written guide to tell you a bit more about the features inside. I don’t know whether we would have paid the extra to go in normally, so it was good to have the opportunity to see what we would have been missing. I particularly like the grand piano that visitors are encouraged to play – it definitely adds something to the atmosphere, even if the tunes we heard probably weren’t quite the same as the ones I imagine the Iliffes were entertained by!
That said, much as the grandeur of the rooms is interesting, I think my favourite part had to be the 1950’s kitchen – mainly because I’d be quite happy to have a very similar one of my own one day (a girl can dream!).
I also have to mention the second-hand bookshop attached to the gift store. Manned by just an honesty box, and featuring a big wooden table in the middle of the room, the shop invites you to browse the reasonable selection of titles on offer (better than the selection in most non-book-specific charity shops, anyway). Even better, unless marked all books are £1, or 50p for children’s. I came away with a barely touched copy of The Beach, which I’d been meaning to buy my own copy of for some time – bargain!
Would I go back to Basildon Park? To the grounds, definitely. Sure you can go for walks in the local woods for free, but it is nice to do something a bit different occasionally. And these walks offered really spectacular views, both of the surrounding countryside and of the bluebell-carpeted floors. Also, the woods don’t serve cream teas (which I will definitely be treating myself to next time – they looked amazing!). I probably wouldn’t pay the extra £4 to go inside the manor again, but definitely appreciated the opportunity to have a look at something we wouldn’t normally be able to justify paying for.
That said, we are now very tempted to join the National Trust. An annual membership for 13-25 year olds is just £25 (a little over £2 a month), and cheaper if purchased online by direct debit. You essentially pay for it with three – four visits to sites a year. Not bad at all, especially considering that until recently we were paying £9.99 a month for a LoveFilm membership we barely used! (Membership for over 25s (for the National Trust, not Lovefilm) is a bit steeper at £53 a year, or £88.50 for a joint one – paying by direct debit will get you 25% off – but that’s still a pretty reasonable deal when you think about just how much you get for it).
Still not sure whether National Trust sites are for you? I’m pretty sure we’re not what you’d consider to be a typical member, especially based on the demographics of the others visiting on Sunday. I’m 24, would usually choose a city or beach break over a countryside holiday and enjoy city living. John usually has to be coerced to museums, and tends to be much more interested in the present than the past. But we both equally enjoyed our day at Basildon Park. A lot. I think I could pretty safely say that both there, and other National Trust sites, offer something for most people (I daren’t say everyone, though it may well be true…).
The other thing the trip did was remind us how lucky us Brits are to have so much history on our doorsteps that is being kept alive by the National Trust. After a week of rain and hail and sitting on your 40-minute train home very, very damp, it’s pretty easy to get down on Britain and vow to move to Australia at the next possible opportunity. This weekend, and browsing through the huge variety of places participating in the Free Weekend for this blog, made me remember how much we actually do have going for us on our little island. More than enough to make the occasional soggy train journey home worth it, that’s for sure.
Visit the Basildon Park website for more information on opening times, prices, activities and events.
More information on National Trust membership can be found here.
A few more photos available on Flickr.