Saturday 12 April 2014

Basildon Park

Fact: I am the only woman in the UK over the age of 30 that has never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey. I don't know why - I like my Sunday night distractions as much as anybody (ask me anything about Monarch of the Glen) but Downton passed me by.  

Basildon Park was one of the locations used in the Downton Christmas special this year, so I expected it to be full of people saying things like "ooh look Dennis, this is where Bates threatened Lord Rinkydink-Pinkpantherton's valet with a soup tureen" or "this must be the desk where Lady Grantham got the news about Cousin Squiffy having that terrible accident playing bridge in upstate New York" (I don't even watch it and I know the names). 

Basildon Park

And indeed, there were A LOT of Downton fans there today and they surely weren't disappointed. Basildon played the part of the family's London home and in every room there are pictures showing the various scenes that were filmed there. Here's Shirley MacLaine's dress in the dining room, for example:

Basildon Park Downton Abbey

There was also an exhibition room dedicated to Basildon's Downton fame, with a video explaining where the various scenes were shot and which bits of furniture got a starring role:

Basildon Park was also used in Dorian Gray and in the worst-actress-in-the-world-Keira-Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice. I don't blame them for using it as a film location, as it's a beautiful place. The house is built out of Bath stone, so it has that lovely warm glow to it, and the grounds are really welcoming - there were picnic tables everywhere, and kids and dogs jumping about and having a nice time.

Inside, it has some stunning rooms - the Octagon Room in particular was wonderful. I could easily have plonked myself on the sofa and stayed there for hours.

Most important of all: Basildon is WARM. I thought it was the law that stately homes have to be freezing but Basildon is warm as toast. The reason for that probably belongs in its history:
  • In 1952, Basildon House was practically derelict
  • It had been used during the Second World War for housing troops and prisoners of war and it was in a sorry state
  • Lord and Lady Iliffe bought it and restored it with astounding dedication, creating a home that was filled with period furniture and fittings that they bought at auction and from other stately homes 
  • Basildon had originally been built between 1776 and 1783 for Francis Sykes, who had made his fortune through the East India Company before being investigated for corruption
  • His son and grandson frittered away the family fortune and it was bought by James Morrison, who had made his money in haberdashery
  • After his daughter died it was put up for sale and was almost demolished before the Iliffes saved it
  • In 1978 it was given to the National Trust by the marvellous Iliffes

We didn't get to see the top floor as it was shut due to a volunteer shortage, which was really disappointing. However, what we did see made it well worth the visit.

The Basildon Park scone
The tearoom is actually inside the house, which is always a bit special, and the scones were OK - they were tasty but a bit on the dry side. 

Basildon Park scones

So in conclusion, you don't need to be a Downtonite to enjoy Basildon Park - for a picnic on a sunny day, you'd be hard pushed to find anywhere nicer.

Basildon Park: 4 out of 5
Scones: 3.5 out of 5
Chances of me converting to Downton Abbey: 0 out of 5 (sorry)

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