Arthur Dent: Are you trying to tell me that we just stuck out our thumbs and some green bug-eyed monster stuck his head out and said: 'Hi fellas, hop right in. I can take you as far as the Basingstoke roundabout'?
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Located some 48 miles to the south-west of London, what does Basingstoke bring to mind? No matter how hard the present generation of planners have worked, it can still bring up images of concrete monstrosities, chain stores and endless housing estates. Sadly, such places still exist, but Basingstoke has more to it than meets the eye. As Margaret, in the opera Ruddigore, says:
...some word that teems with hidden meaning — like 'Basingstoke'...
...which aptly describes the town today.
Despite being on the receiving end of the British sense of humour, the town has a below-average rate of crime, an above-average standard of living, and affordable housing. The town also has a high percentage of younger people, and since the culture of youth is apparent everywhere you go, it is not surprising that people assume the place is 'awash with chavs'. For a town its size it doesn't have much history, although it has a bigger story to tell than many other new towns.
Basingstoke is not a new town. There is evidence of 'Basingestoches' in the Domesday Book, along with another place called Basing (now the suburb of Old Basing), and there is evidence of an iron age hill-fort in the suburb of Winklebury.
'Basing' comes from 'Basa' (a tribe leader) + 'ingas' (people). The tribe in the area was thus called the Basingas. The 'stoke' part means 'secondary farm'. The settlement started out as Embasinga stocae. This became Basingestoches, then Basingstoke.
Old Basing was the location of one of the last castles built in England, which became the stately home Basing House. In its day it rivalled Hampton Court for size, but it was wrecked in a siege during the English Civil War. Bricks from the house were taken to repair nearby homes, so it fell to ruin. The ruins still survive, including a 100 metre long tunnel (a former 15c sewer or drain) that is large enough to be crawled down1. Basingstoke was once served by the Basingstoke Canal from the River Wey (a tributary of The Thames) near Woking, and although most of the canal has been restored2 the final section to Basingstoke is empty.
The year 1775 saw the birth of Jane Austen in the nearby village of Steventon, although it's doubtful she ever admitted to hailing from Basingstoke. On a less refined note, cloth, malting, brewing, engine production and vehicle production have provided industry for the town, which also saw the birth of clothing company, Burberry3. There was also some notorious rioting against the Salvation Army in 1880. Thomas Hardy called it 'Stoke Barehills' and used the words 'gaunt', 'unattractive' and 'decay' - and that was long before the 1960s! Some things never change.
The 1960s was a time of upheaval when, as part of the Greater London Plan, some new towns were built. Basingstoke had recovered from bombing raids by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, only to face worse: the 1960s planners. Their primary objective was to make a town that could accommodate some of the London overspill, and which would be a modern utopia for businesses, vehicles, shoppers, etc, following the designs of other new towns that appeared - at the time, at least, to have been successful.
Basingstoke had a large ring-road built, in the form of a square with two rounded edges. It also saw a large number of roundabouts, which gave Basingstoke its nickname of 'Doughnut City'. The town has about 44 roundabouts - roughly a roundabout for every 2,045 people.
Large parts of the town were demolished and replaced with a new brick shopping centre with a concrete car park. This did not age well and, as it declined, people immediately began to see how visually appalling it was. Housing estates built in the 1960s also fell into decline, becoming associated with poverty, unemployment and crime. Later estates, built during the 1970s, such as Chineham, Kempshott and Hatch Warren, were far more successful.
After an all-time low in the 1980s, things began to look up. In the 1990s an area of land that had been set aside for an extension to the shopping centre was developed into a theatre and concert hall. Known as The Anvil, the building is renowned for acoustics, and appears on many nationwide tours.
At the turn of the millennium someone finally decided to do something about Basingstoke. A large part of the shopping centre, including the east and south sides and the bus station, was redeveloped into Festival Place. The new shopping centre has attracted many shops, although it is mostly dominated by young people's fashion. The eastern side has seen an extension to the shopping centres with a spire (hence its nickname: the Cathedral of Shopping), a new bus station and a restaurant area called Festival Square. Although it consists of mostly chain stores (again), it is arguably a big improvement on its predecessor.
Places in Basingstoke
Festival Place is one of the largest in-town shopping centres in England, with over 160 shops. There is a large (if confusing) car park above it. Festival Square, the restaurant area between Festival Place and Eastrop Park, has a multi-screen cinema and a large nightclub at the southern end of the bus station.
The Malls was built after the first phase of Basingstoke's development, (which has now developed into Festival Place), but has not changed much in comparison. This is a particular problem considering that its design dates from the 1960s (although it was actually built later). It has been in continuous decline after its only major department store closed and Festival Place opened4. It should be noted that St John's Square dates from the same time but is actually part of Festival Place. There are continuing discussions on how The Malls could be regenerated. Part of this includes building shops to front the north side of it - the first view of Basingstoke you see from the railway station.
Top of Town
The Top of Town is the original town centre, and is a lot quieter than the newer shopping centres, although it still has a weekly farmers' market every Wednesday. This area of town is restricted to pedestrians only, and many of the shops here are not owned by chains.
On Wote Street there is an abstract sculpture near the entrance to Festival Place, but it is often mistaken for a human penis. It weighs seven tonnes and is often known as 'The Wote Street Willy'. The area can sometimes be on the rough side at night, despite the presence of 12 CCTV cameras on London Street alone.
Basing View is best described as several concrete office blocks on a hill overlooking Churchill Way, making it a rather unattractive gateway to the town. Some of them are occupied by accountancy firms and the like; others are empty. One notable block is the AA building, supposedly the tallest building between London and New York5, although it is soon to be overtaken by the 19-storey Skyline Plaza development in the town centre.
The oldest suburbs of Brookvale, Fairfields and parts of King's Furlong date from before the new town expansion. After the expansion, many new suburbs were built, including:
- Oakridge - now rebuilt
- South Ham
- King's Furlong
- Brighton Hill - now regenerated
- Norn Hill
- Eastrop (Middle Section)
Although some are healthy after some regeneration work, quite a few of them have declined and some of them are now 'problem areas'. The newer and larger suburbs have fared better. These include:
- Hatch Warren
- Parts of Eastrop and Winklebury
The eastern part of Old Basing has some old houses on the High Street, although there are many new houses to the south, mostly bungalows.
Basingstoke also has four business areas: Houndmills, Viables, Daneshill and Chineham Business Park.
Eating and Drinking in Basingstoke
Like most British towns, Basingstoke is blessed with pubs, with at least one in each suburb and more in the town centre.
There are restaurants and coffee shops scattered around Festival Place, and the classy restaurant district, Festival Square, is located nearby, with Chinese, Italian and American eateries. The link between Festival Place and Festival Square has a number of fast-food restaurants along it, if you can stand the food. There are others scattered around the town centre and the suburbs, as well as those pubs that serve meals.
Rather more tenuously related to the subject of eating, Basingstoke also boasts the largest banana-ripening warehouse in Europe.
Entertainment in Basingstoke
Basingstoke has all the leisure facilities expected of a town. The main place to find them is the out-of-town leisure park, which includes:
- The Aquadrome, a large swimming pool, with three large flumes, an indoor pool, a 20m pool and a 25m competition pool.
- A bowling alley
- A 10-screen cinema
- An ice rink
- Indoor bowls
- Milestones Museum, which contains reconstructions of Victorian and Edwardian Streets (the 'munching' post box in the Post Office is always a highlight with children)
- The inevitable fast-food restaurants, and another that sells proper food
The town centre has an extensive sports centre over Festival Place with a swimming pool, and another 10-screen cinema. At Down Grange there are various sports pitches as well as a golf centre off Worting Road.
There are two theatres: The Anvil and The Haymarket. The main difference is that The Anvil organises concerts, shows and some plays, whereas the older(though recently refurbished) Haymarket (at The Top of Town) mostly stages plays.
Transport in Basingstoke
While its 44 roundabouts, 18 of them on main roads, may seem a little excessive, when combined with dual carriageways they do ensure that congestion in the town is not a major problem.
Basingstoke is served by Junction 6 of the M3 motorway, with Junction 7 taking you to the western side of the town via the A30. Basingstoke is also signposted from the M4, and can be reached from via the A33.
The ring-road encircles the town centre and inner suburbs, and is linked to the major routes out of the town. It has a circumference of six miles anticlockwise and 6.3 miles clockwise. From it, there are several radial roads: the A33 to Reading, A339 to Alton (southbound) or Newbury (northbound), the A30 to Old Basing (eastbound), the M3 (westbound), the A340 to Tadley and a B road to Whitchurch.
When entering the town, there are boards to show parking spaces. The largest car park is over Festival Place: be warned as it has a bit of a confusing layout, but you should be okay if you follow the signs. There are many car parks around the Top of Town if you can't find a place there. Alternatively, you can park in the Leisure Park and take a shuttle bus to Festival Place.
The 1960s planners cared only about roads, but railways have also played an important part in the town's history. After all, the London and South Western Railway chose for their route to Southampton to go via Basingstoke as it was seen to be a good place from which to build extra lines to the West Country.
Today, Basingstoke has a single railway station and is served mostly by South West Trains, who provide services to London Waterloo. The station has won awards as the Best Medium Station6 in the UK, and the Best Large Station on the South West Trains network. The buildings are Victorian, and the station is staffed throughout the day.
The fast services to London depart from Platform 3 (sometimes Platform 4), although after harvesting commuters from Southampton and Winchester they are likely to be crowded. Groups of travellers may prefer the slow train which departs on Platform 1: you probably will get a seat, although the train stops at up to ten stations on the way (such as Winchfield, a village of about 500 people).
Westbound trains leave from Platform 2, and head to Winchester, Fareham, Portsmouth, Southampton, Bournemouth, Salisbury, Weymouth and Exeter. Long distance trains to Birmingham leave from Platform 4, and there is a local service to Reading from Platform 5.
All the local bus services are operated by Stagecoach, apart from the Central Shuttle 'Park and Ride' service between the Leisure Park, the Town Centre and Basing View. There are longer distance routes between London and elsewhere in Hampshire (be warned: some of them go all over the place).
Basingstoke has a modern bus station adjacent to Festival Place. It is located outdoors although the stands are sheltered, and there is a bridge to the opposite side of the train station forecourt.
Media in Basingstoke
The local radio channel is Kestrel FM, who deal with local news and play music, mostly from the 1980s, though some from more recent times. 2-Ten FM in Reading also covers the town, and if you live in the right place you can hear London and South Hampshire radio stations.
At many shops and other places you will see a copy of the Basingstoke Observer - a free local newspaper. The other local newspaper is the Gazette, which is delivered on Mondays and Thursdays with a free paper on Wednesdays called the Extra.
Education in Basingstoke
Every suburb in the town has a school within walking distance, and there are two colleges for 16-18-year-olds - Basingstoke College of Technology (BCOT) and Queen Mary's, with others in nearby towns. In addition to its courses for sixth-formers, BCOT also offers a number of higher education qualifications, as well as business qualifications and full- or part-time classes for adults.
A Final Word
Poet Laureate John Betjeman, looking back at the old town, wrote:
God bless Basingstoke in these pictures and in this text, may it bask in an eternal summer day...which is a lot better than what he said about Slough!