Enough of the jokes at Basingstoke’s expense. Who is having the last laugh now? I saw comedian Jon Richardson’s performance at The Anvil recently. Actually, The Anvil is one of my go-to places for stand-up and live music, along with The Forge and The Haymarket - that’s three good venues in town. Anyway, Jon Richardson commented that Basingstoke should be popular on the gigging circuit as it is so easy to get out of town - turn left out of the car park and you’re on the dual carriageway. It’s a clever tease – partly referencing the old jokes, but also praising Basingstoke’s practical infrastructure. For Basingstoke was developed in the mid-20th century with accessibility rather than aesthetics in mind – hence the ring road, roundabouts, good links to the M3 motorway to the south and M4 to the north, and a mainline station (London Waterloo in just 45 minutes or so) adjacent to the town centre.
Yet it felt dull and uninspiring. However, following major revamps of shopping and leisure facilities, Basingstoke has matured into a great place for 21st century family living. Accordingly, it has become popular. Just try finding a table in Festival Place’s ‘restaurant quarter’ on a Friday evening. Here are the big names in casual dining, the likes of Coal, Nandos and Wagamama, stuffed full mostly with families and groups from late teens to thirties. There’s a lively vibe.
Festival Place has been transformed into a lifestyle experience. There is great shopping, from Apple to Zara, through M&S, Tesco Metro, TK Maxx and the like, in warm, light, airy malls (note – the upper floor is cleverly designed to be accessible by buggy and wheelchair without the need to negotiate escalators or lifts). But it also offers an extraordinary range of leisure activities. There’s a 10-screen multiplex cinema with recliner seats, a vast sports centre with swimming pools, gyms (including a women-only one), squash courts, exercise studios and health spa, and a new addition called Flip Out with trampolines, climbing walls, wipeout machine and the first high-tech indoor assault course in the country. This is how the ‘high street’ of the future will survive, as a hub.
That’s not all. Circling the town centre are further leisure and retail parks. These include Aquadrome swimming centre with three pools and flumes, Basingstoke Golf Centre, Milestones interactive museum, Planet Ice skating rink, home to the Basingstoke Bison, indoor sky-diving experiences at iFly, skiing at Skizone, bowling and more. Whatever your age and interest you’ll find a venue and an opportunity. In short you and yours are unlikely ever to be short of something to do and somewhere to shop. Even wine buffs should be happy - seek out Berry Brothers & Rudd Warehouse Shop in Houndmills with a selection of great value bin-end finds.
Unexpectedly, in the hurly burly of busy, built-up Basingstoke, are quiet, green corners. There are a number of parks and open spaces, such as Eastrop Park in the centre, with boating lake, paddling pool and the River Loddon wandering through, and War Memorial Park, south of the town centre with bandstand, skatepark, tennis courts and regular Saturday park runs. Some are well hidden – such as a secret Walled Garden at Down Grange, Kempshott; once a kitchen garden in the 1800s.
Meanwhile, beyond the roundabouts, you’re quickly into countryside - a striking landscape of downland and farmland, heathland and woodland (depending on the direction you take from town), liberally sprinkled with delightful villages. Examples are Old Basing to the east, home to the ruins of Old Basing House, Sherborne St John to the north, home to The Vyne, the magnificent Tudor mansion now cared for by the National Trust, and Steventon to the west, birthplace of Jane Austen. Her connections with Basingstoke have until recently been neglected – the modernism of Basingstoke ignoring the town’s rich past. That has changed, too. No longer is Basingstoke simply about the present and the future. Jane Austen is celebrated with a life-size bronze sculpture in Basingstoke’s Market Place (erected last year on the 200th anniversary of her death). This is where Jane would have passed when shopping or attending social gatherings at the Assembly Rooms. The old town hall, dominating Market Place, is now the Willis Museum with Sainsbury Gallery and Archaeology Gallery. In addition, surrounding local streets reveal architectural treats: old coaching inns, almshouses and one of Burberry’s original retail outlets. Yes, Burberry was born in Basingstoke.
For home hunters, there is a plethora of established estates of good value, good-sized family homes on leafy closes. If you want new, there’s no shortage of choices as Basingstoke continues to grow, although the latest developments show more design considerations with some clad in dark weatherboarding, evocative of local barns (Beggarwood Lane) or Between-the-Wars features, such as bay windows and covered porches (Worting Lane). But there is something for everyone from country cottages in surrounding villages to contemporary apartments in town.
Schooling is sound. Most primaries are rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, among them Hatch Warren, Kempshott, Merton, South View and Winklebury Junior schools. There’s a similar story at secondary level – the likes of The Vyne Community School, The Costello School and Brighton Hill Community School are considered ‘good’. Ditto sixth form and further education with both Basingstoke College of Technology and Queen Mary College also ‘good’. One or two well-established independents in the area include highly regarded Sherfield School, a co-education day and boarding school taking pupils from three months to 18.
Last, but certainly not least, there’s an active events calendar that includes the Family Festival and Basingstoke Festival. Those looking for downtime can get away from it all, cossetting themselves in one of many cosy country pubs -such as Good Food Guide recommended Crown Inn at Old Basing, The Mole Inn at Monk Sherborne and Hoddington Arms in Upton Grey.
Overall, Basingstoke has changed, yet is still the same. This is where Jane Austen shopped and danced. And this is where families still shop, relax and enjoy themselves. Not a bad life.