The House of “Pride and Prejudice” ( and Zombies)

Basildon Park has some of the best stories to tell and most interesting residents that I have ever encountered since I first started to chase castles.  We used to live not far away from this house and I remember planning to visit it a few years ago. We didn’t manage it then and I am actually happy about this because since we started to “chase castles’’, I always do my research before I visit. Knowing what I was looking for turned this visit into something incredible.

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Basildon is quite a misleading place. When you explore castles and stately homes around the country, you get spoilt by visiting places with hundreds of years of history, places that used to be lived in by kings, queens and dukes. So at first glance, Basildon can appear to feel a little dull. But – SPOILER ALERT – this house is anything but and if you read all of the stories that I discovered here, I am sure you will be planning your visit pretty soon.

Many of the people who influenced this house were self-made men. It was built at the end of the 18th century by Sir Francis Sykes, a man who made his fortune through being part of the East India company. When Sykes returned to the UK, he had a lot of money and he needed to show it off. Choosing Basildon was almost to be expected as this area of Berkshire was known by then as “The English Hindoostan”, with several of his East India contemporaries, also known as “Nabobs”, building or buying their mansions in the area.

The house remained with the Sykes family for three generations. The 3rd Baronet (also called Francis Sykes), managed not only to drain most of the family fortune, but also to become the laughing stock of the high society of the country. It was all related to his wife’s affair, the future prime minister and Charles Dickens (I told you this house had the best stories, right?). You can read this story here

The next owner was not only a self-made man, but he was also probably the richest non-royal person in the country. His name was James Morrison and he was such a unique businessman that his tales are told in a book called, “A Genius About Money”. Besides investing in real estate and in railways in the UK and the USA, James loved to find clever ways to earn money.  For example, in 1820 he bought up all the black crepe fabric available in the UK. If this sounds strange, it was also very clever, as a few weeks after he bought it, Queen Caroline passed away. She was such a popular monarch that every house and shop in the country wanted to show their grieving and pay their respects by hanging black crepe (Morrison later did it again when he expected the death of William IV).

James Morrison loved art and he wanted to use Basildon to display his collection. You may wish for a time-machine at this point, because instead of the perfectly lovely pictures hanging on the walls of Basildon today, in James Morrison’s era it was another level and decorated with the works of artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt and even Leonardo Da Vinci.

The next owner of the house also became its worst enemy. This was an American named George Ferdinando, but unlike other rich Americans who bought places like Leeds or Hever Castles and restored them back to glory, George planned the opposite. He actually tried to sell the house and relocate it in America: in other words, he planned to disassemble Basildon brick by brick and rebuild it back in The New World. If this sounds far-fetched, you should know that it was actually something Americans liked to do and not that unusual at the time. Luckily for us and for the house, George’s timing was not astute because he tried to market the house at exactly the time the great depression started. And so instead of disassembling it, he did the next best thing and he started to strip the house of its rich features and this is why you can see some of Basildon’s murals and fireplaces in the Waldorf Astoria in New York (and some of its doorcases in the Metropolitan art museum).

Next came the war… THE war. Like many other stately homes, Basildon was used during World War II as part of the war effort. In the first years, it became a training ground for the 101 American Airborne Division, as they were practising for their major role in D-day. When the tides of the war changed, Basildon had a new role and it became a jail for German and Italian soldiers. As you can imagine, this did not contribute positively to the condition of the house an by the end of WWII, Basildon was on its way to becoming another one of the 2000 stately homes which were demolished.

The house needed a saviour and in 1952, it found one. Lord and Lady Iliffe bought the house and embarked upon a project to restore it to its former glory, doing so in such a unique and innovative way that today the interior of the house reflects these creative efforts.

The impressive interior of the house also attracted the eyes of the film and television industries and this was the main location for the filming of the 2005 film of ‘’Pride and Prejudice’’, starring Keira Knightley, and also one of the locations of the hit series ‘’Downton Abbey’’.

Basildon Park is managed by the National Trust. for more information: Basildon Park official website

 

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Discover a House full of Stories

Chasing Castles review

We visited Basildon at the end of January so we could enjoy the early glimpses of snowdrops. It was the middle of the week and since the weather was hiking-friendly, we were not surprised to see that the car park was very busy.

Basildon Park is located near Reading and Newbury so many people visit the place and explore the grounds rather than the house, which meant that we could easily get into the first guided tour. This was a great treat as the house was still relatively empty and so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. The tour took almost an hour and was one of the best we have taken so far. Thanks to my early research, I knew what questions to ask the guide because this households within its walls probably the best stories we have found so far.

To be honest, it felt like we should have taken more than one type of tour of the house. Our tour was mainly focussed on the way the house was saved by Edward and Renée Iliffe and it included some fascinating stories about how they managed to renovate it and fill it with artefacts during the miserable, post-war years in the UK of the 1950s. You could also do a tour about Basildon in the movies. We have already mentioned the traditional “Pride and Prejudice” connection, but did you know that the 2016 film, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was also shot there?!

It is simply impossible to tell all of the stories of Basildon Park in one tour, so I suggest you do a bit of homework in advance of your visit (including reading the stories I have gathered about the place). Most of the volunteers I talked with in the house were extremely knowledgeable, but you do need to know what to ask. Since we arrived in the middle of the week, we did not have to entertain the kids which in this case was great, because the house did not offer any unique options for them. I think that they would probably enjoy the 1950’s kitchen and the shell room and the grounds also hold an adventure area.

To sum things up, Basildon Park is an enjoyable place to explore with interesting tours available and links to the entertainment industry if you are interested in this sort of thing. Its location also makes it a convenient option for West Londoners looking for a day out for the family.

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