Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Worthwhile Outing

For many years I have eschewed guided tours. Whether on holiday, at a stately home, or other places of interest I have always chosen to find my own way, albeit with the help of a guidebook; after all, anything of interest is in the guidebook, right? History, family, acquisitions, artifacts et al. Right?

Recently The Wife and I visited Basildon House in Berkshire. Since we were slightly early for the official opening time and a guided tour was imminent, we decided to avail ourselves of the opportunity. Our guide was (I would guess) a retired military gentleman whose knowledge of the house, its history, and of the various artifacts within was encyclopedic.

Built in the 1780's for a wealthy man of the East India Company it has had something of a chequered history, and passed down through the family which lent its name to the villain of Oliver Twist. Latterly it was used as a hospital for officers (of course) of the Guards regiments in the first world war, and was again requisitioned as a headquarters for the 101st Airborne (the band of brothers) in WW2. By the time the war ended the building was in a sorry state. The contents had been sold, pilfered, or otherwise disposed of, there was graffiti, and even the door cases and plaster-work was missing. The grounds were overgrown and the house looked ready for demolition.                    

Taxes on large properties at the end of the war were prohibitive. The Labour government needed money to house those who had been rendered homeless by the war as well as those returning from the continent, and large house owners were made to pay their share. Thus the house was sold for development. The wife of a neighbouring property owner came over to see Basildon House at this time and flippantly said that the house should be restored. She was playfully challenged by her companion to do so. Since the plans for demolition and redevelopment of the site had stalled, Lady Iliffe became the (not so proud) owner.

Over many years, and with very deep pockets and not a little luck the house was lovingly restored to the homely grandeur that we see today. It would be easy to live in it, unlike some stately homes which despite everyone's efforts remain remote and aloof. I applaud the efforts of Lady Iliffe and those of the National Trust in presenting this house as a national treasure. I am also a convert to the idea of guided tours, I learned so much!


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