REVIEW: Town reawakens its cultural heritage

The Willis Museum
The Willis Museum

Alice Sara Ott is not merely a celebrated classical pianist.

She has a reputation for imbuing every performance with her vivacious personality too.

The new Waitrose and John Lewis at Home

The new Waitrose and John Lewis at Home

An appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of the revered Vladimir Ashkenazy was too delicious a prospect.

Barefoot and entirely lost within the sumptuous first piano concerto of Tchaikovsky, she swept through the three movements when this musical splendour was hosted at Basingstoke’s The Anvil.

The programme was a clear signal that the Hampshire town is determined to shake off a reputation for merely being ‘Doughnut City’ or ‘Roundabout City’ because of the number of large roundabouts.

It has gone in search of its cultural roots which some would argue were brutally laid to waste after the vast post-war development that expanded an historic market town into significant housing sprawl.

Blue plaque marking Thomas Burberry's works

Blue plaque marking Thomas Burberry's works

As part of this reawakening, I was invited to visit for the weekend.

Many communities have laid claim to an association with Jane Austen, but Basingstoke calculates that its antecedents are without equal.

The author lived in nearby Steventon from her birth in 1775 and is known to have come dancing in the town centre on many occasions.

Debbie Reavell of the Basingstoke Heritage Society took us on a tour through the town’s historic spots.

The almshouses of 1608

The almshouses of 1608

She has a knowledge, expertise and passion for the subject and has pieced together the evidence from many of Austen’s surviving letters to identify where she regularly visited.

From the old town hall to Goldings, the then home of the Russell family, there are clear links.

Her small mahogany writing desk was purchased by her father from John Ring in Church Street.

Family acquaintance and medic Dr John Lyford lived in the area of Cross Street.

The war memorial park at Goldings

The war memorial park at Goldings

“Mr Lyford was here yesterday; he came while we were at dinner, and partook of our elegant entertainment. I was not ashamed at asking him to sit down to table, for we had some pease-soup, a spare-rib, and a pudding. He wants my mother to look yellow and throw out a rash, but she will do neither,” Austen wrote in one sharp epistle.

Many of the coaching inns and the architecture of the time has been lost or changed out of recognition.

The arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century and the addition of new housing post second world war to accommodate the London overspill has changed the face of the town.

But some key buildings remain - like the almshouses, endowed in 1608, St Michael’s Church, Chapel Hill, the Red Lion, and Goldings - the stately home and park that Austen visited and is now the register office and war memorial.

It’s not just literature in which the town declares its pedigree.

Basingstoke is, arguably, the historic home of fashion. Thomas Burberry established his now global business in Basingstoke in 1856 using a revolutionary technique to make garments.

Debbie Reavell outside Goldings

Debbie Reavell outside Goldings

A blue plaque proudly proclaims that he was the inventor of ‘Gabardine’ weatherproof cloth and founded his business in Winchester Street in 1856. Further premises were built in 1892.

Today, as part of his legacy shopping remains a key element to the town centre and much is undercover in two vast developments - The Malls and the neighbouring Festival Place.

They represent a shopping arena where an array of household names are to be found from the mighty Debenhams and M&S to the more bijoux fashion chains and even locally made crafts.

Bright, welcoming and airy within, the later 20th century exterior brickwork facing St Michael’s - described as both castle and great wall of China - are grey and bleak and a reminder that those towns and cities that resisted the architectural carnage of post war modernism did future generations a huge favour.

It’s no doubt for this reason, that Basingstoke does not instantly trip off the tongue as a visitor destination like Oxford Street, Bath, or Winchester.

It’s hoping that by reviving its cultural heritage it can change that perception.

Across the way from the indoor shopping, the Waitrose and John Lewis at Home are new additions which speak of a more progressive approach. The John Lewis Partnership chooses where to invest with care. This iconic development is a hallmark of success for Basingstoke.

The new Business Improvement District, Basingstoke Together, which represents 500 businesses, was created to enhance the town and will be investing £1.9M over the next 5 years to do so - this is just the first stage of the journey.

When we visited, Basingstoke Together was showcasing a full programme of Christmas entertainment.

Until the end of December, Father Christmas will be in residence and, to add to the experience, children can take a ride on a special Santa Express and zoom from the town’s Porchester Square direct to his candy cane grotto in Festival Place Shopping Mall, which has been renamed ‘Festive Place’ for the season.

Then on December 4 the town’s streets will be lined with children, elves and street entertainers at the Santa Parade event

The Panto is in town from December 8 to January 2, with Sleeping Beauty. There’s also The Night Before Christmas from December 1-4 and from December 7-10 the thriller Who Killed Santa Claus will take to the stage. Other theatrical Christmas highlights include The Rat Pack Live Christmas Party December 15-17 and Christmas Carol December 20.

In an internet age, it’s great to see communities fighting back - and using their ancestry and cultural aspiration to drive their ambition.

Our base was the Holiday Inn Basingstoke, a modern hotel boasting air-conditioned bedrooms, conveniently located five minutes from the town centre.

Kids stay and eat free here when sharing their parents’ room and there’s 24-hour room service. Other facilities include a relaxing bar and Traders restaurant, which offers seasonal dishes and a Sunday carvery.

For more information and to book at stay at the Holiday Inn consult: www.hibasingstokehotel.co.uk

For details of Basingtoke ‘s Christmas programme: www.christmasinbasingstoke.co.uk

Information on the Anvil’s festive shows can be found here http://www.anvilarts.org.uk/

The blue coat boy - the statue marks the site of the Basingstoke Blue Coat School  (1659-1879)

The blue coat boy - the statue marks the site of the Basingstoke Blue Coat School (1659-1879)