The perfect picnic spot: Basildon Park, Berks
Looking for somewhere for your blanket and wicker basket? Basildon Park is ideal for families and film fans with 400 acres of woodland and parkland to explore.
Berkshire’s not bursting with National Trust buildings, but it’s quality not quantity, people. Go west and enjoy the glorious informality of Basildon Park and east to Cliveden for lap up all its period grandeur, formal gardens, gold clock tower and famous Fountain of Love.
Today I saw the sunshine, and headed to Basildon Park for a picnic and day out with the family, and I can’t recommend it enough. Basildon Park, near Pangbourne, is a Grade I listed property originally built in the late 18th century for Sir Francis Sykes who made his money working for the British East India Company. If you’re thinking it’s small-ish for country estate Palladian house, you’re right. It was never fully completed and passed through a string of owners, requisitioned by the government in 1910 to be used as an army convalescent hospital and there was a failed attempt in 1929 to dismantle and rebuild the house in the US.
During the Second World War, the house was again requisitioned and served as a barracks, a training ground for tanks, and finally a prisoner of war camp – the place was trashed. Then Lord and Lady Iliffe purchased Basildon Park in the 1950s and set off on a gargantuan scavenger hunt to restore this broken home.
Perhaps because it’s less showy, it feels very relaxed, though it has the amenities of an elegant courtyard tearoom, shop and a lovely Wild Play Trail to encourage kids to play in the woods and explore. It also helps you explore the grounds without having to bribe your kids with an ice cream (although that helps too). The gardens are pretty, the views are vast and it’s starred in so many films that we often get quizzical and try and spot the Basildon Park film and TV locations
Anyway, here are some thoughts to help you make the most of your day out here, if you fancy giving it a go.
BEST PICNIC SPOTS
I’d taken my promise of a picnic seriously, though no credit to me as swooped into the tearoom and gathered up drinks, snacks and sarnies to takeaway (sue me, life’s too short). Clearly, Lord and Lady Iliffe loved a picnic too. I discovered a super-cool 1950s melamine picnic case on display in the first floor kitchen.
But where to park your picnic? Basildon is set in 400 acres of beautiful grounds – some formal, much of it woodland and open pasture – and you’re welcome to lay down your blanket wherever you see fit. We did our homework and walked the grounds and Wild Play Trail before deciding that the hottest spot is around the ancient Copper Beech tree – providing a bit of shade, views of the parkland and, the money shot, of the beautiful yellowy Bath stone house that has starred in Downton Abbey, Bridgerton, Pride & Prejudice and Guy Ritchie’s The Gentleman. Be warned, on busy days it can feel a bit like grabbing a sun lounger round the pool. This is the place to be. There are also lots of benches positioned under trees on the approach to the house – great if for kids to do a bit of light tree climbing between ham sarnies.
For a bit more exclusivity, head round to the rear of the property and whip out your blanket in the gardens and take in the views of the Railway Park. You’ll be rewarded with countryside as far as the eye can see, a gentle slope, at the bottom there are fallen trees to clamber over and a lack of crowds. Stunning isn’t ? It’s perfect roly-poly territory for those who thrill at spilling down hills and creating havoc with grass stains.
This picnic area is dog friendly, and I’d say ideal for families or couples – shade if you want it, opportunities for people-watching, plenty of space, and also just around the corner from the café and the toilets.
Other lovely areas for lounging and picnicking include the lawn to the rear of the house (mowed grass, but not a lot of shade), and where occasional benches are dotted around the periphery and the Umbrello – a thatched seating area currently surrounded by red, white and blue flowers. Both feel more adult spaces – individuals or couples were there, enjoying the gardens and views of the house.
The Wild Play Trail for children is deliberately simple to encourage imagination, with ball runs and obstacles, balance beams, walkways, all carved from giant fallen trees. Head across Pheasant Park and enjoy a lovely shaded walk, ideal for under 10s so don’t think you’re booting your tweens and teens in there for hours!
There are ball runs, bug hotels, test your balance on the tree trunk stepping stones, build dens and have a go at the woodland games. It’s an opportunity to get close to nature, dirty (put the bio washing powder on standby) and just embrace the surroundings. Let’s be honest, we’re having to work the digital nanny pretty hard right now, so it’s a good opportunity for the whole family to take a screen break.
Overall I’d say Basildon Park is suited to primary schoolers, unless your teen is an avid walker and nature lover (in which case; respect, and how the hell have you managed that?).
Plenty for all ages and abilities here, with four main circular trails, ranging from half a mile stroll suitable for pushchairs to a two-hour, three mile leg stretcher. Nothing too taxing. Because it was hot and I’m lazy, my husband, eight-year-old and I did the green-waymarked 1.5-mile trail, designed for younger legs or those with less time perhaps. It’s takes about 40 minutes.
Longer routes take you through a secluded valley and along the old carriage drive (2.5 miles) and the three mile walk around the boundary of the estate, takes in woodland, open parkland, farmland and you’ll see some of the Basildon’s oldest trees on these routes.
Open every day throughout summer from 11am-5pm, the house is definitely worth a visit for its TV and film associations, and the furnishings and art collections that Lord and Lady Iliffe hunted down.
We stepped out of the heat and headed upstairs to tour the house. On one side of the hallway is the blood red library stacked with an stunning book collection. On the other side is the ‘Graham Sutherland Room’ (my favourite) showcasing the drawings the artist made for his Coventry Cathedral tapestry. This room also has a couple of chairs from the Queen’s coronation which Lord and Lady Iliffe attended. The house and its history are worth chewing over. Be warned, due to a shortage of volunteers, some rooms are closed to the public, but it’s an excuse to go back.