Before the Second World War, what we know as Basildon was a just a constellation of villages 30 miles east of central London.
In the 1960s Basildon sprang up as a New Town, designed to ease overcrowding in London.
If you have a taste for mid-century architecture you’ll be won over by St Martin’s Church and Brooke House, which is raised on v-shaped pylons and leads down to the sunken East Square via a grand staircase.
As a relatively young commuter town, a lot of Basildon’s appeal comes from its family attractions.
Barleylands is a farm centre and craft village, while the Wat Tyler Country Park has a charming Village Green with historic cottages moved from the site of Stansted Airport.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Basildon:
A gigantic family attraction that almost defies definition, Barleylands is a farm park, zoo and craft village on one site just north of Basildon.
The farm park has a host of domestic animals and a timetable of activities every day like a “bumpy tractor ride”, sheep races and bottle feeding lambs.
There are also habitats for more exotic species, like the Snakes Alive! Reptile House , which has snakes (Burmese pythons and boa constrictors), lizards, amphibians, spiders and scorpions in more than 55 enclosures.
Each day there are two “Reptile and Mini Beast” talks when children will get to touch and hold some of the safe species.
Barleylands transforms for Halloween and Christmas, putting on “Spooky Nights” and a Santa’s Grotto.
The Village meanwhile hosts craft workshops for artists, jewellery-makers, dressmakers and potters.
This area is open Tuesday to Sunday and features the stylish Tiptree Tearoom, run by the much-loved jam manufacturer.
2. Wat Tyler Country Park
There’s 125 acres of countryside minutes from Basildon at land once occupied by a munitions factory.
Wat Tyler Country Park is a hassle-free outing for families, with adventure playgrounds and a miniature railway running weekends and school holidays all year round.
Maybe most surprising though is the Village Green in the centre of the park, where you’ll come across a pair of 17th-century thatched cottages relocated here to make way for Stansted Airport in the 1980s.
Basildon Heritage at the Green Centre puts on diverting exhibitions about the town’s history, while there’s a gift shop selling Tiptree jams and marmalades.
3. Imperial Bird of Prey Academy
Also based at Barleylands is the top birds of prey centre in Essex.
The Imperial Bird of Prey Academy isn’t so much a walk-around attraction as a place you visit for unforgettable birds of prey experiences.
These can be a simple one-hour session or kids’ experience when newcomers can get up close to owls, vultures and eagles and pick up insights from the keepers.
For more depth you might opt for a Half-Day Experience when you’ll meet, handle and fly a range of birds like turkey vultures, Harris hawks, Tiercel peregrines, kestrels and barn owls, to name a few.
There’s also a focussed Owl Experience, or the Ultimate Experience, which involves birds of prey as well as reptile encounters with the residents of Barleylands’ Snakes Alive! exhibit.
4. Towngate Theatre
There’s live entertainment in spades at the Towngate Theatre, which has a 550-seater main auditorium right on St Martin’s Square.
Dance companies, musicals, plays, tribute bands and comedians all perform at the Towngate Theatre on nationwide tours, but the venue is also at the heart of the community.
The Towngate foyer hosts exhibitions for local artists, while kids can join in at the “Saturday Scamps” and family fun sessions.
On top of this are regular workshops introducing the public to all aspects of production, from performing to technical aspects behind the scenes.
The Towngate Theatre also stands out for its meet-and-greet sessions and Q&As that take place after many of its shows.
5. St Martin’s Church
The most impressive of all of Basildon’s post-war buildings is St Martin’s Church, easily spotted on the eponymous square for its freestanding bell-tower.
Thirty metres tall, this was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999, decades after the church was completed.
The tower is built from glass with a steel frame and is the tallest construction of its kind in the world.
The Tenor Bell was cast in 1441 by a Joanna Hille, and is considered the first bell in the world to have been cast by a woman.
The church itself was consecrated in 1962 and has wonderful modernist stained glass by Joseph Nuttgens.
6. Langdon Hills Country Park
For walks on high ground, Langdon Hills is 461 acres of former plotland gardens (rural private plots), meadows, woodland and lakes.
The park is a Green Flag winner but what makes Langdon Hills essential is the scenery from this ridge, taking in the Thames Estuary and London’s eastern outskirts.
There’s nature in abundance at Langdon Hills, and in summer you might catch sight of turtle doves, woodcocks and nightingales, while over 30 butterfly species including the grizzled skipper, marbled white and green hairstreak are out in force in this season.
The park’s habitats are documented at the Langdon Visitor Centre, which also sells refreshments and has a gift shop, as well as a peaceful wildlife garden behind.
7. Hadleigh Castle
On a mound of London clay watching over the Thames Estuary, this stronghold was a favourite residence of an ageing King Edward III in the 14th century.
Hadleigh Castle dates from the start of the 13th century and was built by an ally of the unpopular King John, Hubert de Burgh.
De Burgh fell out of favour with John’s successor, Henry III and he ended up in prison.
Then, in the 100 Years’ War the castle was reinforced to defend against a possible French invasion, and the ruins survive from that time.
The castle has suffered subsidence from the soft ground and was quarried in the 17th century but remains an enigmatic site preserved by English Heritage.
One of its drum towers also found a new purpose in the 18th century as a watch post for Georgian revenue men looking out for smugglers on the Thames.
8. Canvey Island
A system of creeks just southeast of Basildon separates this reclaimed island in the Thames Estuary from the mainland.
On a sunny day the Canvey Seafront warrants a trip for a blast of sea air.
The seafront’s grassy embankment was built in the wake of the destructive North Sea Flood of 1953. There’s an amusement arcade, fairground rides at Leisure Island and the Stay and Splash water park nearby for young children.
Grown-ups will fall in love with the Labworth Café overlooking the Thames.
This was built in the International Style in 1933 and has been restored to its former splendour.
9. RSPB at Wat Tyler
That network of water channels on the Essex marshes is a haven for an awesome wealth of birdlife, and the RSPB opened a visitor centre at the Wat Tyler Country Park in 2009. Open Tuesday, Thursday and weekends, this attraction lets you watch a live nest on CCTV and read up on the massive array of migratory and breeding birds that spend time in the marshes throughout the year.
You can even observe birds in the centre’s garden, or head off to the creeks in winter to see waders foraging in the mud.
In spring the trails ring with the songs of martins, swallows and whitethroats, while in autumn peregrines use pylons as hunting lookouts.
Committed birdwatchers could continue their bird-spotting adventure at Bowers Marsh or Canvey Marsh, both minutes from Basildon.
10. Norsey Wood
A Site of Special Scientific Interest and an ancient monument, Norsey Wood is a 175-acre local nature reserve on the edge of Billericay 10 minutes away.
Among the ancient oak and hornbeam woodland here is a centuries-old managed forest with coppiced sweet chestnut trees.
Those coppiced trees are still cut back annually, while the wood’s valleys are drained by streams that form on the impermeable layer of clay below the sandy soil.
If you know where to look, you’ll spot evidence of human intervention all around.
The wood’s “rides” were first mentioned in 1593, and the Main Ride, passing diagonally through the woods, is thought to date back to the Iron Age.
Norsey Wood also has trenches dug to train soldiers in the First World War, a Bronze Age bowl barrow, a Medieval deer bank and two Roman cemeteries.
11. Nevendon Manor
This 16th-century part-moated manor house and its seven acres of verdant grounds have become the scene for immersive seasonal events, made with a lot of care and high production values.
In the four years up to 2018 the manor had gained a high reputation for its production “Oz, Wonderland & Wonka”, as well as spooky goings-on Halloween.
These have run their course and are being phased out for new productions.
But in November and December 2018 you could come for “An Elf’s Wish”. Typically interactive, this involves an hour-long immersive walk through the grounds, all designed in a whimsical theme and led by a clumsy elf called “Brumble” on a quest to find out the meaning of Christmas.
12. Partyman World of Play
If you need to keep children or toddlers entertained for an hour or two this giant indoor soft play centre will do the trick.
Partyman World of Play is surprisingly large, and along with ballpools and a labyrinth of soft climbing structures and slides, also has light educational areas where kids can pretend to be vets, shopkeepers and fire-fighters.
For parties, there’s a team of entertainers, while older children can have a game of laser tag.
The centre’s cafe has extensive seating and has a choice of healthy meals and snacks on its menu.
13. Barnards Farm Gardens
A brief drive on the A127 from Basildon will take you to landscaped gardens covering more than 50 acres.
Barnards Farm Gardens has a world of ponds, meadows, woods and reedbeds with boardwalks on its outer reaches.
Closer to the house things are more genteel and you can perambulate through a formal parterre, potager, living wall and herbaceous borders.
Children can board the miniature railway for a ride, while the gardens have a strong sculpture collection with pieces by the likes of Elizabeth Frink and Anthony Gormley.
The big attraction though is the National Collection of malus (crab apple trees), which is beautiful in blossom in spring and bears colourful fruit in autumn.
14. Tilbury Fort
Although this 16th-century star fort is a good ten miles away, you can get there in a few minutes on the A13. Tilbury Fort grew up in the 16th century to guard the seaward approach to London.
Queen Elizabeth visited by barge in 1588 and gave a rallying speech to the assembled forces that has gone down in history.
With zigzagging moats and bastioned outworks, the fort is in a superb state of preservation, partly because it had a military use right up to the end of the Second World War.
Each era has left Tilbury Fort with something interesting, like 18th-century cannons and massive magazines that were able to hold 19,000 barrels of gunpowder.
See the Baroque 17th-century Water Gate, the display of military regalia in the stables, the subterranean tunnels from the early 20th century and the immense WWII-era guns still arming the inner defences.
15. Eastgate Shopping Centre
When this mall in the centre of Basildon opened its doors in 1985 it was the largest covered shopping centre in Europe.
Eastgate has moved with times over the last three decades with regular facelifts, and despite the arrival of a massive mall in Turrock and remains a useful local destination.
Many stalwarts of English high streets, like H&M, Primark, River Island, Superdry, Topman and Next can be found at Eastgate, as well as an Asda supermarket if you need provisions.
Food-wise, Eastgate is endowed with a Nando’s and a few fast food chains including one of only four Taco Bells in all of the London and the Home Counties.