Spread across a valley at the source of the River Loddon, Basingstoke became Hampshire’s largest settlement when it ballooned in the 1960s and 70s.
The town is much older than that though, and was granted by royal charter in 1622. The monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I spent time at the nearby Tudor palaces, Basing House and the Vyne, both of which are open, even if they’re in very different states of preservation.
There’s no lack of things to do in the nearby countryside, like walks in the North Wessex Downs as well as tours of the Bombay Sapphire gin distillery and a Georgian silk mill spinning exquisite fabrics.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Basingstoke:
1. Milestones Museum
The big attraction in Basingstoke’s Leisure Park is a living museum housed in a huge hangar-like construction that was completed in 2000. Inside is a very detailed street scene recalling Hampshire and Basingstoke in the 19th and mid 20th century.
There’s a Victorian pub, terraced house, ironmonger and railway station, as well as a 1930-40s townscape featuring a record and television store, toy shop and sweet shop.
On the cobblestone streets are some wonderful old vehicles, like an electric tram from Portsmouth, Taskers of Andover traction engine and a steam locomotive by the Avonside Engine Company.
Many of the shops have actors in period costume with interesting stories and snippets of information to impart.
2. The Vyne
This splendid 16th-century mansion is just north of the town.
The initial Tudor house was enlarged over time, taking on an early classical portico in the 17th century and a Palladian extension in the 18th century.
You can marvel at the linen-fold panelling in the Oak Gallery, as well as the stained glass and five century-old majolica tiles in the Tudor chapel, which plays audio from a Tudor-style mass to add atmosphere.
There’s Murano glass, tapestries, paintings and fine period furniture to examine, and you’ll hear stories of illustrious guests like Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII and Jane Austen.
Do not miss the Ring of Silvianus, a 4th-century Roman ring said to have inspired elements of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The grounds are cloaked in ancient woodland, and have a wetland area where common redshanks and swans make their nests.
3. Basing House
In the village of Old Basing, to the east of the modern town, was one of Tudor England’s largest and richest palaces.
Basing House was constructed for William Paulet, treasurer to Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both stayed here during their reigns.
William’s descendant John Paulet was a supporter of Charles I in the English Civil War, and Basing House succumbed to fire after a siege in 1645. The bricks from the house were reused for local homes, but the surviving ruins deserve a look, and the site has been enhanced with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund in the last few years.
You can peruse brick arches and doorways, cellars, bread ovens and a vaulted tunnel.
The Great Barn, still showing damage from the battle, has been restored and houses an audio-visual presentation and exhibitions about the house.
4. Eastrop Park
Near Basingstoke’s train station, Eastrop Park picks up the Green Flag Award each year, the biggest prize for public parks in the UK. The River Loddon flows through the park and replenishes a balancing pond, set within a wildlife area.
There you might catch sight of a kingfisher hunting along the banks.
In summer kids will love the paddling pool, and you can hire pedal boats and treat yourself to cake and a cup of tea at the Boathouse Cafe.
Also open in the summer months is a crazy golf course, while the Basingstoke Concert Band will play concerts under the performance canopy at the boating lake.
5. Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery
On the Market Place in the Old Town Hall, the Willis Museum is fronted by a bronze statue of Jane Austen unveiled in 1817 on the 200th anniversary of the author’s death.
The collection at the Willis Museum was first put together by George Willis a local clockmaker, and is crammed with peculiar items.
There’s a hair from the mane of Copenhagen, the 1st Duke of Wellington’s horse at Waterloo, a preserved wedding cake Victorian cake from a local shop display, pottery fragments from the nearby Roman city of Silchester and a piece of rare tin-glazed 18th-century Delftware.
The Sainsbury Gallery opened in 2008 and hosts temporary exhibitions for painting, photography, fashion and popular culture.
6. The Anvil
A major performing arts centre for the region, the Anvil opened in 1994 and, true to its name, is shaped like a giant anvil.
The 1,400-seater auditorium is praised for having some of the best acoustics in Europe and has calendar bursting with opera, classical music, dance, touring bands and artists, musicals and famous stand-up comedians.
For a taste, Rufus Wainwright was playing when we wrote this article in June 2018, while Gary Numan, Phill Jupitus, the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Sarah Millican and Jason Manford were all booked for later that summer.
7. War Memorial Park
A quick walk from the Willis Museum is a Green Flag-winning park that has mature woodland, an aviary, a bandstand and all kinds of sports facilities.
War Memorial Park was purchased by public subscription after the First World War to house Basingstoke’s memorial.
Before that this space had been the grounds to the Georgian estate, Goldings, and the park was laid out in the 1780s.
You can download several leaflets about the park from the town’s website.
Most enlightening is the tree trail, labelling the historic hornbeam, larch, oak, plane, ash, sycamore, Austrian pine, yew and lime trees that have been here since the days of the Goldings estate.
8. Whitchurch Silk Mill
A short train ride west of Basingstoke is a heritage attraction both for people who love beautiful fabrics and fans of industrial machinery.
The Whitchurch Silk is a watermill, established in 1800 on Frog Island, which has had a long line of mills since the 11th century at the latest.
The Whitchurch Silk Mill is the oldest silk mill in the country still using its original building, and is equipped with 19th-century looms powered by a 1.68m breastshot waterwheel still functioning almost 220 years after the mill opened for business.
The gift shop sells fabrics made on site, and there’s a tea room to finish a visit with some indulgence.
9. Stratfield Saye House
In 1817 this 17th-century Mannerist house and its estate were bought by the nation to provide a stately home for Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington as thanks for his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.
Stratfield Saye has been the seat of the Dukes of Wellington ever since.
In the stables you can pore over the Wellington Exhibition, which has a variety of Arthur Wellesley’s personal effects, like his funeral carriage, which was made with melted down French cannons from Waterloo.
Also in the grounds is a commemorative column erected in the 1st Duke’s honour in 1863. You can see the interior of the house on a tour, viewing the Entrance Hall, which has genuine Roman mosaics taken from nearby Silchester, and the Gallery, with opulent furniture bought by the 1st Duke in Paris in 1817.
10. Watership Down
On the way to the Whitchurch Silk Mill is a chalk hill in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Watership Down was borrowed for Richard Adams’ 1972 novel and the animated film from 1978, about rabbits’ making the perilous journey to a new burrow.
This hill is the place Richard Adams chose as their goal.
Like many in this part of England, the hill was once crested by an Iron Age fort.
Watership Down is etched with terraces (lynchets) and mounds, signs of human occupation some 2,500 years ago.
You can start a walk on the gentle south slope, and walk or cycle over the ridge, looking west to Ladle Hill and Beacon Hill, both crowned with earthworks of Iron Age hillforts.
11. Odiham Castle
King John built just three fortresses in his 17-year reign at the start of the 13th century, and Odiham Castle was one.
It had a handy location, halfway between the royal residences in Winchester and Windsor.
King John may have departed from Odiham the morning he signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede, while a year later, in 1216 it was besieged by the French for two weeks during the First Barons’ War.
Parliament sat at Odiham Castle more than once in the 13th century, and in the 14th century King David II of Scotland was imprisoned here for 11 years before returning north of the border.
Odiham Castle has been disused since the early 17th century, but two storeys of the octagonal keep is still here and labelled with information boards.
12. Silchester Roman Walls
On the boundary between Hampshire and Berkshire a little way north of Basingstoke is what’s left of the Roman City of Calleva Atrebatum.
When the Romans came in the 1st Century AD there was already an Iron Age oppidum here, which was soon enclosed by polygonal walls.
The full circuit of walls is open to the public and merits a walk, and on the outside you can stand in the earthwork depression where Calleva Atrebatum’s amphitheatre used to be.
The natural spring that used to feed the city’s baths remains, while just inside the eastern perimeter is the Church of St Mary.
This goes back to the 1100s and may have been built on the site of a Roman temple using recycled Roman stone.
The highlight inside are the Perpendicular rood screen and 14th-century ogee-arched recess with a tomb effigy depicting a woman in a wimple.
13. Bombay Sapphire Distillery
Under ten miles out of Basingstoke, the Bombay Sapphire gin brand recently moved its distillery into the Laverstoke Mill, a Georgian former paper mill.
The facility warrants a visit, both for the listed 18th-century mill buildings and stunning greenhouses designed by the Heatherwick Studio to grow the gin’s botanicals.
On the tour you’ll get insider information about these ten ingredients, including juniper berries, liquorice, lemon peel, almond, coriander and angelica.
You’ll also get to know the finer details of “vapour-infusion distillation” at the Dakin Still House and enjoy a customised cocktail at the Mill Bar as part of the tour.
14. Basingstoke Leisure Park
The Milestones Museum isn’t the only reason to head the Basingstoke Leisure Park, a mile west of the town centre.
The Aquadrome is an inexpensive family excursion in summer, with the child-oriented lagoon area and three flumes, while the Leisure Park also has adrenaline-charged attractions like Skizone, an indoor ski slope and iFLY, indoor skydiving.
Planet Ice is a full-sized skating rink, and the Basingstoke Golf Centre boasts a 22-bay driving range, and nine-hole par 3 course where kids and newcomers are welcome.
15. Crabtree Plantation
In the southeast corner of Basingstoke, bounded by the M3,is a nature reserve that was previously parkland for the Hackwood Estate.
There’s a hint of the park’s former status at the main entrance, where you’ll be met by a grand Neoclassical gateway, the Bolton Arch, with Doric columns.
The Crabtree Plantation is grassland and a mixture of oak, sycamore, ash and horse chestnut woodland.
The woods provide a habitat for the endangered white letter hairstreak butterfly, and you can download a guided walk leaflet from the council website telling you where you can spot this species in summer.