First documented in 1311 when it was granted by crown to Elias de Colleshull, Basildon Park is notable for its mid 20th century renaissance and restoration, by Lord and Lady Iliffe
By Seema Anand Chopra
After a long walk from the car park through lush emerald greenery we came upon the honey- hued Bathstone splendid façade of the Basildon Park House in Reading England, a stunning Georgian Mansion set within 400 acres of woodland. We set out to explore its journey from an 18th century home to a deserted home to a fashionably restored home in the1950’s. Though, we were there for an additional reason. Basildon Park had been one of the filming locations of the globally sensational Television serial – Downton Abbey. It was projected as the Grantham house of the Crawley family in London for the interior scenes where the family enjoys the summer social revelry.
A short while back , enjoying the woodland-walk towards the house my thoughts reverted to the historical records of Basildon Park being first documented way back in 1311 and next a Manor being built in the 17th century .A century later Francis Sykes of the East India Company made his way home from India with considerable amount of fortunes and decided to built a huge home like the other wealthy who had returned from Hindustan like Warren Hastings and Lord Clive , furthermore this Berkshire area was nicknamed – English Hindoostan ! So he acquired the Basildon property in 1771 and built this grand Villa for entertainment purposes to further his political ambitions.
Investigations into his dubious transactions in India led him to sell it in 1838 to liberal MP James Morrison. This was the beginning of the ‘golden period’ of Basildon that lasted till 1910 after which the House remained empty for 40 years! As no buyers were found so parts of the beautiful plasterwork were sold to Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York! It was saved from being completely dismantled by the newspaper tycoons – 2nd Lord and Lady Iliffe when they bought the Basildon Park house in 1952. They painstakingly restored it with period furnishings and paintings and portraits as we were about to see today.
The Woods had cleared into acres of Parkland overlooking the Thames Valley and the three storey high west façade of the glorious Basildon House came into view with a pediment portico supported by colossal columns. We climbed few steps through the ground floor archway to reach the front of the Grand Hall outside which we discarded our umbrellas.
The huge neo-classical style Entrance Hall had beautiful plasterwork on the walls and the roof and elegant furniture arranged around its walls. The volunteer showed us a printed newspaper- like sheet ‘Basildon Post’ which expressed each rooms individual History and a Collection- Highlight depicting important displays to look out for, reminiscent of the Iliffe — newspaper connection .We were very impressed with this idea.
ENTERTAINMENT AT BASILDON PARK
Further we were told by the friendly volunteer that the first floor of the house held the main Entertainment rooms of the house so was referred to as the ‘Piano Nobile’- the Noble floor! Undoubtedly the First floor was the correct choice for the filming of the Downton Abbey’s Grantham House that is described as a ‘sort of old palace’ according to its writer Julian Fellowes. Consequently during filming most of the first floor rooms were used. This Hall had been adorned with massive display of silk flowers! I could only envisage its beauty.
We moved through the gilded doors to the attractive Staircase Hall in the centre of the house which held the Great Staircase with splendid gilded floral wrought iron rails. I could imagine the guests mingling with each other here having easy access to the Octagonal Drawing room as well as the Entrance Hall. The Portuguese rugs and a massive glass wrought — iron Lantern on the ceiling drew attention.
Next we eagerly headed for the Octagonal Drawing room ahead that was again adorned with neo-classical decorations along with magnificent maroon felt-walls, sparkling crystal chandelier and gold gilded ceiling whose large windows held dazzling Parkland view. This room was the key part of the filming of the serial Downton Abbey as Grantham house in London. An album with photographs of the shooting scenes was on display for us to relate to situations and characters better. On our right was the Green Drawing room called so after its green silk wall hangings and an original white marble Fireplace.
We entered the Dining room on our left with its geometrical panels of ornate plasterwork on ceilings and walls – depicting classical scene in Grisaille – grey paintings like a sculpture . Most of its original mirrors, ceiling and other decorations can be seen in the Basildon room in the New York hotel. Today it has been refurbished to look the closest to the original.
It was amusing to read that the Library was part of the ‘masculine side’ of the House and created next to Sir Francis Sykes Study cum Dressing room where he could ascent from his Bedroom on the second floor. The ‘Basildon Post’ in the Library stated that in those times when guests arrived at a House, the ladies waited in the Entrance Hall while the men waited in the Library. The Library was projected as the Study in TV serial Downton Abbey.
Back in the Hall with the Grand Staircase which we had visited earlier, we climbed up to an array of splendid unique Bedrooms — The Crimson room with the Crimson Bed and matching furnishings bought by Lady Iliffe in 1959. Additionally noticeable is the handmade rug made by her depicting the flowers in Basildon Park. We read that during Sir Francis Sykes’s time the walls were decorated with India paper brought from there.
While in the Bamboo room we mused about the origins of the Beds and furniture. It was surely oriental but was not completely North-east Indian, Chinese or Japanese.
As the name suggests the Shell room is a vast collection of atypical Shells and items created out of Shells from Lady Iliffe’s shell-set and those she purchased from others.
The pretty light Pink bedroom of Lady Iliffe could be any woman’s dream; the floral bed set in a vaulted enclosure was the highlight. Next was her Bathroom which was very large as it had been a Bedroom once , maybe during the time of Prince Regent’s visit to Basildon Park in 1813.
NOBAB STYLE INDIAN HOMES
Absorbing the spectacular views outside we headed for the Tea room whose walls displayed a collection of black and white sketches of 12 ‘Nobab style Indian Homes’ around here ! We were informed that some picnic scenes of the serial Downton Abbey were also filmed in this Parkland dotted with Beech, Chestnut and Lime trees. Later we sat relaxing on the Garden chairs imagining the roller-coaster journey of Basildon Park from the early days of the East India Company to the filming of universally popular Downton Abbey.