As you approach Basingstoke from the direction of London, whether by train or motorway, the first thing to loom up through the trees is a giant office block. This is the AA building. Then, as you get nearer, other office blocks appear, together with factories, storage depots and extensive new housing estates, all aggressively modern and encircled by a complicated system of roads that has given rise to the jibe of "roadites". The immediate impression is of a modern town, but Basingstoke is in fact ancient. Old Basing, now a picturesque village on the outskirts of the town, is of Saxon origin. An important battle was fought here in the ninth century when the Danes defeated a Saxon army and opened the way for a Danish invasion of Wessex. Basingstoke, originally called New Basing, was laid out somewhat later as a market town and communications centre, to take advantage of the growing economic importance of the area. It became known as Basingstoke in the eleventh century, and was dominated by Basing House. As so often happens, the child was to outgrow the parent, and Basingstoke was to develop into an important market town while Old Basing remained a village. Much of the old town still exists, and once can trace remnants of a medieval grid-iron plan with alleys that were once streets.
In the 1960s Basingstoke became a London overspill town and in just over a decade the town more than doubled in size, houses and factories covering what were green fields and woods as late as 1970. The whole place has been transformed; a huge modern shopping precinct was built, and what was the old traffic-choked High Street is now closed to all vehicles, with tubs of flowers dotted about while through traffic is diverted. Many thousands of Londoners have come into the area since the beginning of the scheme, thus reversing a trend that has existed for centuries in which people from the country flocked into London. Now they are moving out. So Basingstoke has grown, but to somebody who grew up in West London between the wars when thousands of acres were covered by urban sprawl and a whole county — Middlesex — disappeared under bricks and mortar, it still seems pretty small. You can still stand in the centre of the town and see the open country which surrounds it, or stand on the hills outside and look right across to the hills on the other side.
The town lies in a valley between chalk hills, a continuation of the North Downs, including the famous Watership Down. The area is officially designated as an "area of outstanding natural beauty", a hiker's paradise crisscrossed by ancient green lanes and footpaths. The beauty of the area has long since been recognised by the wealthy who can afford to choose where they will live, and who used the chalk streams and extensive woodlands for their expensive sports of shooting fishing. The famous trout stream, the River Test, rises within the boundaries of Basingstoke. These activities have been an important factor in controlling the effects of modern agriculture. The sale of fishing and shooting rights are highly lucrative; vast sums of money are involved. Fly fishing requires plenty of insects; these, in turn, require trees and undergrowth near the river. This acts as a check on excessive reclamation schemes by river boards. After all, if you are paying large sums of money to fish, you do not want to do so on a glorified drain. Likewise, game birds require woods, spinneys and hedges in which to to breed, so the grubbing up of woods and hedges is slowed down. Unfortunately natural beauty and wild life do not carry a price tag. This makes their preservation difficult, but a threat to profits is another matter and carries a lot more weight.
The change from market to London overspill has merely accelerated a process which has been taking place in market towns all over the country. When the heavy axes and ploughs of the saxons began to cut land, a pattern began to emerge. That pattern, of a largely self-supporting rural economy with farms and hamlets centred around a market town was to remain largely unchanged into this century. From time to time other patterns have been superimposed on it — the monasteries backed by the wealth of the Church; manufacturing such as iron and cloth production; huge country houses in their extensive parks, financed by industry, commerce or the profits of the slave trade. However the underlying pattern remained unchanged. Each area had its mills and tanneries, forges and breweries and its skilled craftsmen — the wheelwrights, carpenters and masons. While the country produced food and timber, flax and leather for the towns, it supplied much of its own produce. The towns that formed the heart of these areas became not only market towns but centres of administration, communication and supply. Basingstoke was such a town. The Basingstoke canal was cut through to take local produce to London and Basingstoke later became an important rail junction. This pattern began to alter with the Industrial Revolution, which brought in mass produced goods while the railways brought in newspapers and coal as well as holidaymakers. The growth of population and the growing army of industrial workers first boosted the production of food and accelerated the enclosures, but later the opening of the vast wheatfields of North America and the cattle production of the Argentine undermined British agriculture and produced a slump. But the pattern was still recognisable until the 1939-45 war.
The last forty years have seen the end of that pattern. The isolation of the country is at an end. Modern agriculture is highly mechanised and its labour force is small, while better paid townspeople fill the cottages. Village shops stock the same packaged foods, cartons of milk and imported fruit — in many cases even mass produced sliced bread — that are stocked in the town supermarkets. The car has made transport easy, but the major changes have been brought about by electricity. The ugly pylons which stride across the country like a gigantic clothes line have brought electricity to the most isolated parts of the country. One can go into the most remote farmhouse and find television sets, hi-fi equipment, videos and washing machines. This has completely changed the character if towns like Basingstoke. Before the coming of electricity and piped water the needs of the country were different to those of the town. Oil lamps, stoves and cookers fired by solid fuel and battery powered radios were all stocked by shops in Basingstoke alongside agricultural tools. Today the shop windows look the same as anywhere else and carry the same names over the doors. Its Haymarket is now a theatre and its old town hall has been turned into offices.
Basingstoke is now the centre of a new giant authority called the Borough of Basingstoke and Deane. The top-heavy structure incorporates a large area of countryside with villages and small towns. Not that it is in any danger of going the way of the Greater London Council or South Yorkshire, because it has a large built-in Tory majority, so much so that one suspects they could put up Tony Benn and he would get elected. This does not apply to Basingstoke itself, where political feelings are pretty evenly divided among the main capitalist Parties.
The growth of Basingstoke over the centuries has been pretty low key, but it entered the history books during the civil war with the siege of Basing House. This was the largest private house in England and was converted into a fortress. It held out for the Royalists for years. Astride a main road from London to the West, it was a thorn in the side of Parliament until stormed and destroyed in 1645. Today a tourist attraction, its ruins covered with wild flowers in the spring, fitted with a museum and teashop, it is difficult to realise the savagery that took place there. Today the town is pretty peaceful, only the occasional Saturday night punch-up to disturb the peace, but in 1830 the south was gripped by a wave of unrest known as the Swing riots. Gangs of agricultural workers roamed the countryside smashing machinery and setting ricks afire. This alarmed the government into savage reprisals. Later, in 1880, the arrival of the newly formed Salvation Army alarmed the brewers who feared the pubs would be closed down, and therefore stirred up feelings against them. Riots broke out in which not only the Salvation Army but non-conformists in general were attacked and shops damaged. Rowdies from outside the town swelled the numbers of rioters to over 2,000 and swamped the small police force. Mounted troops were called out to clear the streets. After a couple of years the agitation died down when it became obvious that the pubs were not going to close down. The rioters justified their actions as defending liberty and personal freedom.
While many parts of the country are in decline because the industries on which they were based have become obsolete, the opposite has happened in the Southern counties. Economically important for centuries Wessex, to give it its ancient name, was largely missed by the Industrial Revolution and went into decline, its old industries superceded by the new mass production. But in the last 40 years new modern industries have flooded into the area. It is on the edge of the so-called Silicon valley which runs from Reading to Swindon, and contains many vast government establishments; well-known places like Burghfield, Aldermaston and Greenham Common are near Basingstoke. For years Basingstoke had one of the highest employment rates in the country and although, like everywhere else, it had been hit by the recession, the employment rate is still comparatively high.
Along with the new industries and large concerns moving their offices out of London has come the growth of tourism. New exploration for oil is taking place in three places near Basingstoke. One can only hope that the "uglification" will be confined to the comparatively inoffensive "nodding donkeys".
So the wastefulness of capitalism goes on. Factories stand idle and derelict in one area while in another fertile land goes down under concrete. Fifty years ago it was the market gardens of Middlesex or the farmlands of Kent, today it is Hampshire and the Thames Valley; tomorrow it can be anywhere else. As for the people, if you are in a declining area, that it just too bad — your misfortune in fact. This will continue; that is one thing at least of which you may be sure, until those same people begin to understand what is going on and take steps to change it.