This week I visited Basildon Park in Berkshire. Basildon is a stunning late 18th century country house in the Palladian style with fashionable Adam interiors. It was built between 1776 and 1783 for Sir Francis Sykes, a nabob who had made his money in the East India Company and wanted to have a country house that reflected his wealth and grandeur. Basildon isn’t huge and has quite an intimate atmosphere and it is absolutely gorgeously decorated. All the reception rooms are designed to impress the visitor, from the entrance up a double flight of steps into the central hall, to the grand staircase lit from above, to the octagonal drawing room and long, pillared dining room. Basildon Park was the location for filming the Netherfield scenes in Pride and Prejudice and visiting it gave me a fine idea of what a grand country house would look like and also feel like to visit as a guest in the early 19th century.
Something I learned about Basildon Park from my visit was that it was part of a group of properties referred to as “the English Hindoostan” because so many of Sykes’ fellow nabobs lived in the vicinity, having either built or acquired properties in the area. One of the reasons for this was that the nabobs were an isolated group, disliked for their wealth and their nouveau riche lifestyle, and so they tended to gravitate towards one another socially and lived in the same geographical area. In Berkshire there were at least 30 houses associated with nabobs. Of these the most famous was Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, who lived at Purley Hall. Another, General Richard Smith of Chilton Foliat, was said to epitomise everything the Ton disliked about nabobs. He was loud, pretentious, arrogant, extreme in his politics, extravagant and a shocking gambler.
Other notorious nabobs in the area included Thomas “Diamond” Pitt, grandfather of William Pitt who lived at Swallowfield. He gained his nickname from his habit of collecting enormous diamonds, one of which, The Regent’s Diamond, was sold to the Duke of Orleans, added to the French Crown and is now in the Louvre. It was valued at almost half a million pounds in 1791.
At Caversham Park, where I also visited this week, the landowner Major Charles Marsack was the illegitimate grandson of King George II and at Foxley’s Manor in Bray there was Henry Vansittart, Governor of Bengal, who was involved in the famous Hellfire Club of Medmenham Abbey. All these extraordinary characters are rich inspiration for a writer! On a final literary note: Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist was rumoured to be based on the character of Sir Francis Sykes’ grandson!