The finest tourist attraction in south Essex?! I was sold. Who hasn't dreamed of journeying to a postwarnew town to enjoy a seven mile heritage trek? I grabbed a digital copy of the figure-of-eight route, which reassured me I could begin the Basildon Heritage Trail at any point, and kicked off at the bus station. [9 photos]
The colourful 'Ceramic Tile Panel' across the top of the bus station was designed by William Gordon, and consists of 16,000 hand printed tiles depicting the history of Basildon. The panel goes out of its way to stress that Basildon is an ancient settlement, kicking off in 412 AD, lingering long in Viking and medieval times, and only leaping past 1500 in the last few metres. Down below, folk fresh off the bus from Laindon or Vange can pop into Shoeworld for Final Massive Reductions, grab a £20 meat pack from Leggs Butchers or ponder a wedding centrepiece from The Icing On The Cake.
When it opened in 1985, Eastgate was the largest covered shopping centre in Europe. It still feels vast when wandering around inside, tracking between Debenhams and Asda, or ascending the ethereal escalators to the upper car park. But the place to be, on the hour every hour, is on the Upper Level outside Next to see the unique Cats Cradle ‘Pussiwillow III’. This whimsical kinetic sculpture tells the story of the Owl and the Pussycat, with guitar-playing felines, a bright pink balloon and three bicycle wheels to help it rotate. If the style looks familiar it's because it was built by Rowland Emett, who also designed the breakfast-making machine in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But bits of no longer quite function as intended, alas, and these days when it jiggles into action the shopping populace barely give it a second look.
The main pedestrian precinct, around which the town centre is based, is broad and long. A lot of it is quite lowrise, but there is a whopping great residential block on stilts in the centre to add a residential focus. Public sculpture isn't quite at Harlow levels, but the Mother & Child fountain provides a useful spot to slouch and vape, while the Sputnikesque Town Clock now acts as a useful beacon to guide folk into Costa's central pavilion. Alas architecture which once would have been deemed bold has since been found lacking, densitywise, and the council have big plans to redevelop Freedom House and the tumbleweed East Square into a defiantly un-concrete leisure complex.
At the precinct's western end, behind the just-closed M&S, St Martin's Square is already undergoing serous repaving in readiness for the market moving in. Careful negotiation of the temporary barriers will lead you to the Basildon Centre, which the Queen was unfortunate enough to visit in 1999, and the world's only steel and glass bell tower positioned just outside. This shiny needle houses eight bells - six medieval and two millennially commissioned - while on the ground floor is a kind of religious drop-in centre, with comfy chairs and community-based reading material, which it didn't appear possible to drop into.
Eventually the Basildon Heritage Trail makes a break for the ring road and invites you to admire Wendy Taylor's Armillary Sundial, which is hidden from traffic below the centre of a major roundabout. Apparently it's "a symbol of optimism and progress", which are two buzzwords any aspiring artist can attach to a sculpture in a new town and the council will commission it post haste. Venturing beyond the ring road is a matter of diminishing returns, with the southeastern loop seemingly contrived solely to see three municipal buildings and a bumpy lawn where the moat of Basildon Hall used to be, before it was demolished so that only its name would linger on.
But the northwest loop is the sloggiest, a four mile detour simply to see a nice park, and the town's one genuine historical treasure - St Nicholas's Church. This 13th century timber-steepled place of worship, of the kind scattered intermittently across medieval Essex, was built atop a (very) compact hill with panoramic views. I trudged miles out to see it, partly because I'm a completist, but mainly because a couple of Depeche Mode used to live along the way, and sweated up the grassy slope and subsequent path to the church door. Here an usher glared at me to ensure I didn't enter and spoil the wedding taking place inside, so I made do with spotting butterflies in the churchyard and eyeing up the skyscrapers of central London 30 miles away above the gravestones.
You already know whether or not you're the kind of person who would enjoy walking the Basildon Heritage Trail. If you're wavering, perhaps best stick to the town centre, where most of the intriguing stuff is, and which the BHT might have been wise to stick to in the first place.