BASINGSTOKE has seen many changes in recent years but in its past history there have been other drastic alterations due to fires that ravaged the town.

One such conflagration, in 1601, swept across Winchester Street and London Street destroying most of the medieval buildings.

One of these was a tavern called “The Three Mariners” in London Street. As soon as the debris was cleared away workmen set about rebuilding the drinking house, but this time it was erected as an inn with the heraldic symbol of the Red Lion.

Completed in 1603 (400 years ago) the inn was to become one of the leading public buildings in the town. Complete with an archway to allow stagecoaches to enter the back yard – where extensive stables existed – the rooms for visitors were of a luxurious nature.

The Red Lion was the stopping place for the Salisbury coach, and both horses and passengers “rested up” at Basingstoke.

The inn opened up a commercial room for businessmen where they could talk over their matters, while the other passengers had various comforts in their rooms which were named after the colours of the rainbow, such as the green room and blue room.

Meals provided by the inn became more sumptuous with roast beef being one of the top favourites, while, in the bar, the consumption of beer and wines increased.

In 1751, an Act of Parliament brought a tax on spirits, but beer was left alone, so the cost of wines caused a temporary halt to the drinking habits of many people.

Local events and celebrations were always a time for gatherings at the inn, including the “Beating the Bounds” custom, which was held every seven years. For example, in 1823, when the inn was classified as an excise office, a large sit-down meal was provided with entertainment, after a two-day “beating” around the town’s boundaries.

In 1839, the stagecoach business was threatened by the opening up of the railway through Basingstoke.

As more people used the trains to travel across the country, so the stagecoaches slowly disappeared from the roads, and many inns closed down, such as the Maidenhead, Ange, and Crown in the town centre. The Red Lion acquired the trade from these inns and managed to survive.

By 1856, the Red Lion was listed in the Hampshire Directory as a commercial hotel and posting house, but it still retained its bar.

Just next door to the building was The Anchor public house, established in 1605, where most of the workmen went, as they felt that the Red Lion was “not for them”.

It was around the middle of the 19th century that an extra storey was erected and the frontage was rebuilt.

The “new” hotel attracted an increasing number of estate agents in the area to hold auctions and sales in the building, and one particular auction in October 1883, when the Hackwood Nurseries was up for sale, turned out to be a very lively affair.

Having drunk too much beer in the hotel bar, some of the salesmen began to call out various prices that were not the value required. The fun escalated into almost a riot and eventually the trouble-makers were ejected from the building by force.

The start of the 20th century saw the arrival of the motorcar, and the prospect of electricity coming to Basingstoke for lighting and heating.

The motorcar brought far more people into the town than the stagecoach ever did, and large numbers of drivers took advantage of the Red Lion’s facilities during the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the old horse stables at the rear of the hotel were demolished to allow the cars to park there, as parking in front of the building became difficult.

By 1956, the Red Lion was advertising as having 16 rooms for visitors with each room having hot and cold water and central heating. Children and dogs were welcomed.

Bed and breakfast cost 20 shillings (now £1), lunch was six shillings and sixpence (now 32½p) and dinner was seven shillings and sixpence (now 37½p). To stay at the hotel for one week cost, per person, 11 guineas (now £11.55).

Over the years, further extensions and conversions were carried out to the building and, after a serious destructive fire at the rear of the hotel in the latter part of the 1960s, land became available to erect a new wing with 30 bedrooms.

During this work, in 1971, a World War One shrapnel bomb was unearthed, bringing the whole area to a halt. The weapon was eventually removed.

The fire, the bomb – most bad things happen in threes. And, so they did, for while the scaffolding was up during construction of the wing, a storm blew up and sections of the fittings around the scaffolding crashed down to the ground, causing a delay to the work.

Well, that’s life, so they say.