Many of us walk along the Top of Town but how often do we really look at the buildings and wonder how old they are? We can guess that many will date from the 1600s.   

Towns used to experience terrible fires. A fire in Basingstoke in 1392 spread rapidly because houses were built of wood, with overhanging upper storeys and thatch for roofing. The townspeople petitioned King Richard II for help, who responded by awarding the town a Common Seal. Whether or not that helped pay for the damage is not recorded. In 1601 a ‘great conflagration’ broke out again. At the time, Queen Elizabeth I was staying at Basing House and she authorised the town ‘to beg for assistance in seven neighbouring Counties’. Fourteen fine houses, barns and stables were lost in that fire and money was collected. Records prior to 1392 were lost, possibly in the fire of that date.

The earliest extant building is at 28 London Street (Anchor Court), where The Anchor pub used to be, so it seems likely that the fires did not extend as far as this. It is possible to see the internal roof timbers, which date from before 1400.  Martin and Co at no. 26 has timber arcading on the exterior. The premises between here and Mark Lane are also 16th century and would have had protruding jetties.

The western approach to the town along Winchester Road had a few thatched cottages, which disappeared probably in the 19th century. After Bramblys Drive there are a pair of handsome houses, late 18th or early 19th century and further along on the north side is Brinkletts Farm House. Brinkletts car park was the farmyard. Opposite is Manor House, now a solicitor’s office, which was the home of John Mares, who had a large clothing company. This house dates from about 1897. A sales advert for the house says that it had a telephone room!

Winton House is a fine house of 18th-century appearance. It sat in substantial land which went as far as what is now Bounty Road but was then called Southern Road.

Crossing New Road there is a fine building on the south side, although it’s been mucked about with recently, with a curved window on the first floor. On the north side is what some of us still call Giffords Corner and then Burberry’s Emporium of 1905, now a food store called Honey and Ghee. On the north side is what was once Burton’s tailors which once had a snooker hall over. The foundation plaques of these buildings were always laid by a family member, and you can see that ours is no exception.

The old Royal Bank of Scotland building replaced Marks and Spencer which had replaced some earlier Burberry shops and a house. The Maidenhead pub is an interesting building with Basingstoke’s arms high on the building - St Michael fighting off Lucifer. This building started life as the Basingstoke Bank but is remembered as Ody’s grocers. Mergers and takeovers ended up with Lloyds, whose building in Market Place has recently become Vaultz. This important site has had many buildings and businesses over the years. The bank, built by Mussellwhite’s dates from the late 1920s.

From The Maidenhead east towards Market Place, the buildings are clearly 17th century or earlier. Some have parapets with dormer windows behind, which became fashionable in the late 1700s, when timber framing was considered outdated and needed to be covered up! The 19th century and early 20th was a busy time for retail and many ground-floor frontages date from those times, but looking up, it’s evident that many buildings date from the 1600s.

The Feathers pub in Wote Street, now called Laarsens, still has its jetty and a fine north elevation. The Haymarket theatre opposite dates from 1864 and was built as a Corn Exchange.

Church Street west side has some old buildings. The east side was destroyed in a fire in 1935 and the shops there date from the rebuilding at that time. On the opposite side, The Olive Tree restaurant, formerly The Hop Leaf is at least 17th century and like many other buildings has Statutory Listing. You can look up Historic England and read the reasons why a building is listed. One of those listed is Simmons & Sons at 12 Wote Street. Cross Street looks very fine today with many old buildings but only the ones on the corner with New Road are currently listed. These were rescued from a very dilapidated state and turned into flats, including the old surgeries on New Road, which were the coach house and stable for the doctors who practised there.

One more building of merit is at  81 Church Street, currently empty. This has a north-facing elevation of Jacobean brickwork.

Next time you go to the top of the town, huddled against the cold, look up and think about how old this part of the town is.