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Hidden gems: things to do off the beaten track

So, we all know about Bucks & Oxon's big attractions, but what about the quirky, off-centre delights that tourists pass by? Exactly. So here are some of the best, in all their singular, offbeat glory.

OXFORDSHIRE

Albion Fields, Little Milton

Erwin Wurm’s Cucumber, 2020

Selfie with a giant steel cucumber, anyone? This brand new sculpture park in the Little Milton conservation area, south east of Oxford features installations from the art world’s top dogs including pieces from Ai Weiwei, Adel Abdessemed, Vito Acconci, Ghada Amer, Kader Attia, David Adjaye and Erwin Wurm. The first installation will be on display until 25 September, whereupon the grounds will be refreshed with another clutch of amazing artworks. It is open to visitors on Fridays and Saturdays, between 11am and 5pm.

Museum of the History of Science, Oxford

Museum of the History of Science

This collection of scientific instruments is an inspiring journey through mankind’s discoveries, told in an engaging and not-too-geeky format. Great for science buffs, whatever your age. Some of the extraordinary exhibits in this fab – free! – museum include a Lewis Carroll’s photography kit, Einstein’s blackboard from 1931 and the first cultures of the life-saving antibiotic Penicillin. Open Tues-Sun, 12-5pm. Free admission but you need to book a timed entry slot (also- there’s no facilities or public toilets).

The Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock

The Oxfordshire Museum

This multi-faceted museum covers every period of history from the dinosaurs to to Anglo-Saxons and Victorians, told through local stories and exhibits. There’s plenty outside, including the walled garden, Dinosaur Garden with Jurassic planting and life-size Megalosaurus. Inside it’s really interactive (and COVID safe) with inventions to explore, unearthed Oxfordshire treasure and touchscreens. There’s also the Garden Café and gift shop. Open Tues-Sat 10.30am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm. Admission is free.

Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock

Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum

This purpose-built light and bright space in the grounds of the Oxfordshire Museum, above, has a truckload of fascinating exhibits including a mock-up trench and section of Horsa Glider as well as a huge medal collections. Kids will love to have a go at sending and receiving wartime coded messages but this place is fascinating for any generation. There’s also a gift shop. Open Tues-Sat 11am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm. No need to book ahead. Adult £6, child £3 (under 5s free).

Pendon Museum, Abingdon

Pendon Museum

Talk about bringing history to life – Pendon recreates rural England in the 1920s and 30s through fabulous little dioramas of village and countryside scenes. There are family trails, audio guides, modelling sessions and there’s a gift shop and cafe. Opening days are a bit sporadic so check the website but it’s open most Saturdays in May and June, 11am-4pm (and some weekdays during the school holidays). Visits must be pre-booked online. Admission: Adults £7.50, over 60s £6.50, children (5-16) £5.50 (under 5s go free), family groups (2 adults and 2 children) £22.

Banbury Museum

Banbury Museum

This unexpectedly cool purpose-built museum is a modern addition to the town and has a great spot next to the canal. Exhibits tell the story of the Civil War, life in a Victorian market town and there are regular workshops and events for adults and kids. The current exhibit, Portrayals: Drawings and Paintings from the Arts Council Collection including David Hockney, Lucian Freud and Paula Rego is an absolute corker and on until 4 July (hey, who needs the Royal Academy?). There’s a gorgeous shop and fab vegetarian diner (although it is still closed at the moment). Open Mon-Fri,   10am-4pm, Sat, 10am-5pm, Sun, 11am-3pm.

The Bate Collection, Oxford

Bate Collection

This fab treasure trove of over 2,000 musical instruments – the most comprehensive collection of European woodwind, brass and percussion instruments in Britain – includes a Handel Harpsichord (of which there are only 10 remaining!). Also, it’s part of the university’s Faculty of Music, giving mini impresarios a chance to try it out for size. Many of the instruments are maintained in playing condition and are regularly used for performances and recitals by students. Open Mon-Fri, 2-5pm. Pre-booking essential. Admission free.

Oxford Bus Museum, Long Hanborough

Oxford Bus Museum

OK, so if the story of bus and coach travel around Oxfordshire over the last 130 years isn’t enough to float your preferred manner of transport, how about a tour of Oxford on a vintage bus? (Check the website for dates.) There’s also a collection of bicycles (sooo Oxford) alongside bus stops, ticket machines, timetables, posters and staff uniforms – every little (and big kid’s) dream. The Morris Museum is also housed here, tracing the history of the iconic Oxford motor. There is a cafe and shop on site. Open Weds & Sun, 10.30-4.30pm. Adult £7, child (5-15 yrs) £4, family (2 adults & 2 children) £15.

Story Museum, Oxford

Story Museum

This is a cracker: a museum dedicated to the art of storytelling and the way stories enrich human life. The space consists of various different worlds and at the start you plan your journey through, taking in The Whispering Wood, The Enchanted Library, The Treasure Chamber and City of Stories – and Small Worlds for under 5s. There’s a cafe on site (win) and plenty of performances and workshops coming up for busy imaginations. Open Thurs & Fri, 9.30am -2pm (Small Worlds & cafe only), Sat & Sun, 9.30am to 6pm. Tickets from £8.

Rollright Stones, Chipping Norton

Rollright Stones

If your clan like nothing more than lush Cotswolds countryside and mysterious folklore then you should get yourselves over to the Rollright Stones on the Oxfordshire and Warwickshire border, where there are three sets of Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monuments, said to have once been a band of knights turned to stone by a witch. Oo er. A cafe and toilet there isn’t, but you’re close by to pubs at Chastleton and Long Compton, and there’s a garden centre with cafe towards Great Rollright. £1pp entry payable online or at the gate.

Blackwell’s Norrington Room, Oxford

Norrington Room

You may not have wandered into a Blackwell’s since your university days but now is the time to revisit, just because the bookshop on Broad Street is simply astounding. Walk into the Norrington Room and you will find yourself surrounded by three miles of books (over 150,000), making it the largest book-selling room in the world (if that is indeed ‘a thing’). If you can’t find the book you want here, you need to call it a day.

The Narnia Door and Lamppost, St Mary’s Passage, Oxford

Narnia Door
© Experience Oxfordshire

So, while it might be common knowledge the C.S.Lewis studied at Oxford, not everyone knows that there’s architectural details in and around University and Magdalen College that are believed to have inspired the tales of Narnia. Firstly, on a doorway to the left of St Mary’s Passage (if you’re coming from the High Street). there are two golden fawns carved into to the outer frame that will bring Mr Tumnus to mind. Then just ahead, as you walk through the passage, you’ll see a lamppost like the one where Lucy Pevensie first entered Narnia. It is also said the statues in Magdalen Cloisters gave rise to the frozen people in the White Witch’s courtyard.

Alice’s Shop, Oxford 

Alice's Shop

It is said that over 150 years ago, Alice Liddell visited this shop on St Aldates when it was just a humble Victorian grocery, and bought sweets. She then became Alice in Alice Through the Looking Glass thanks to Lewis Carroll, and now this unassuming little store sells all things Wonderland. Worth dropping by just for the history… and the inevitable selection of clocks. Open Wed-Sun, 11am-4pm.

The Chalgrove Paintings, St Mary’s Church, Chalgrove

The Chalgrove Paintings

Created in the first half of the 14th century, these internationally renowned wall paintings on the church’s chancel show the birth and Passion of Christ and the death and assumption of the Virgin Mary. Amazingly, the paintings were lime washed over during the Reformation and only found again in 1858. The church is usually open to visitors between April and Sept, Wed (11am-2pm) and Sun (2-4pm) but it might be worth checking in before driving there specifically – acts of worship take precedence to visitors.

Rousham Gardens, Bicester

Rousham Gardens

Laid out by 18th-century garden designer de jour William Kent, Monty Don has called Rousham the best example of his work. And the incredible gardens of this privately owned country house are open every day, between 10am and dusk (last admission is 4.30pm). There is no cafe or welcome centre so you are encouraged to bring your own food and leave children under 15 (and the dog) at home. Private tours of the house can be arranged too for a fee, if you really are that nosy. (Muddy is). Tickets for the gardens are £8.

Broughton Castle, Banbury

Broughton Castle

Another privately owned house – this time by the Fiennes dynasty (yes, that one) – that is fortified, moated and thoroughly impressive. It saw some serious action in the English Civil War, was repaired the the help of Sir George Gilbert Scott in the Victorian era and is now just a thoroughly splendid manor house – with a tearoom (huzzah!). Open Weds & Sun, 2pm-5pm. Pre-booked and timed tickets for the house and gardens are £10 for adults, £6 for children, under-5s are free.

The Aston Martin Heritage Trust & Museum, Drayton St Leonard

Aston Martin Museum

Not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when planning weekend activities, but everyone can appreciate the beauty of a DB7. It’s not an all-day thing: there is no cafe or toilets but you will see some amazing motors, loads of memorabilia and trophies, and plenty of scale models. Thurs-Sat, 10am-4pm. Pre-booked, timed tickets only; £5 for adults, £3 concessions and under-5s free.

River & Rowing Museum, Henley

RRM

Rowing is a big deal in Henley. And if you needed proof, they have a dedicated museum to the sport. But it’s more than oars and Sir Steve Redgrave; the museum also explores the history of Henley and the River Thames and has a gallery dedicated to Wind in the Willows. There’s currently also an Elmer the Elephant exhibition that’s been extended until 21 June. Open Thurs-Mon, 10am-4pm. Pre-booking essential: adults, £9, children, £6.

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

Claydon House, Aylesbury Vale

Claydon House

Not one of the National Trust’s biggies, this, (well, they do have Cliveden, Waddesdon and Hughenden to manage) but it is not without charm. Up near Winslow in that glorious rural stretch between MK and Bicester, this 18th-century country house has been – and still is – home to the Verney family since 1620. Florence Nightingale was a regular visitor, as her sister was once mistress of the house, and you can still walk through the rooms reserved for her visits. There is a fabulous courtyard serving food from its Pheonix Kitchen and all manner of events held there too: this summer there will be a pop-up gallery (12- 27 June) and Humble Country Fair (18-19 June). And did we mention the spa and interiors, jewellery and crafts shops? Entry to the house and south lawn – which are open Fri & Sat, 11am-3pm, until the end of September – requires pre-booking. Adults, £10; children over 5, £5. Free, obviously, for NT members.

Milton’s Cottage, Chalfont St Giles

Milton Cottage

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” . Do you remember your Paradise Lost? Well, refresh those memories by visiting the tiny 16th-century cottage where John Milton completed his opus. It retains the charm of a 17th-century home and the three museum rooms contain works, prints and paintings that give good insight into the man himself. The museum is open Wed – Sun, with 2pm., 3pm, and 4pm entries. Tickets are £7 (pre-booked only) and children under 16 go free.

Chiltern Open Air Museum, Chalfont St Giles

Coam

If you’re still nervous about being in enclosed spaces, this is a good option. The museum contains over 30 old buildings, that would otherwise have been destroyed, to help explain and educate about past ways of life. There is a Victorian farm, 1940’s prefab, furniture factory and gardens and orchards for little ones to bomb around. The Village Kitchen is open for takeaway drinks and snacks and loads of space for picnics. It’s open Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon (and Tues on Bucks school holidays). £7.50 for adults, £6 for kids and under-4s go free. Pre-booked tickets only.

Amersham Museum

Amersham Museum

Tucked away on Amersham’s quaint hight street is this lovely little local history museum. Expect to find archeological finds from nearby fields and displays given over to bygone Amersham trades such as lace-making. There is a rather quaint herb garden – all once used for medicinal purposes – and if you’re gasping for a cuppa at the end, you have Old Amersham’s High Street, with its various plush hotels and cafes, at your disposal. Open Thurs, Sat and Sun – pre-booking is recommended. Adults: £4.50, children: free.

Wycombe Museum

Wycombe Museum

Known colloquially as The Chair Museum, this gorgeous flint building on the Amersham side of Wycombe’s deep valley does more than detail the town’s history as the UK’s chair-making capital. Aside from the on-site cafe and museum gardens, there are photographs and displays showing the area’s fascinating social history. But, saying that, if you’re into chairs, you will be in seventh heaven here. The galleries, cafe and gardens are closed on Mondays and Saturdays but otherwise open to visitors, 11am to 3pm. Admission is free.

Buckinghamshire County Museum, Aylesbury

Bucks County Museum

Aylesbury’s Old Town is quaint and charming in itself, and in among the centuries-old buildings is Bucks County Museum, which has expansive art galleries and a Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery that is packed full of splendiferous interactive exhibits such as Willy Wonka inventions and a room inside a Giant Peach. In the main galleries, there will soon be a Dinosaur Uncovered exhibit (26 June) alongside the Bucks History, Costume & Textiles, Historic Photography and Art and Archeology collections. There’s also a family art trail for half term. Visit the cafe within the walled garden and don’t forget the gift shop, stocked with creations from Buckinghamshire Craft Guild artists. No pre-booking required and it’s free to enter but donations are welcome. The Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery opens on Saturdays and for half term and tickets are required here: children 4-17, £7.95; under 4s: by donation.

Natural History Museum at Tring, Herts

Natural History at Tring

Yes yes, it’s just over the border, but totally worth the mention! A cornucopia of exotic bugs and butterflies and snakes and spiders, all classified by the hand of Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild who was an avid collector. Admittedly, there isn’t a blue whale skeleton in the entrance hall but there is a bronze tortoise to sit on and loads of stuffed animals to peer at and wonder about. The café downstairs sells packed lunches for kids and coffee and cake for grow-ups although it is small, so a seat is not guaranteed. If the weather is nice, take your newly bought food on the five minute stroll over the A41 (not as terrifying as it sounds – there is a bridge) to Tring Park. Open Tues-Sun, 10.30am-4.30pm. Tickets are free but must be secured beforehand online.

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2 comments on “Hidden gems: things to do off the beaten track”

  • griselda heppel August 11, 2021

    What an inspiring article! I am now excited to visit a number of museums I knew nothing about before, and a few I’d heard of but didn’t know what they contained. Thank you for so much excellent information.

    Reply
  • Steve G May 27, 2021

    What about the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden? Ok, I’m biased – I work there! Open for guided visits from Sunday 30 May, increasing capacity from late June when social restrictions are due to end. Interactive and family friendly (and COVID safe) with capacity limited this summer so there’s plenty of room. The home of Roald Dahl’s amazing archive and his world famous Writing Hut where so many beloved characters were ‘born’. Cafe and shop full of Roald Dahl goodies, and all based in beautiful Great Missenden, voted one of the top places to go for a walk in the country.

    Reply

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